House of Nutter: The Rebel Tailor of Savile Row by Lance Richardson – review

The enjoyable story of Tommy Nutter – flamboyant suit-maker to the stars – casts a new light on swinging London and Britain’s persecution of homosexuals

The Savile Row tailor Tommy Nutter – his birth name, rather than a moniker adopted at the height of his stardom – was the exemplar of fabulous but fleeting fame in the 60s and 70s. Emerging apparently from nowhere, he quickly became “the coolest man you’ve ever seen”, designing flamboyant clothes for stars such as Elton John and the Beatles, who, apart from George, wore his suits on the cover of Abbey Road .

Lance Richardson’s splendidly readable and gossipy account of his life has a trump card to play – namely the relationship between Tommy and his photographer brother, David, who acted as a kind of artistic Boswell to his brother’s sartorial Johnson. Tommy died in 1992 of an Aids-related illness, but David is still alive, and his cooperation enhances a gripping read that is as much social history as it is biography.

To be gay, as both Tommy and David were, growing up in postwar Britain was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it was a time of chemical castration for “queers” and imprisonment; on the other, it was a world of secret languages and discreet clubs (with less than discreet patrons). Richardson, himself gay, writes about the persecution of homosexuals at the time with bracing anger; readers who expect a series of camp anecdotes may be surprised as he describes how the outing and punishment of gay men was “like a public hanging transposed from the middle ages: prurient [and] ethically indefensible”.

It was in this milieu that Tommy, a talented young “cutter” who learned his trade on Savile Row, opened his first boutique at No 35a with the brilliant Edward Sexton. With the financial and publicity assistance of, among others, Cilla Black and Peter Brown (one of the Beatles’ management team), Nutter was the right man in the right place, strutting about in a gorgeous, ridiculous era peopled by characters such as Michael Fish, who sold silk kipper ties from his eponymous Clifford Street boutique in the shape of actual kippers. Nutter, a “comely youth from Edgware”, north London, soon rose to the challenge, producing outfits that were “an eccentric mix of Lord Emsworth, the Great Gatsby and Bozo the Clown”.

It is no surprise that the likes of Lennon and Jagger were aficionados; nor that, after quickly scaling the heights, Nutter went into decline, irrelevance giving way to ill health. A lesser writer might have made the story of his downfall depressing, but Richardson has an eye for telling and hilarious details. We learn, for instance, that for Elton John’s (first) wedding in 1984, Nutter created 20 wildly exuberant outfits,  “two of each, in case of any mishap, in a wide range of primary colours”.

It is David who gives the story a wider dimension. He was nicknamed “Dawn Black” for his habit of partying throughout the night in New York, though he was a more introverted and less reckless character than his brother, photographing the stars of the day, but remaining an observer rather than a participant in bacchanalian pursuits. But then he could hardly help seeming less colourful than Tommy – a man whose idea of making a splash was to throw himself into the Thames after being ejected from a party at the Tate.

House of Nutter, Richardson’s first book, is a fine match of author and subject. He writes with flair and erudition, making extensive use of interviews with David, and bringing something new to the evocation of an era that might seem overfamiliar and cliched to many. In fact, barring the absence of an index, it’s hard to find fault with this thoroughly enjoyable glimpse into high fashion and low life.

• House of Nutter: The Rebel Tailor of Savile Row by Lance Richardson is published by Chatto & Windus (£25). To order a copy for £21.25 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Alexander Larman

The GuardianTramp

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