Essay: Frank Foster, Shirtmaker

by Nick Knight on 7 November 2017

Nick Knight honoured the memory of his longtime shirtmaker, the legendary Frank Foster, in this personal essay on the craftsman's life and work.

Nick Knight honoured the memory of his longtime shirtmaker, the legendary Frank Foster, in this personal essay on the craftsman's life and work.

Frank Foster by Michel Molinare

There are a few important men in my life, men who I respect in some way, men who form the character blocks upon which my own identity is shaped.  Men who, if they did not exist, I know I would be less of the person I am.

Almost every single day for the last thirty years of my life I have put on a shirt made by the same man. It is always a white shirt, button down collar, high stand, box pleat down the back and made of the most beautiful white Oxford cotton. All clothes have narrative imbued in them, little details, signs and clues that speak of stories, of people and of memories and every time I put on one of my shirts somewhere in my mind the narrative of this shirt is reignited. Much in the way a song or a fragrance will trigger thoughts and memories that have become associated with it. The name on the hand stitched label in the back of the shirt reads Frank Foster.

I called him Frank although his real name was Lionel Frank. His parents were Russian Jewish emigrants who arrived in England fleeing the terrors in Russia and Europe at the turn of the last century. They were given the name Frank as their Russian name proved impossible for the customs official to pronounce. 

They settled in Shadwell in the heart of London’s East End and Lionel was born on the 4 March 1923. 

Times were incredibly tough and money was in very short supply. His youth was spent on the streets of Shadwell, rough and violent streets where he learnt to defend himself from attacks by Mosely’s fascists and the rampant and thuggish anti-semitism of the East End life. Fighting was a daily occurrence in his early years. He once told me he took up weightlifting and had been a boxer in those days. However his wife Mary tells me that is probably a polite way of saying he fought a lot, suggesting a slightly less formal interest in the ‘gentleman’s sport’. In reality young Frank was a street fighter.

There is an early picture of Frank in which, apart from his strong resemblance to Marlon Brando, it is also noticeable that his stance is boxer like, complete with closed fist. Almost as if giving a sign about this part of his life. However, street fights weren't what distinguished his early years, that came from a love of art and - much like Lee Alexander McQueen many years later - it is that which became a passport to a different life away from the awful poverty of the East End. Frank drew and this was something he carried on throughout his life, and in fact that is how he would be able to make a shirt for you, after the first fitting he would draw you so it was his painters eye that took in your proportions. He loved all the new painters of his time; Mark Gertier, William Roberts. At the age of 14 he had a show at the Coolings Gallery. He studied under artist Leon Underwood, widely thought of as the precursor of modern sculpture in Britain, and who also taught the sculptor Henry Moore. Some of his paintings were sent to be shown in a gallery in Moscow. Frank funded this career in the arts by first making his living as a scenic painter and painter of murals.

By the late fifties, Frank was selling hand painted silk scarves through Galleries Lafayette which was in the building which is now Hamleys, and he was making good money. Shirt making came by chance, asked by a friend to recommend someone, Frank put himself forward. His reputation as a gifted shirtmaker spread quickly. He had a shop in Bond Street and then Henrietta Place and finally Clifford Street above the notorious Winston Club. Early commissions were for Errol Flynn and Victor Mature but by the mid-sixties his list of clients is a literal and breathtaking who’s who of popular culture, from The Beatles and The Who to Warren Beatty and Sammy Davis Junior but including Hardy Amies, Benjamin Britten, Yul Brynner, Richard Burton, Yves Montand, John Geilgud, Dizzy Gillespie, Cary Grant, Sean Connery, Norman Hartnell, Roger Moore, Bob Hope, Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier, Tyrone Power, Vidal Sassoon, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Stewart, Orson Welles, Montgomery Clift, Dirk Bogart, Richard Harris, Norman Parkinson, Rock Hudson, Christopher Walken, George Lazenby, Peter O’Toole, and James Caan. He has dressed royal families from around the world as well as Prince Charles as a young man. 

If you look at any film from the sixties, there is a very good chance that one of Frank’s shirts will be in there. Just go to the Instagram page @frank_foster_shirts that his daughter runs and you will see exactly what I mean. There are certain parts of Frank’s early life that are less clear and personally, I am happy to only have clues to what they may have been as it allows my own imagination to fill in the details and the gaps. I know he ran a Casino called the Maverick down in Peckham, just next to a Casino run by the Krays, which in itself says a lot.

