Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Toggery: Stockport's rock'n'roll tailor


I found this jacket at Stockport's flea market about four years ago.  The stall holder told me he bought it for 13 guineas when he was 16 years old from a local menswear shop called The Toggery.  Judging by its condition, it looked like there had been few occasions (if any) when he had summoned up sufficient courage to wear it.  Its quite a piece.



Of course, I was filled with curiousity about The Toggery so I looked it up online and most of the references I discovered related to the 1960s band The Toggery Five, managed by the proprietor of the shop, Michael Cohen, who obviously supplied their enviable wardrobes as well.  Olaf Owre has composed a very thorough account of the band's story, and there's some fabulous pictures of them on the original singer, Frank Renshaw's website.  Including this one:

The Toggery Five outside The Toggery, Mersey Square, Stockport, 1964.  Picture source The Toggery Five 1963-1966.

Graham Nash of the Hollies had worked there and, in fact, Michael Cohen went on to become their manager too.

This shop was evidently a leading source of ultra fashionable menswear in the north west during the 1960s, and supplied 'fab gear' (apologies, it seemed appropriate!) to numerous local, regional, and not so local, bands.  Including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (allegedly) - we'll come to that soon enough.

The Toggery, it was becoming clear, was an historically significant nexus of the music and fashion scenes of the time, so how come I'd never heard of it? 

Anyway, some people I know, of a certain generation, remember The Toggery vividly.  My mum worked at a branch of Boots which was opposite The Toggery, and fondly recalls glimpsing the steady procession of handsome young men who patronised the shop.  Joe Moss remembers getting his best ever suit from The Toggery in his younger days, not to mention boots and numerous shirts.  He also has a friend called Pete Maclaine who used to work there, who was still in touch with Michael Cohen himself.

I wondered if it would be possible to interview Mr Cohen to find out more of this story, and, thanks to the kind efforts of Pete Maclaine, it turned out it was.  What follows is material drawn from an interview with Michael Cohen conducted on 5th August 2009, with Pete and Joe in attendance (and sometimes chipping in).

An aside - Pete is a significant player in the Manchester music scene himself.  As Pete Maclaine and the Dakotas (later Pete Maclaine and the Clan) he has been a musician for nearly 50 years, and is still going strong.  His band were the first from Manchester to play the Cavern in Liverpool, and he has the unusual distinction of having had the Dakotas stolen from under him by Brian Epstein, who installed Billy J. Kramer as the lead singer instead.  He has a phenomenal store of anecdotes about the music business and his adventures in it, (this article has a few good ones) not to mention an inexhaustible fund of jokes and patter.

On to the story, which follows after the jump:




The Toggery Story

Michael Cohen's business card, picture source The Toggery Five 1963-1966.

Michael Cohen is a third generation tailor.  His grandfather first opened his business over 100 years ago in Oldham and Michael was brought up in the trade, acquiring skills in every aspect of tailoring.  As a young man, he was working in the family business with his father - they had, by then, two shops in Oldham - and had ambitions to branch out "all by myself."

Around 1960-61, at the age of 22, he found a premises in Mersey Square, Stockport and set about making it over to his own specifications:

MC: Well, it was a unique shop because the big window went from [ground] floor to the top of the building . . . Two floors, the window, it was a unique design and the builder, a guy called Frank Salisbury, had never done it before but he did it.

I was rather surprised that he had chosen Stockport and not aimed for somewhere in the nearby city of Manchester, but Michael was adamant: "I never thought of Manchester . . . the shop came up in Stockport, and we thought it could be ideal."

The Toggery stocked an extensive range of fashionable ready-to-wear menswear including Leslie Powell suits, Jimko (trousers and other items), Rael Brook and Ben Sherman shirts.  Michael insisted on stocking only good quality brands: "I would never ever sell rubbish."

A line that proved incredibly popular was the cuban heeled 'Beatle' boot made by Anello & Davide in London:

MC: I remember having to go to London, had to fill my car up, to get these things . . . And at one time I had 500 pairs, paid for, which I didn't have!
Me: So you didn't have them in stock?
MC: Didn't have them in stock, and had 500 pairs paid for . . . So I had to go down to London and beg, steal and borrow . . . and get [them].

