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From Common Entrance failure to OBE recipient
Master tailor Andrew Ramroop OBE, CMTT left T&T in 1970 on a boat for the United Kingdom to follow his lifelong dream of becoming a world class tailor. He went on to become the first black man to own a shop in London’s prestigious Savile Row and later went on to be the only tailor in British history to receive the prestigious OBE (Order of the British Empire) award from Her Majesty the Queen of England.
Ramroop recently visited YTEPP trainees at the Afif G Najar Welding Institute at the Metal X Compound, Chaguanas and shared his inspirational story. Reminiscing, he said he had always had a passion to be a tailor and started cutting his mother’s pillow cases to make trousers. When the time came for him to sit the Common Entrance exams he deliberately failed the exams twice hoping he would be sent as an apprentice to learn the craft.
Ramroop’s godfather was the principal of Hillview College who decided to accept him at the institution even though he had failed. However plans changed.
“There was the girl next door whom I really fancied. Janet was a little older, very pretty with light mahogany skin, long curly black hair, always neatly tied in a ponytail. She dressed in pretty clothes. I told Janet all my secrets. I wanted to marry her one day. She too had failed her exam; I told her that I would play truant every day if they sent me to college. I confided in her.”
Janet later told his mother of his plans to skip classes and young Ramroop convinced his mother to send him to be a tailor.
Andrew began his training with a local tailor that turned out somewhat unfavourable.
“Before my 14th birthday, you will find me at Mr Daniel, the village tailor. My parents agreed to pay the princely sum of $20 a month for my tuition, a huge sacrifice especially with a monthly income of $150 and five siblings to look after. I learnt to make trousers in record time, my parents paid for just two months.
Mr Daniel, the tailor, was dark skinned, big belly, thin legs, often inebriated, always in short khaki trousers. On rare occasions he wore a shirt and when he did, he could only button the top buttons. His belly stuck out.
There was a space between his front teeth. He didn’t smoke but always had a matchstick in his mouth. He talked with gritted teeth.
“I went to Mr Daniel and announced, ‘I have been making pants for six months and all you are paying me is five pence each.
I have been asking you all this time to teach me to make jackets and every time I ask you say the same thing, ‘you are not ready’.
Well, George the tailor in the town said that he would teach me, so I am leaving. A very angry response followed.”
At the end of Andrew’s first day with George, Mr Daniel went to his shop, threatened him and had him fired.
After several long months Andrew started training in Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain with a tailor named Singh who paid him $4 a week. He said: “Mr Singh had been to London a few years earlier. He excited my young impressionable mind about this distant land where Hollywood stars, prime ministers, presidents, captains of industry, the rich and famous from around the globe, they had their suits made there. I daydreamed about being a Savile Row tailor. “
Ramroop worked very hard and saved his money and, at the age of 17 in July 1970, he boarded the Northern Star, a ship, for the UK that later docked on August 8 at Southampton.
After landing he headed straight to Savile Row seeking employment.
“There was a job advertised.
Anthony Sinclair, the boss, admired my suit, and I was employed. Ten minutes later another youngster responded to the same advertisement. I was fired on the spot from a job I had not properly started.”
“I went on the job hunt again, and before long I had another job in the backroom of the prestigious H Huntsman & Sons where the film Kingsman is based.
“Even though I was a good tailor in Trinidad, after not very long, I discovered if I wanted to get to ahead, to the front of the shop, I needed formal training to Savile Row standard, craftsmanship and style.
“I worked three jobs and saved enough to sign up for a three-year degree at the London College of Fashion.”
After the first year the principal of the London College of Fashion said he was impressed and suggested that Ramroop to skip the second year and head straight for the final year of study. He graduated the College with a Diploma of Distinction.
Recalling the events of 1974, Ramroop said: “Sporting a bushy head of curly hair, beard and a West Indian twang, I was ready to take on Savile Row, but no one would employ me. I was turned down at every job interview, including the company where I had interned for two weeks, even though I was promised a position.”
Ramroop said one shop owner said because he was a foreigner he was denied employment at the front of the shop but offered him a position at the back.
The principal of the college gave Ramroop a phone number for Maurice Sedwell who had a showroom of 500 square feet on the first floor of 9 Savile Row. At age 21, Sedwell gave Ramroop a one-month trial.
“At Maurice Sedwell Ltd, I focused on my personal mission statement, ‘Committed to Excellence, Giving the Customer More than is Expected’.
“I built a sound reputation for quality and service. Customers recognised the change that came with their superb tailoring, and they began requesting my personal attention to their sartorial needs. I was a successful finalist in the national master tailors competitions on two occasions, competing against all the best tailors in the UK. After eight years I was handling 90 per cent of the business as customers preferred my cut and fit.”
Ramroop said he was ready to move on but Sedwell would not allow it, adding that Sedwell offered him nine per cent of the shares for which he could pay by working for 50 per cent of my salary.
“I supplemented my income by working every evening and weekends for five years making suits for a growing following,” recalled Ramroop.
“After five years of committed service to the company I was managing the office, staff and customers but was not a director. I was again ready to move on. Mr Sedwell would not allow me to leave and suggested that if I could raise the money, I could buy the business.”
In August 1988, Ramroop purchased the company but lost 75 per cent of its customers and had to rebuild from ground zero.
His clients now include the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Samuel L Jackson, as were Tony Curtis and Charles Gray.
The business moved from its 500 square foot space to a 3,000 square foot location at 19 Savile Row and has now tailored suits for customers in 60 countries. Seventy-five per cent of its products are exported.
In November 2007, Andrew established the Savile Row Academy with a mission to train the elite tailors of the future to the pinnacle of sartorial excellence.
In November 2008 he got a letter from the British Prime Minister requesting his permission to forward my name to Queen Elizabeth II for an award for his services to fashion.
“I turned it down on the grounds that fashion is often frivolous,” said Ramroop, “designed to discredit what one has in one’s wardrobe so you can go out and buy something new. Fashion is a moving target; fashion is for the fashion victims. But if the award could be offered as a Savile Row tailor, Savile Row Academy Trainer and a national of the Republic of T&T, I shall be happy to accept. I heard nothing further.
“One minute after midnight on January 1, 2009, the New Year’s Honours is published in the London Gazette and it read; ‘Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II is pleased to give orders to the Knighthood to Andrew Madan Ramroop, Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire OBE… For services as a Savile Row tailor and tailor’s trainer.”
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