Whereas the Krays turned to David Bailey to take their portrait, it speaks volumes about Frank that he traveled to Paris and had his taken by Man Ray.

I know he drove an Aston Martin DB5 as there is a quote from an interview in a Dutch newspaper of the time where he describes it as 'the best car for picking up the best birds in Chelsea' in the sixties. Whereas the Krays turned to David Bailey to take their portrait, it speaks volumes about Frank that he traveled to Paris and had his taken by Man Ray. In terms of his shirt making I know that Frank arranged a deal with a set of Carmelite nuns to finish off his shirts. Beautifully done, but they refused to work on Franks sheer shirts for moral reasons and absolutely refused to work on the chiffon ladies underwear he wanted to make. Thereby ensuring Frank stayed solely as a shirt maker.

He met a beautiful young Irish girl called Mary, twenty years his junior. They were married a few years later and had a daughter Sam. I know through Mary and Sam that outside of painting and shirt making, his passion was modern Jazz, especially Ella Fitzgerald, Stephan Grappelli, Charlie 'Bird' Parker and the like but his favourite was Billie Holiday’s beautiful melancholy, Ghost of Yesterday. He never got bored of it and apparently played it so much his father threatened to break the record. 

Throughout the seventies, his shirt making business thrived and the client list kept on growing. I first met Frank at the end of the eighties. I was looking for a shirtmaker who could take some of the details and particularities of shirts I had loved as a Skinhead but combine them; I was looking to create my perfect shirt. I was immediately struck by his appearance. Physically he always reminded me of Marlon Brando (who he made shirts for!) An extremely handsome man, strong and powerful looking, the inner strength giving an outward sense of great calmness and gentleness. If, in describing how I wanted my shirt to be made, I crossed a few sartorial boundaries in my requests, I would certainly not do it twice. I was told he was just as firm with Orson Wells, Bing Crosby or Tony Curtis, insisting that they came to him for a fitting, not he go to them. You didn’t really argue with Frank.

His wisdom and knowledge about the cloth or the cuff or the cut were profound. His choice and knowledge of fabrics was extraordinary. He would drive to Switzerland or France or Italy in his Aston to buy up old stock. So some materials he had were literally a hundred years old and never to be repeated. He would show me cloth he had rescued with designs by Brigit Rielly or Vasarielly from limited edition runs that would be rolled up and sitting all around him in his basement in Pall Mall. But even though the material, like hand printed silk were priceless, when there was a flood a few years back, there was a feeling that he was going down with the titanic. As the water poured in on his collection of the finest silks and cottons, Frank went about the almost futile task of trying to rescue some of his most favourite ones whilst singing Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head

I don’t believe however that Frank ever considered his shirt making was an art, it was just what he did. Back in the sixties it was standard practice to go to a shirt maker to get a new shirt, it wasn’t a luxury, it was just how men dressed. There was no easily available ready to wear. I asked his wife Mary if there was a particular detail or technique he was known for, apparently he was known for the his 'cocktail cuff' as seen so stylishly in many of the James Bond films. There is some now unresolvable dispute over the originator of this particular detail, Charvet in Paris say they created it, but as Monsieur Charvet was having his shirts made with Frank, it is possible that they were influenced by him. The other most notable challengers for this crown are Turnbull and Asser, but in my opinion Frank’s are by far the neatest and most elegant.

Nick Knight in his ubiquitous Frank Foster shirts. Images by Charlotte Knight and Zoe Hitchin

Over the years I have had so many people compliment me on my fine white shirts - whether I wear them with a suit or with jeans, they are always perfect. Putting one of Frank’s shirts on always makes me feel that bit happier about myself. People can underestimate the power of clothing but Frank’s shirts are imbued with all the wonderful passions and masculine elegance he had. This discreetly simple item of clothing, this white shirt, is more of a piece of art than I think Frank would have ever allowed himself to believe. 

Frank was working on the day he died, he was meeting a new client in the morning, by the mid-afternoon he sat with Mary in the little cafe next to their studio at 40 Pall Mall, held her hand, and told her that he loved her. He said he felt unwell and so they set off home to their flat in Dover Street. Frank collapsed and died in the hallway of the flat. The doctors told Mary afterwards that Frank’s heart had simply stopped. He was 93.

Frank Foster Shirts live on, through his wife and daughter Sam.

The business is still located at 40 Pall Mall, St James, London SW1Y 5JG  



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