Generation of actors have strutted and fretted in their costumers. Charles Darwent probes a wearing business.
'Excuse me,' explodes Tim Angel suddenly, causing your correspondent to exhale hot coffee through his nose. 'Excuse me. Look at that. Look at that.' One alarming bound and Angel is over by his office window, jabbing a forefinger at the dingy North London street scene beyond it. Through a mist of nasal pain, it is just possible to make out the particular object of his attentions: a white transit van, opportunely pulled up at traffic lights opposite. It seems an unlikely cause for jubilation, but there you are. Chacun son gout.
Actually, it is not the van itself that engages Angel's interest so much as the legend on its side: National Theatre Costumes and Wardrobe. And why should this excite? Well, Tim Angel is fifth-generation familial MD of Angels and Bermans, not merely Britain's but the world's largest firm of theatrical costumiers. So large, indeed, is Angels and Bermans' market share that certain peevish voices in Luvvieland have recently hissed the bitter word 'monopoly' with regard to its business. Monopoly is not, as it happens, a word of which Tim Angel is unduly fond: thus his excitement at the coincidental van. 'Who says there's no competition in this industry, ha?' barks Angel. 'Who? There's competition if you like, right there.' The timing, my dear: Larry would have been proud.
But to return to the play. In 1840, one Morris Angel opened a second-hand clothes shop off what would become Shaftesbury Avenue, then as now the High Street of Theatreland. Soon, theatrical managers like Augustus Harris and George Edwards were beating a lightly-scented path to his door, followed by their cohorts in the cinema.
And not just in the British cinema, either. Over the last half century, Angels and Bermans have also won 18 Oscars for best costume design at America's annual luvviefest, Hollywood's Academy Awards ceremony. To tour the third floor (Period, Ladies) of A and B's Camden repository with Angel's sidekick, Mark Rhodes, is to wander, wide-eyed, through cinematic history. 'Mmm. This was Anne Bancroft's,' says Rhodes, casually whisking a sequinned ball gown off a rail. 'That's one of the costumes from Supergirl and this' - a quick peer at the label - 'is Faye Dunaway's original dress from Mommie Dearest.' (The original coat-hanger, too? 'Quite possibly,' parries Rhodes). Curious but true: The Last Emperor and Gigi, Dr Zhivago, Star Wars and Polanski's Tess, all started their sartorial lives not in Los Angeles, but in Angels and Bermans' London fitting-room.
Or, rather, in Angels' and Bermans' London fitting rooms: for here, as the Prince of Denmark would have it, is the rub. Until recently, London boasted not one but two of the world's great costumiers, to wit Messrs Berman and Messrs Morris Angel and Sons. 'For my entire life, there'd always been Bermans out there as rivals,' gestures Angel. 'It was good healthy stuff, you know - people trying to play us off against each other, family competition.' All of that was to change abruptly last April. 'Bermans were on the verge of, er, trading insolvently,' says Angel, 'ie, they'd gone bust. I don't know why. Well, I do. It had been taken over by one Australian company and then Holmes a Court came along. The whole thing'-Angel wrestles, unsuccessfully, with a smirk - 'was a walking disaster. We see it again and again in this business: as soon as families sell up, companies go to pieces.'
The upshot was a letter - now framed and on Angel's office wall - from Holmes a Court's British holding company, Heytesbury, suggesting that Bermans was to be put on the market due to a spot of 'restructuring'. It was the costumier's equivalent of Pepsico suddenly offering itself to Coca Cola. 'I'll never forget the moment that letter arrived,' says Angel, dreamily, the pleasure having doubtless been compounded by an eventual sale price of just £750,000. But his rapture was not to be universally shared. It was not very evident among management at what was now the ex-Bermans Camden headquarters. 'They', beams Angel, 'were in a terrible state. They'd been trying to organise a management buy-out of their own, and we'd beaten them to it. Still, we just carried on, hiring and firing - mainly firing.'
It may have been one such disaffected soul who played the role of wicked fairy at the christening of Angels and Bermans' new megacostumiers. 'Sometime in the 10 minutes between our signing with Heytesbury and our driving from Shaftesbury Avenue to Camden, someone', says Tim Angel, darkly, 'rang the OFT (Office of Fair Trading) and told them what was going on.' Given the sums involved - even after the merger, UK turnover for A and B's first year is unlikely to exceed £5 million - Angel had assumed that the whole thing would go through on the nod. Not so. 'I mean, people like Tiny Rowland are probably used to the OFT,' winces Angel. 'Do you know what the whole process involves? The cash flows? The reports you have to write?'
