The tailor of the western world
He has been called the finest representative of bespoke tailoring in Ireland, so what are the secrets of making the cut for Joseph Martin?
Tailor Joseph Martin. Photograph: Suzy McCanny Photography
The word tailoring means “the art of cutting” and one of the most accomplished practitioners of this exacting craft and one of the few left in this country is Joseph Martin who plies his trade between Sligo, Dublin and Savile Row, clothing customers all over the world from his base in the west of Ireland.
“I believe in modelling the garment on the individual,” says the dapper and bespectacled tailor when we meet at his workshop on Sligo’s Teeling Street. “Customers come to me who appreciate how they look and where public perception is important. A handmade suit imparts confidence.”
It’s an opinion with which one of his customers, solicitor Roger Murray, partner in a law firm, readily agrees. “The ritual of having a suit made by a master craftsman is such a different experience to walking into a department store. A handmade suit gives you an extra edge and more confidence. I am in court a lot and it is important to look your best when meeting the public . People do notice. It is also a good investment. You get more out of it and it lasts longer than a store bought suit,” he says.
In Martin’s studio, tucked away in an l8th-century courtyard, final touches are being put to a rail of green whipcord uniforms complete with hand-sewn gilt buttons for the new Army cadets in the Curragh. They serve as a reminder that apart from his work for private clients, Martin is also the most significant military tailor in Ireland.
Bespoke tailoring is in his blood. The family tradition goes back more than a century to his grandfather, also Joseph, who set up the business in 1895 in Sligo making breeches. Later, his son, Joseph Henry, who trained in Savile Row, expanded its reputation in the UK and the US where he travelled at least once a year. “We always had a workshop and I remember being given simple tasks with remnants of fabrics and chalk as a child. My father was a hard worker who started at 18 or 19 and cut his last suit for a solicitor in Ballina at the age of 90,” he recalls.
His own apprenticeship also started at the age of 19 when he got the opportunity to work in a subsidiary of Zegna, near Venice, making high quality menswear. Here his knowledge of school Latin helped with learning Italian. Back in Ireland, he trained at the Belfast College of Technology for four years before joining his father in the business. Since then he has built up his own clientele though word of mouth, mostly from the legal fraternity, but also international industrialists, public figures, musicians and writers. With typical discretion he will not reveal names, though the sartorially elegant Duke of Abercorn is on record as describing him “as the finest representative of bespoke tailoring in Ireland”.
In his showroom, bolts of the finest cloth – including Scabal’s Super 150 Australian merino (from sheep which are raised indoors) woven in Italy – are stacked alongside fine UK wools and tweeds including some rare vintage lengths from Convoy Woollen Mills in Donegal. As one who loves working with tweed, he laments the difficulty in finding handmade tweed in Ireland. “Tweed is back in fashion in a big way and handwoven tweed has more of the personality of the weaver, those little irregularities. Tweeds are easy, responsive fabrics to work with, but it’s the French, German and Italians who really appreciate them more than the Irish. Lightweight wools are more unforgiving.”
Tailoring has taken him to interesting places. Last November he was a guest speaker in Bedales, the famously liberal Quaker English public school (one of the most expensive in the UK), whose alumni include Sophie Dahl, Daniel Day Lewis and Viscount Linley. A previous guest speaker was Sir Terence Conran. Martin spoke about his craft but also about the price to be paid for the relentless drive for cheaper clothes.
“When it comes to the difference between what I do and high street fashion, I can’t compete on price, but equally the high street cannot provide the service I provide. I can cater for every detail of the client’s requirements in terms of style and fabric – and clothes won’t date by the next season.” That means extra careful attention to specifics such as pockets, level of fit, closeness of fit and creating a style around the fabric. “There is a detailed measuring procedure and you cut an individual pattern for these details before you cut the fabric,” he explains.
There are more than 28 measurements to be taken in any one suit, some 6,000 handstitches and more than three days’ work in its completion. “The fabric and internal construction – details not visible to the layman – are what determine the quality of the end product,” he says, confiding that some of the best clothes he has seen in Savile Row were made by people who had worked there and are now independent craftsmen working from home.
Current prices start at €1,200, which includes 23 per cent VAT, and he argues that it would not be unreasonable to expect Government concession on the high tax rate given the labour intensive nature of the industry. Recently he has joined forces with Rory Duffy a young master tailor from Castleblaney, who trained with him in Sligo before going on to London and winning the much coveted Apprentice of the Year award from Savile Row.
Duffy now runs a business in New York promoting Irish-made bespoke suits. “He provides patterns and we make them up. He does all the styling, pattern cutting and interaction with the clients. He’s making his way and it’s a tough world out there.”
As well as his headquarters in Sligo, Martin visits Dublin every Wednesday and Savile Row, where he has offices, once a month. Younger men are beginning to appreciate the advantages of bespoke tailoring, he says, and are more aware of current trends.
“You naturally try to cater for these, but it is only a small minority to who want to be at the leading edge of fashion.” Grey and navy still predominate as the colours for business.
Over the years he has had some colourful clients, including one who travelled a lot in South America. “He dealt in jewellery and I had to make a lot of additional, very secure pockets for him – including one for a pistol,” he smiles. The most expensive suit he ever made was in vicuna – a relative of the llama – and cost £8,100 (€9.8k) for a Middle Eastern client. “He flew me to Athens for the fitting. That was 10 years ago and at the time vicuna fabric was £2,700 (€3.3k) a metre.”
There’s also the more social side. “Business comes from personal recommendations – and I have made good friends from the four corners of the world,” he says.
Married with three grown up children, he lives close to the sea near Strandhill and is philosophical about working in the north west of Ireland. “I live here for quality of life reasons – fishing in the summer, shooting in the winter. The reality is that tailoring is lifelong learning and you’re never done learning. With everything I do, I always wonder can I do it better, but what we are doing now is the best we have ever done.”