Superlative: Those that do things well (part 1) – John Cutler

John Cutler is the fourth generation to run the family business, founded in Sydney, Australia, by Joseph Handel Cutler in 1884. Photo by  Richard Weinstein .

John Cutler is the fourth generation to run the family business, founded in Sydney, Australia, by Joseph Handel Cutler in 1884. Photo by Richard Weinstein.

We’re stuck in traffic. Impatiently, I peer over the edge of our double-decker bus, only to spy Polizia motorcycles, lights ablaze. Great. An accident. Resigned, I ease back into my seat, enjoying some flavourful Chianti.

At this point the impeccably dressed gentleman sitting next to me leans across and points at the red-hued full moon over my left shoulder. I survey the magnificent Florentine skyline as we sit atop our open-air bus on the Ponte Amerigo Vespucci, which crosses the Arno.

And then that it dawns on me.

This is no traffic jam. It’s the elegant gesture of Stefano Ricci to his visitors during Pitti Immagine Uomo: a Police escort stopping traffic so we can savour this picture postcard scene.

This is my introduction – not only to the generosity of Stefano Ricci – but also to one of the world’s preeminent bespoke tailors, John Cutler. We spent several memorable hours on that bus, enjoying a private viewing of the Statua di Davide and other Florentine masterpieces and, as John and I slowly but surely became increasingly inebriated, we shared stories and one thing came sharply into focus: this man lives and breathes his craft.

JH Cutler is an Australian institution. Founded in 1884, the venerable tailoring firm outdates many of the great and famous sartorial and fashion houses: Anderson & Sheppard (1906), Prada (1913), and Gucci (1921), to name but a few.

The story begins in the English Midlands in the 1850s, when Joseph Handel Cutler, an engineer, was – along with thousands of other fortune seekers – beguiled by the township of Ballarat, near Melbourne, where more gold has been found than in any other place on earth. He packed up the family and shipped them to the other side of the world, finding work servicing the needs of Victorian Gold Rush prospectors.

Later, Joseph’s oldest son – also Joseph Handel – with no background in the craft, surprised everyone when he boarded a Cobb & Co coach and headed north to Sydney, seeking his fortune in tailoring. In 1884 he founded the company that survives today, setting up his first rooms in fashionable King Street. As the city grew, so too did the business, which in the early 1900s moved to new premises in nearby Bligh Street, the heart of the city’s financial hub. By this time, JH’s son, Leslie, a highly sought after cutter, was working alongside his father.

In 1939, Leslie’s son, Bruce, returned from London, where he had been studying, to defend Australia in the New Guinea campaign. After the war, he returned to managing the family business.

John Handel Lawson Cutler, the current Managing Director, is the fourth generation of tailoring Cutlers. A Sydney Grammarian, he joined the family business at 16. But even before then he had shown great interest in the trade, spending many hours in the workshop keenly observing the skilful cutting and sewing of garments for Sydney’s elite businessmen, politicians, entertainers, and wealthy arbiters of bespoke clothing.

At 18 – like his father and grandfather before him – John travelled to London to immerse himself in the trade. He worked at Dormeuil Frères learning about fine fabrics and studied at the Tailor & Cutter Academy, graduating in 1969. He later returned to Sydney and worked alongside his father, Bruce, becoming Managing Director of the family business in 1976, upon his father’s retirement.

In 1988, JH Cutler was featured in the inaugural edition of Courvoisier’s Book of the Best, a trusted compendium for the stylish jet set, citing the business as being amongst the world’s leading tailoring houses. JH Cutler has also been included in several international lists naming the House as one of the world’s 10 best tailors.

But it was in late 2005 when John’s profile was launched into the stratosphere upon the completion of what was to become a high profile commission from a loyal international customer: a vicuna overcoat of the most exquisite quality – with a price to match. The $50,000 magnum opus made worldwide headlines and became the subject of an entire book, the magnificent and compelling The Coat Route: A Tale of Craft, Luxury, and Obsession by American author, Meg Lukens Noonan.

The book sees Noonan travelling the globe, tracing the making of Cutler’s vicuna overcoat, and “bringing alive an offbeat and obsessed cast of master craftsmen locked in a David-and-Goliath struggle with the forces of globalisation, illuminating larger issues of luxury consumption and sustainability”.

“I travelled to the Andes in Peru to see a wild vicuna round-up; Florence to visit Stefano Ricci who supplied the silk lining; Huddersfield, England to see the Dormeuil fabric mill; Halesowen, England to see the horn button maker; and Sydney, to see John Cutler, the tailor, and John Thompson, the creator of the 18k gold plaque inside the coat,” Noonan said.

The customer was so impressed with his navy blue single-breasted masterpiece that he promptly commissioned another vicuna overcoat, this time in a camel hue, which John lined with Hermès scarves. My Lord, it’s beautiful. And if that wasn't enough, a third example in black was commissioned for the gentleman's wife.

John and JH Cutler have, in fact, been the subject of two books: The Coat Route and Making the Cut: The Power and Passion behind a Tailoring Dynasty by yours truly.

Meanwhile, back in JH Cutler’s discrete rooms, John quietly sets about chalking up and cutting his next suit; a double-breasted chalkstripe for a regular customer. It is in his rooms that Cutler has seen the private side of some very public figures. “When you have a gentleman in the fitting room without his trousers on, it’s a leveller,” he laughs. “It’s like a confessional. I have heard all sorts of things from everyone up to the prime minister.”

His mission, always, is to fulfil the commission, be it a $50,000 overcoat or a pair or corduroy trousers.

“As long as I can understand the commission fully, my team has the ability to turn dreams into realities. As my grandfather used to say, ‘You have to fit two things: the body and the mind’. If you don’t fulfil the mind’s expectation, you haven’t done your job.”

John says his House style “reflects the era that I feel most comfortable with in the way I dress and the early times of my discovery. But, to me, a bespoke tailor is not about what I do and if you don’t like it go somewhere else.

“My House style is much more English than Italian, although not as stiff as the English; somewhere in between the English form with the Italian softness. I can move between the two, appreciating the English style and Italian ‘flow’. We have a soft, long shoulder, not over padded, if any; a close-fitting, high collar; medium lapel, a little wider than what is currently fashionable, but my suits are made to last well over 10 years, not two; I make a lot of one-buttons, like Huntsman; side vents I much prefer to single vents; and I like a little bit of drape.”                                             

JH Cutler has been in business for over 134 years and four generations. The history is not lost on John, but still he pushes forward, recognising that he is only as good as his last commission.

“I was the head cutter at 23. But if I think I have stopped learning and that I know it all, then I don’t know anything. I am learning every day.”

If customers want their dreams realised, they can always call into John’s private rooms in Sydney and be measured up for a suit the equal of anything in the world. The only thing he can’t guarantee is a red-hued full moon.

Do you agree that the work of JH Cutler is the equal of any tailoring workshop in the world?

The first of three pure vicuna overcoats totally handmade for a Canadian customer by  JH Cutler . The story behind the first coat led to the publication of   The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 coat ,  by American author,  Meg Lukens-Noonan . Photo by  Richard Weinstein .

The first of three pure vicuna overcoats totally handmade for a Canadian customer by JH Cutler. The story behind the first coat led to the publication of The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 coat, by American author, Meg Lukens-Noonan. Photo by Richard Weinstein.