An artisanal conversation with Thomas von Nordheim – Bespoke tailor, couture designer, author and lecturer, London
February 1, 2018
For those who are interested in nostalgic beauty of vintage glamour and couture, you may possibly like the movie ‘Phantom Thread’, a love story of a handsome and talented gentleman couturier named Reynolds Woodcock, who creates exquisite and luxurious couture gowns, falls in love with a waitress and becomes his muse, the romance in between this couple is a mix of sweet moments and rainstorm which makes the story unfolded mysteriously beautiful. I have been intrigued with this movie for quite some time, not just because of entering the month of Valentine’s Day, but the charisma of the character, especially the couturier himself, from his discerning talent of every single detail, to his handsome and sophisticated appeal, the impeccable way of dressing, and his poise and demeanor, which made him as an ideal Mr. Charming that manifests another kind of manliness, a self-made gentleman with his experience, know-how and effort, a creative vision and appreciation of beauty around him, turning his fantasy into reality with his own hands.
While I am still waiting for the movie to be showed in town, yet, I came to realize that there’s a gentleman who shares the similar adoration of this movie just like I did, also, he is an artisan himself, not only he creates classic couture but also bespoke tailoring for men. He tailored some of the iconic ladies’ suits in the movie as well as a couple of garments for Sir Daniel Day-Lewis himself. Mr. Thomas von Nordheim has been dedicating his life to bespoke tailoring and couture making for decades, worked as tailor and design assistant with numerous couturiers and world-renowned designers since early 90s, including one of the oldest and last surviving London couture house, The House of Lachasse. The work by Thomas has been recognized by elites and nobility in UK with their frequent patronage, having this artisanal gentleman to create some timelessly elegant and sophisticated tailored jackets and coats for them. After the closure of Lachasse, Thomas founded his own atelier located at Cockpit Arts in Bloomsbury, London, to continue his passion of creating sophisticated and timeless tailoring for both ladies and gentlemen. On top of his impeccable creation, Thomas is also very enthusiastic on passing his knowledge and skillset to those who appreciates handwork and craftsmanship, apart from his own book ‘Vintage Couture Tailoring’ which published in 2012, Thomas also organizes classes to share his artistry and insight which he has learnt throughout the past decades, letting this valuable knowledge to flourish from now and onwards. Today, I am thrilled to join this talented gentleman for a conversation about craftsmanship, style and more.
My Modern Darcy: Hi Thomas, such a delight to have you with us. First things first, I am so thrilled to learn that you created the white Irish linen coat for the character Reynolds Woodcock in ‘Phantom Thread’, amongst the dozen costumes that were produced in your atelier for this Hollywood production. Can you share with us more about this experience, and, how does it resonate to you as a bespoke tailor and couturier?
Thomas von Nordheim: It was basically an amazing experience and dream job which took over 4 months of my life, of which I enjoyed every minute. The whole aesthetics of the film and of course the costumes were very close to my heart. I have always loved vintage style, a very overused term now which young people apply even to 1980s (it makes one feel very old). The 1930s to 1950s epitomize the classic glamour style in fashion. The story setting itself resonated with me greatly too, as I worked for 7 years in London’s second oldest couture house Lachasse, which also was the last one to close. The whole culture of couture dresses being shown to high society clientele in a salon, ordering, fitting, making in specialized ateliers mostly by hand, we still did at Lachasse in 2000 exactly like in 1955. I of course worked closely with the costume designer Mark Bridges, who won an Oscar for "The Artist". The initial brief was to create a tweed suit for a scene where a fitting is being carried out on a client. The inspiration of the design came from a beautifully shaped John Cavanagh model and there another loose end tied: I knew the elderly John Cavanagh and he once came to my apartment to see a little fashion cocktail I hosted. Working on the movie was a lovely job.
MMD: Now let’s do some flashback, what makes you to decide to be a Bespoke tailor and couturier (also milliner), did you realize you have such gift when you were young?
TvN: I was a creative child, always drawing, painting, creating make believe worlds on paper. I went to art school as a teenager, but at some point realized that creating in two dimensions only did not satisfy my aspirations. When I was 17 I was introduced to the worlds of ballet, theatre and high fashion. I attended a haute couture fashion show in Düsseldorf, it was mid 80s and the time of extremely glamorous fashion, think Dynasty. It was then that I decided I wanted to enter this world professionally. Four years later I became an apprentice in the same fashion house.
MMD: As I know that you manage bespoke tailoring for both men and women, what is the challenge of doing couture clothing for both gender? And what are the keys to create a good piece of tailoring clothing for men and women?