If ratting to the OFT had been intended as an act of revenge, however, it backfired nastily. Not only was the merger not referred, the whole process of corporate introspection opened Angel's eyes to the existence of another market beckoning to him saucily from the wings. Both Angels and Bermans had long run fancy-dress-hire departments as adjuncts to their main businesses. In an attempt to evade that nasty word, 'monopoly', Angel decided to show that even his new, conflated firm would still be no more than a bit-player in this fancy-dress market. He discovered this truth to be truer than he had guessed: 'I'd thought the UK market was worth maybe £8 million or so a year,' confesses Angel. 'In fact, it's estimated at something like £120 million.'
This revelation has caused Angel to view his collection in a new light. A and B's Camden repository houses some half-a-million individual costumes. Given the longtime rivalry of its two constituent owners, this number includes a degree of duplication: stashed away in the firm's Camden Street basement (Men's, Military), for example, are enough standard khakis to clothe the entire British Army on the Rhine. 'Just because you've got 25,000 uniforms doesn't mean you've got them all in use at the same time,' notes Angel. Indeed, finding organised and moth-free house room for resting costumes probably counts as A and B's biggest single operational headache. The firm has long been alive to the virtues of recycling clothes - cinematic trivial pursuitists may thrill to hear that background costumes in Kenneth Branagh's recent Henry V had seen service in Olivier's version 40 years before - and fancy dress presents another outlet for this corporate canniness. 'What's more,' avers Angel, 'a lot of our costumes have added attractions because of who wore them in the first place. I mean, where else can you go to a party dressed as Harrison Ford wearing clothes that Harrison Ford has actually worn himself?'
If this prospect causes a shudder of pleasure to run through the world of masquerade, it is unlikely to stir the hearts of wardrobe departments back in theatreland. Angel responds to accusations of monopolism in a variety of ways, including (as he meaningfully points out) the suing of magazines who allege it. Mostly, though, he rails at what he refers to - slightly alarmingly - as 'the knockers. They're the same people who caused the shrinkage in the first place. In the late '80s there was silly price-cutting going on: either us or Bermans was going to go under, and luckily it was them. Twenty years ago, there were three big costumiers in London: unfortunately, all their stock is now sitting here. And I mean unfortunately. We have to work on a what-if basis. We've got 120,000 square feet of costumes. If we hadn't bought Bermans, it would all have gone to auction. Then what? Do you know, if we got rid of our British army uniforms no one would ever be able to make a World War II movie again?'
As to the idea that being Number One means you can charge with impunity, Angel laughs hollowly. 'Listen,' says the Mr Big of the sequinned bustier, 'there is heavy, heavy competition out there - Western Costume in LA, big players in Italy and Germany. We've never raised our prices more than in line with inflation. If we did what people suggest, customers would just go elsewhere.' Indeed, the repertoire of potential elsewheres has been swollen by a worrying new arrival in the form of the wardrobe department of the enormous ex-Soviet film industry. The British art-house movie, Orlando, for example, was partly costumed by St Petersburg's Lenfilm, reputedly at a price no Western costumier could possibly have matched. Angel dismisses the threat with theatrical hauteur. 'It's a different product,' he sniffs. 'Go to Crockett and Jones and say, "The Russians are doing shoes for 30p - how come yours cost seventy quid?" and see what reply you get.'
He may well be right. Among mooted clouds on the costumier's horizon has been the recent genesis of high-definition television. One very reputable economic magazine indeed dared to suggest (and was rapped smartly over its legal knuckles for it) that this phenomenon's gimlet eye for detail would render many of A and B's half-million costumes unusable. Angel's response to this is a terse 'Bullshit. They said the same thing when colour TV came in and we had to dye everything white-grey to stop it jumping. Improve the quality of our tailoring? I don't think so. We already go to Savile Row fairly regularly.'
Given this apparently unassailable sartorial position, Angel's main worries remain those that probably worried his father and the three previous Angelic generations. 'Preparing the OFT reports brought home to me just what a funny business this is,' says Angel minimus. 'You can't anticipate cash-flows: you can only say what the last year's was, and hope it's roughly the same. You can't anticipate anything. Nobody made cowboy films for years. Then, suddenly last year, Unforgiven was the big number. So this year, everybody will be making cowboy films. What do you do? Morris Angel started out on a barrow, and my father always said "Barrow to barrow in five generations". Sometimes I wonder.'