The Story Behind Muhammad Ali's First Bespoke Suit

Photographer Thomas Hoepker recalls a trip to Savile Row with Muhammad Ali, in 1966

From the Autumn/Winter 2014 edition of Esquire's Big Black Book, available now.

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It happened like this: Ali was scheduled to fight Karl Mildenberger, the big German boxing hero at the time, later that year. And the editor at Stern magazine, where I was a staff photographer, asked if anyone would be interested in doing a story on this strange man. I wasn’t into boxing, but Ali seemed like this really colourful person, and Eva Windmöller – a reporter, who would later become my wife – said, “This could be something.”

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So the two of us were sent to the UK, where Ali was training to defend his world championship title at Earls Court. But Ali had just converted to Islam, and he was not supposed to be seen talking to a white woman. He had nothing against Eva personally but the situation was just a little… delicate.

So we came to an arrangement: he was staying at the Cumberland Hotel, by Marble Arch, so we’d turn up there every day and follow him. Eva stayed in the background making notes and I shot pictures.

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One morning, Ali said, “We’ll go for a drive into town, I’ve got an appointment.” We drove to Mayfair, to Harry Helman’s. Helman and his brother had been in business since the Twenties and had made suits for everyone from Prince Philip to Terence Stamp. Ali had seen Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks in one and had asked for the tailor’s details. He’d told Parks, “I’m ordering six just like it, in different colours. I’m a gentleman now, I have to look like one.” 

I only took about five or six shots. I had a feeling this was Ali’s first bespoke suit. He was this kid who’d become the world champion – here he was being driven in a limo, and going to Savile Row tailors; it was new for him. 

We did other assignments with Ali. The last one was in 1997, after he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. There was a very sad moment, when I showed him the London pictures and asked if he recalled them. He looked at them and said, “No, I don’t.”'

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