He also noted in passing that those boots "ruined my bloody feet!"

But it was the made-to-measure business that he was clearly the most passionate about as you can see from the following exchange:

Me: So what kind of style influences did you have, did you have anybody that you emulated or admired?

MC: [Very vehement] Not at all!  We tried to be unique in every way because if you bought something off the peg, off the peg was very stereotyped, so that's why I went into a lot for made-to-measure.  I could make the stuff, customise what people wanted.

That said, he was keenly attuned to picking up trends and ideas from his clientele:

MC: Yeah, well I think that the important thing to realise and to know is that I was lead by my customers.  Whatever they wanted I got.  I was working in the dark in some ways.  I didn't know exactly what they wanted.  But whatever they wanted, I managed to source and get, and supply them.

Me: Right, so you were actually feeding off your customers' ideas really?

MC: Of course!

Michael had his own workroom in Oldham for custom orders, and sourced a lot of his fabrics from London suppliers.  Joe Moss noted that his "range of cloths was so impressive . . . different from anything I'd ever seen," including an "amazing range of mohairs" which were very popular then.

The "ballpark figure" price of one of Michael's two-piece suits was ". . . in the region of £50" - a considerable sum at the time.  He was making "30, 40 suits a week."

Pete Maclaine remembered that there was a woman called Elsie, who did speedy alterations on the garments, both ready-to-wear and made-to-measure.  She sat upstairs, with her back to the front window "sewing away":

PM: . . . if you had any trousers [that] were too long, Elsie upstairs used to alter 'em within that day and you'd come back and they'd all be done . . . Even taking in the cuffs and even tapering . . . She was dead good, Elsie . . . You come in, you bought a pair of trousers too long, you'd leave them, Michael'd measure 'em up, pin 'em up . . . or I would do that as well, cos Michael taught me all the bits I know about tailoring, well, what little of it I know . . . and I would do that, "right, there we are sir, there they are just on the top of the shoe, come back in an hour."

Les Machen, manager of the Toggery, points to the distinctive trouser hem of Pete Maclaine's suit at the Daily Mail International Jazz Festival, Belle Vue, Manchester, 6-9th June 1963.  Pete is actually wearing a CWS suit that he was given to model, and reportedly never wore again!  Photograph from Pete Maclaine.

The business was thriving, and within two years the Toggery expanded into the next door premises.  At the opening event to mark this expansion, Pete Maclaine and the Dakotas performed a set upstairs, interrupted mid-song by Elsie offering round cups of tea.  Pete, totally unphased, took a departure from the lyrics to chorus "We all drink Typhoo teeeeaaa!"

About two years later, in 1964, Pete was working at The Toggery himself, with the manager Les Machen you can see in the photograph above.  I wondered about Michael's criteria for employing people:

Me: Did you have a policy for who you employed?  Did you try to pick cool people?

MC: Well . . . basically yes.  They had to fit into the environment of the premises.  And have some connection and rapport with the customers.

I asked if The Toggery had attracted musicians from the beginning:

MC: No.  It all kicked off really when I employed Graham Nash.  And obviously he brought his friends in.
Me: Was he in the Hollies then?
MC: No, he was in the Fourtones . . . And then they decided to form the Hollies and it all started from there.  Yeah, I made the group suits, and then other people saw them and they took me over to Liverpool to the Beatles.
Me: Oh, so you went to Liverpool to take measurements and the order?
MC: Yeah.  In fact, I measured them first at the Three Coins in Fountain Street [this is in Manchester].  What was it, a coffee bar, was it?
PM: Coffee bar, yeah . . . owned by Kennedy Street [Kennedy Street Enterprises was a music agency]

Michael made the Beatles suits, leather jackets and leather coats.  In fact you can see one of them here:

Graham Smith (left) and Frank Renshaw of The Toggery Five.  Frank wears a leather coat made by The Toggery for Paul McCartney but never picked up.  Michael's response on being told about this coat: "Well I got paid for it anyway!"  Picture source The Toggery Five 1963-1966.


Leather gear was a speciality of The Toggery.  Michael had "someone in Ashton who used to make all my leather stuff . . . They had a leather factory there," and such an outfit might set you back about £100.