TvN: I am a bit of an alien like that because most gents tailors will not make for ladies and vice versa. Besides both ladies and gents tailors use different construction, there are obvious anatomical differences. I would not say though that because woman have more shape than men, they are more difficult to cut for. My apprenticeship was as a ladies tailor, but the head of atelier was a gents tailor, and the way we worked was technically between the two. It gave me an advantage when I learned gents tailoring later on. Whoever you work for, the garment has to fit and must be visually pleasing.
MMD: When I looked into your work, your style is very much into elegance, the timeless classics of the 1930s-50s. can you tell us why did you choose this ‘genre’? And how did you see bespoke tailoring nowadays, British tailoring in particular, being responded nowadays?
TvN: like I said I always liked that vintage period, probably influenced by all those classic movies I have been watching as a child. Basically, a suit is still the same as it was 150 years ago, with stylistic variations of course, you cannot better the design, alas everybody always tries to reinvent the wheel. There must be a good reason it stood the test of time. I think a classic 2-piece or even 3-piece suit is still an appropriate attire for the modern gentleman, you can introduce modernity and wit, if required, by choosing a special colour or fabric and by means of accessorizing it. Dress down by wearing the jacket only with a jersey and jeans, dress up with beautiful shirt, silk tie and pochette. It is so versatile and if looked after will last and last.
MMD: Apart from a bespoke tailor, you are also a lecturer and an author on tailoring and couture, what is your ultimate goal? And being a multi-tasker, how did you manage your time to accomplish all these while managing your personal life?
TvN: I have always been obsessed with my work and remember working through nights when I was intrigued by a new cut or technique I was working on. I made many garments that have never been worn, just for the sake of making them. I use some now as class objects when I teach my craft. I love tailoring and do not get tired of working on new projects, each one of course is bespoke and therefore unique. I have been contemplating my own school, but do not want to give up making. I have also been considering to do a Phd within the subject of History & Culture of Fashion.
MMD: Among all the tailoring creation you have done so far, can you tell us which one that you feel the most memorable and why?
TvN: I made a 6-piece wedding dress a few years ago, moduled around a Victorian family heirloom veil. The dress was a skirt, bustier and detachable train in dark veridian silk damask, over it was worn an embroidered lace blouse and cummerbund. As it was winter for going to church this was topped with a matching green silk velvet jacket, bordered in mink. It was spectacular. In the evening there was a dance and off came jacket and blouse and it was the most gorgeous off the shoulder evening dress.
MMD: Can you tell us what is your personal style? What is your favorite 3 items in your wardrobe?
TvN: My style is classic with character. I made myself a grey herringbone winter coat during my apprenticeship and nearly 30 years on I still wear it occasionally. In winter I love cashmere polo neck jumpers and have about 20 in different colours. If I like something I often buy multiples. I also love large cashmere scarfs, not the narrow tapes that don't keep you warm at all. Now I am really obsessed with shoes. In the early 90s I bought several pairs of very expensive shoes, which I could ill-afford at the time, but I had to have them. They came from a small Italian artisan workshop called Comedia and were crafted on 1920s lasts. They were so classic and well made, I still wear a couple of pairs. The ones I loved to death I now have copied by a shoemaker in Budapest for me.
MMD: In your opinion, how do you define ‘style’? Especially for modern day gentleman?
TvN: Style is not something you can acquire by going shopping designers or copying looks out of magazines, quite the opposite. It is neither about money. Particularly the English have this thing about well-lived in interiors and clothing. Quite unthinkable in Germany where I grew up. A few well-loved things of excellent quality that go on and on, mixed with basics and topped up every now and then with some investment pieces are a good basis. Some people have natural charisma and attitude, but style is different. It is innate and the antidote to fashion, unfortunately too many people adopt whatever is fashion because they have no sense of style on their own or do not have a strong enough character to want to stand out from the rest. Style has many forms. A Knightsbridge dowager has style, so does a skinhead.
MMD: Apart from the attire, what other qualities that a modern day gentleman should have?
TvN: unchanged really: politeness, consideration and respect.
MMD: What will be your advice if someone would like to become a good bespoke tailor, or an artisan?
TvN:. I am a bit apprehensive about college education with 40 students in a class and limited support in place, I see it all the time. In no way can it prepare you for the real world. You really need to find a business which would take you on as an apprentice and you need to be prepared to earn little money for years and you need to be dedicated. Where I trained we were never praised when a job was well done, as this was what was expected of you. It can be a tough time and you need stamina. My 5-day "Introduction to Tailoring" course that I teach on a regular basis in London and New York, gives an excellent overview of what handcraft tailoring entails and you will know afterwards if it’s for you or not. It is a good way of trying a craft without committing.
Special thanks to Mr. Thomas von Nordheim, image courtesy of Thomas von Nordheim.