Syndicate of Style: Mayfair’s Most Notorious Gangsters
Say what you like about the villains of yesteryear, there’s no denying that the history of British gangsters is a history of sharp dressers.
London’s criminal past is filled with thoroughly shady, but immaculately turned-out individuals. Of late, the success of dramas like Peaky Blinders, or smash-hit films like Legend, has cemented the nostalgic idea of the fashionable gentleman felon in popular culture. You might say there’s never been a better time to be badly behaved, but brilliantly dressed.
The original sharp-suited gangster was Charles ‘Derby’ Sabini. He earned the title ‘King of the Racecourse Gangs’ in the 1920s, principally because his well-tailored appearance was crucial to maintaining a respectable front as a bookmaker. His go-to look was an impressive chalkstriped three-piece suit with generous lapels, a calf-length trenchcoat and fedora. Born in Clerkenwell’s ‘Little Italy,’ Sabini worked his way up through the ranks via means of racketeering, extortion and plenty of bribery. In 1927 he famously toppled rival gang leader, Billy Kimber, during the ‘Battle of Waterloo,’ a riot outside the Duke of Wellington pub on Waterloo Road. Legend has it he timed a fitting at his tailor to coincide with the riot’s kick-off, on the other side of town.
Skip forward 30 years, and an interest in crisp Italian tailoring marked the Kray twins out as London’s best-dressed bad guys. Reggie’s look was always the more polished of the two, a tonic suit with slim lapels, equally slim satin tie and a white pin-collar or button-down shirt made up his daily uniform. Photographs of Ronnie reveal him to be a little more experimental, but no less impressive. Pocket hankies, braces and jacquard ties all had their place in his wardrobe. The most famous picture of the pair shows them striding through an estate in fashionable and obviously expensive checked two-piece suits – power dressing at its most formidable.
Then there was Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie. He was one of the Krays’ hard men, but he saw sense in 1966 and offered information to the police which helped to send down the gruesome twosome. You’ve probably guessed that he was nicknamed ‘The Hat’ because he was an enthusiastic trilby-wearer, seldom seen without one. Like Ronnie and Reggie, he favoured dark, slim-cut suits, plain white shirts and simple navy satin ties – the ironic vision of respectability.
The history of Mayfair’s ne’er-do-wells is filled with similarly colourful characters. The nicknames alone are enough to paint a picture, think ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser or Ray ‘The Belgian’ Cullinane. Sinister individuals they may have been, but there’s no denying a sharp sense of style accompanied their illicit antics.
Turnbull & Asser autumn/winter ’17 channels a nostalgic touch of gangster style, telling the story of three fictitious gangs, each vying to be the best dressed mob in Mayfair. Witty motifs run through the collection, whether the jester of the Jermyn Street Jokers, the bowler-hatted bulldog of the Berkeley Square Bully Boys or the tape measures of the Savile Row Stranglers. See this season’s newly arrived pocket squares for more. It’s playful, it’s sharp and it nods to a time when sartorial flair was a prerequisite for stylish gentlemen, regardless of their ‘line of business’.
Aleks Cvetkovic is the Deputy Editor of The Jackal, London’s latest luxury magazine, made for stylish minds. He's long harboured a passion for fine menswear, well-timed dramatic pauses and stiff drinks.
@aleks_cvetkovic @thejackalmag thejackalmagazine.com