I've found a couple of brief mentions online about these; one from a Russian forum which gives no credit to the source, but it appears to be Eric Stewart, then of Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, later 10CC: "We of course dashed off to Mike Cohen's 'Toggery' tailor shop in Stockport and ordered our first leather suits (in BLUE!!!) and started growing our hair long."  Another, from Gerry Scanlan, of Bitter Suite:

In 1964 I joined local group Dean Marshall & The Deputies who later changed their name to The Lizards at a request from Pete Stringfellow who became our manager.  He dressed us up in green leathers which we brought from Toggery in Stockport, all the Liverpool and Manchester groups brought their stage gear from there (so we were suddenly "cool" and "on our way").

The long list of bands and musicians that The Toggery outfitted includes - in no particular order - Brian Poole and the Tremoloes, Lulu and the Luvvers, Pete Maclaine and the Dakotas (naturally), Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas (ouch), Gerry and the Pacemakers, Dave Berry, Swinging Blue Jeans, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Johnny Peters, not to mention celebrities such as George Best, Jimmy Savile and DJ 'Ugli' Ray Teret.  No doubt there were many others too.  The Rolling Stones weren't mentioned so perhaps they never called round.

What is clear is that the shop became an essential port of call for many touring bands: "People on tours used to go in coaches, and the coaches used to stop outside The Toggery and all the groups used to come in."

Michael Cohen soon opened two more branches of The Toggery, at Bury and Bolton - the Bolton branch benefitting in particular from its proximity to a nightclub called Cranberry Fold that "used to have all the big stars there.  So I did very well."  Two of those stars that Michael can recall outfitting were Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck.

Of course, it wasn't just down to the Graham Nash connection that Michael Cohen's business flourished.  He learned from an early age about the value of generating publicity, as this recent small ad of his demonstrates.  The photograph probably dates from the late 1920s or early 1930s and shows his grandfather (holding bolts of cloth) and his father on a stepladder measuring up the "tallest man in the world," Lofty, with the "smallest man in the world," Seppetoni, looking on (I have an old postcard of this pair, who used to perform in variety shows).



Unfortunately, Michael talked about this when I had turned off the recorder as we were taking a tea break (lesson learned there), so I can't recall the details of this story.  His concluding point was, at any rate: "Well, half of business is promotion, isn't it?"

A point he proved by mentioning an occasion when he "filled Mersey Square . . . with screaming kids" by booking Jimmy Savile and The Beatles for a promotional event.  Perhaps the best story relates not just to The Toggery but his efforts for The Hollies, to boost their single 'Bus Stop' in 1966:

MC: I bought a double decker bus . . . to publicise everything, it was a stunt, and I wrote "The Hollies" and "The Toggery" and got [art] students to paint it.  To be truthful, I couldn't get much publicity out of it, so I said to a fellow called Frank Renshaw, I said "Frank, drive it round and [attract] people," and he went under a bloody bridge!  And took the top off!

I've since learned that this happened on Georges Road in Stockport, which has a very low railway bridge that's still there despite Frank's best efforts.

There's no doubt in Michael's mind about which was his most memorable customer order.  Around 1962 (the date is a little hazy) he made collarless jackets for the Beatles.  I asked if this was before the Pierre Cardin style that most people attribute as their influence:

MC: Well . . . I like to think I created it.
Me: Right.  So you hadn't seen anything like that before yourself . . .
MC: No.  They were something different.  In fact, if I'm not [pause] well, I got it from a ladies' catalogue.
Me: So, this was while they were still in Liverpool, was it?  Before they'd actually broken nationwide?
MC: That's right, yeah.

Michael's jackets were in plain black mohair, rather than the iconic grey with black trim versions by 'showbiz tailor' Dougie Millings that are so familiar.  Is it possible that The Toggery got there first?  Some histories of rock and pop fashion might need revising if that is the case.

The Toggery story came to an end when Michael Cohen's father, Phil Cohen, who was running the Oldham family business, became ill and Michael had to attend to the shop there.  He sold The Toggery sometime around 1970.

