An afternoon with Mark Powell, one of London's most influential bespoke tailors, to chat about life, fashion and gangsters.
It’s a hot day in London. Soho is buzzing with the energy of tourists who seem unaffected by the heat, walking tirelessly up and down Carnaby Street. I am not surprised when I find Mark Powell having a pint with two friends inside of his shop, just four minutes off the main road, on Marshall Street. “There’s a pub just over there!” Mark says, one hand holding the pint and the other pointing right outside the shop. “Would you like a beer?”
The shop looks bigger on the inside, yet it looks cosy and intimate. If it weren’t for all the suits and mannequins it could easily pass as somebody’s house, with all the books on the shelves, and the pictures and paintings hanging on the wall. Is it a place to keep memories or to build them? The countless faces on the photographs turn to Mark as he re-enters the shop, with another pint for himself and a half for me. He had insisted I had one. “So, what do you think?” he sits in his chair, gets comfortable and takes a sip. “Should we start?”
Mark Powell is considered one of London’s most influential bespoke tailors in London. His list of clients looks like the craziest casting idea for a 90s revival movie: Naomi Campbell, The Spice Girls, David Bowie, George Michael, Harrison Ford… actors, pop stars and supermodels that trusted him to make their clothes.
However, even though it’s obvious Mark is proud of his own success, the more he talks about his origins and the way it all started, the more evident it becomes Mark is just a man that’s happy he got to make a living out of something he loves so much. “I was twelve or thirteen and I was already super into everything that had to do with fashion and style.” He says, he speaks fast. “I saw it as a way to show individuality. Probably my sister had a lot to do with it.”
Mark’s older sister was a first generation skinhead and he remembers her style had a huge influence on him. “Obviously, we’re talking about the skinheads from the 60s, not those from the revival… the first wave of skins was more about a shared interest in reggae music, Doc Martens and that sort of stuff. It was such a cool style, but I was born a bit too late to be a skinhead, I guess, so I was always trying to find clothes that said something about who I was.”
When the day came that Mark couldn’t find any clothes he could identify with, not in the shops or in the markets, not even in his sister’s wardrobe, that was the day he first went to a tailor with the intention of turning his ideas into nostalgically inspired pieces that would make all of London fall in love with him only a few years later. Mark started working in a shop near Soho, where he learned the measuring techniques from the tailors of Savile Row. Later on, he would work in a retro boutique on King’s Road named Robot.
“It was a very natural development, though. Obviously I struggled at the beginning, like everyone does, but it was my passion so I just kept on doing it until I became more confident.” By the time he was 17, he was already designing and making his own suits.
“And people liked them! Everyone kept asking me where I got my clothes. I think it is because I have always tried to show my creativity through tailoring, and that isn’t something you see very often.” As if to make a point, Mark points at the beautiful jacket resting on the closest mannequin to his chair. “My tailoring is pretty much my style influences and my personality.”
However, it would still take a few more years before Mark got his very own place where he could make and sell his creations. “Do you see that painting over the wall?” He points with the hand that’s holding the still almost full pint and miraculously doesn’t spill a drop. “That’s my first shop, I got it when I was 24, in 1995.” He laughs a little, as if he’d just told a joke.
“Can you believe I got it from a friend who used to work in the sex industry?” For a second, it feels like he’s imagining what it all would’ve been like if his first shop had been turned into a sex shop, in the same way most of Soho had been. “Thankfully, in the end he let me have it. And it immediately became a total success! We were getting publicity from all these magazines that had a lot of weight back then, like GQ, Arena, Tatler, Vogue...”
There’s silence and for the first time, Mark looks serious and almost crossed. “You couldn’t do something like that today.” He takes another sip, as if he were deciding whether to continue speaking or not. He opts for the former. “Nowadays, you wouldn’t get the attention of those magazines unless you advertise. But back then you could get amazing publicity just because you were good at whatever it was you were doing.”
Does this change in the industry sadden him? “It is a sad thing,” he admits “it makes people more scared to go out there and do what makes them happy.” I notice his pint is almost finished by now.
He continues: “I think that is why now, I have so many tailoring students and young tailors coming to me for advice, because they probably find my story more interesting. Because I did come, you know, literally from nothing. I didn’t go to college, I just did my thing and…” he smiles again, and somehow the expression makes him look younger, like a kid that’s gotten away with some mischief “… and it worked out because I am really good at what I do.”
Suddenly, like they’ve been summoned, a young couple enters the shop and Mark gets up to greet them. “They're tailors too, you know?” he says, as he walks back to his chair. “Didn’t I tell you they come here often?” The couple spends a few minutes staring at the photograph-covered wall next to Mark’s table, and he entertains himself naming every single one of the faces on the images.
“Aren’t those the Krays?” I can’t help but asking, and he laughs. He answers: “Yes, yes, I used to make suits for the Krays during the time they were in prison.” Ronnie and Reggie Kray were identical twin brothers, who went down in history as London’s best-known gangsters. They controlled the vast majority of organised crime in the capital, but their charm and their image ended up gaining them some sort of celebrity status, in spite of their crimes. “I remember it was their looks what caught my attention. But that isn’t new, people still love a gangster today!” Mark of all people knows about this, since it was his designs what started the trend that was later known as gangster chic. “But let me tell you, gangsters in real life generally don’t clean up as well as the ones in Peaky Blinders.”
It is a romantic idea, to think of Mark only as that tailor who used to hang out with gangsters and made incredible suits for them, the same suits that turned them into celebrities in the public view. But he disagrees. “It’s very easy for the media to pigeonhole artists. If there’s something about your past they find it’s more interesting than the rest, they exploit it and reduce your whole story to just that.”
The fear of being caricaturised and regarded as an anecdote of the past is there, visible in Mark’s words and concealed irritation, but fear isn’t the absence of courage, and in his speech is very obvious Mark is inspired by his past, but has his eyes set on the future. Doesn’t he ever get tired? “Never, never, never tired.” Mark smiles again, with the same smirk that gives him the look of a mischievous child, and finishes his pint.