There's plenty more research I'd like to do on this.  For one thing, all the publicity material, photographs and memorabilia that Michael Cohen once had has been lost "in the moves," and for another the dates are sometimes a little vague.  I intend to scour the local newspapers at Stockport Library for advertisements and stories (that bus caper was bound to have made the press, surely?), and if anyone has any memories of The Toggery, pictures or even surviving garments, I'd really love to hear about it - please leave a comment, or email me.

Michael Cohen with Pete Maclaine, wearing my original Toggery jacket, 5th August 2009.

My thanks to:

Michael Cohen for being such a fascinating, patient and gracious interviewee.

Pete Maclaine for organising and contributing to the interview, and allowing me to use that terrific picture of himself and Les Machen.

Frank Renshaw/Young for permitting me to feature his photographs in this piece.

Also, I've linked extensively to the excellent Manchester Beat website, so they deserve a thank you too!

15 comments:

Miss Peelpants said...

This is why I love the internet and blogging and people like you. You really do learn something new ALL the time.

I will certainly keep returning to this blog because I know I'm not really taking it all in yet, and it's just so good.

Loved that aside about the Anello and Davide boots too ;)

TinTrunk said...

Gosh, thank you so much! I'm immensely flattered.

I can't promise I'll keep digging up stories quite as good as this one though! The more I found out about The Toggery, the more it seemed almost criminal that hardly anyone seems to know about it anymore.

I dithered about putting that line in, by the way, especially as I link directly to the Anello & Davide Beatle boot which they still produce (eek!)

And if you ever come across anything with a Toggery label in it, please send me a picture or two, would you? Green leather suits, can you imagine?!

Catwalk Creative Vintage said...

Eeek! I completely missed this blog post but I'm so glad I found it. Fascinating stuff. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about them and that jacket is ultra-fab! Reminds me of something that George Harrison would have worn back in the day.

Did you get any further with your research I wonder? Great work! :)

TinTrunk said...

Thanks so much L! George Harrison would definitely have done that jacket justice!

No progress to report, I'm afraid. But I'm determined to do some more digging soon . . .

goldenneedle said...

Thanks for the inside story... great blog.

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Anonymous said...

ah memories was 18 in 1965 on shore leave from merchant navy and was cashed up living in handforth went with my old man to visit the toggery buying off the peg a pair of brown cord hipsters, had them for years, what a great store
bill masterson melbourne OZ

TinTrunk said...

Very late thanks goldenneedle! Glad you enjoyed the story.

I doubt you'll get much traffic from here, Best Cine Tailoring Chennai, but it's always worth a try!

Hello Bill! It's great to hear from an actual, real live original Toggery customer! Sounds like it was worth that long trip over.

Mondo Trasho Vintage said...

Fab blog. This is invaluable information to vintage collectors and I am so grateful.
There just isn't enough information out there about Phil Cohen Tailors.
I have a Phil Cohen suit in my collection which looks unworn, it's beautiful.

I love your Toggery jacket...what a gem!

rattypete said...

Hey, don't know what made me think of the toggery, but just put it in Google and hey presto. I remember keep passing The Toggery in Bury on the way home from school (I was about 16 - 1964/5)
I could only afford to get one thing that was a black shirt with high black and white check collar fastened with a metal pin, my mate got a beatle suit around that time and we both got beatle haircuts

TinTrunk said...

Hi MondoTrasho and thank you! I was lucky enough to stumble upon this story, and have the contacts to pursue it. It makes me wonder what other interesting stories there are about fashion designers and retailers outside of London, which is inevitably the focus of most fashion histories. And lucky you, having a Phil Cohen suit!

Hello rattypete - it's great to read first-hand memories like yours, thank you!

super ron said...

Hi TT. I remember the Toggery well, but wasnt it actually on Princess street, just around the corner from Mersey Square ?? Great blog by the way, it bought back many happy memories .. Ron in Thailand

Ken said...

Fantastic article. Regarding the Beatles collarless jackets, I read somewhere that the Fab Four were responsible for their commissioning after having seen Chris Montez wearing such a jacket when they toured together. Who knows what happened in those great distant poptastic times!

Ken.

Kev M said...

The Toggery was in the row of shops that is now occupied by Debenhams

Kev

Kev M said...

The Toggery was in the row of shops that is now occupied by Debenhams

Kev