Moving with the times to ensure the perfect fit
In the early part of the 20th century, tailors in Shanghai gained a reputation for excellent workmanship. But there was no place for such an elitist skill after communism arrived in 1949, and many tailors fled to Hong Kong to set up shop.
Tailors from India have also come to Hong Kong to start businesses. Both sides of the industry have largely followed the tradition of the family-run business model with a dependence on in-house training, use of the internet to expand business opportunities, and a focus on customer service above all.
Overseas tourists are the mainstay of Hong Kong's custom tailors and keep their businesses kicking. 'Fifty per cent of my clients are tourists from the United States and Europe, with locals making up the other half,' said Nick Daswani, co-owner of Bobby's Fashions, an Indian tailor business set up by Mr Daswani's father 55 years ago that now employs three salesmen and 100 tailors.
The increase in the number of individual visitors from the mainland has not benefited the company's business. 'Mainland Chinese prefer designer brands to custom tailoring,' said Mr Daswani.
Professionals from the banking, finance and legal fields have a particular taste for bespoke suits. Lincoln Chang Chung-ho, the manager at Ascot Chang Company, which has been in the business for more than 50 years at Prince's Building in Central, said: 'Our clientele is mainly from the United States, and I have started to see the trend that local Hong Kong demand is shifting from a taste for brands to a preference for quality.'
A typical customer profile was hard to define, said Mr Chang, who has been in the business for seven years. This was partly because of a natural discretion in the trade about asking personal questions. Most of his clients are professionals, including financiers, doctors and lawyers, as well as some celebrities such as film director John Woo. Some clients have specific ideas about the cut or material they want, while others rely on advice from Mr Chang and his team about the latest styles and colours.
'Our clients are very diverse in their profiles, but they all come to us because of our craftsmanship and a wide selection of fabrics - up to 3,000 different kinds.'
Custom-made shirts are the company's best-selling item, and prices range from HK$400 to HK$3,000 for a shirt made from Sea Island cotton, a high-quality, 100 per cent cotton from India that is very limited in supply. 'We provide a certificate to say it's Sea Island cotton,' Mr Chang said.
Competition in the custom tailoring industry is more about the skill of the tailor and the kind of service offered to customers by individual companies than how crowded the market is for business owners.
'Every one has their own clientele, and the key to success is in treating customers well and providing a highly personalised service,' said Mr Daswani. 'It's really down to customer service.'
Like Bobby's Fashions, Shanghai's Tailor is a family business located in Tsim Sha Tsui. The owner, Maqsood Parvez, said he was unfazed by local competition. 'Competition makes us provide better service,' he said.
The company has been in business for more than 40 years and employs 35 Chinese tailors, and Indian and Chinese salesmen.
'Both sales and tailoring are equally important,' Mr Parvez said. His salesmen measure clients and advise them about material, design and the latest styles.
The level of personalisation is clearly crucial to custom tailoring, where creating the perfect fit for each client's individual body contour and proportions is what draws customers in the first place.
'A good tailor needs excellent interpersonal skills, and must know his products extremely well, precisely because there is so much choice in the market. That is where the custom tailor differs from a shop, where products are uniform and quality and price are fixed,' Mr Daswani said.
'In custom tailoring, the final cost depends on every element, from choice of button to delivery requirements.'
Hong Kong's international business has been increasing in the past few years for Shanghai's Tailor, partly due to the growing number of international trade fairs taking place in Hong Kong, which bring in many clients, and partly to a successful advertising campaign that includes advertisements in newspapers, magazines and tourist maps, and a website.
Like many businesses in other sectors, the biggest challenge for custom tailors is high rents. Instead of expanding physically, a lot of players have been developing their internet presence to attract new business.
'Most website customers are overseas visitors who originally visited the shop in person, and continue to make orders from overseas and to recommend their friends to the site,' said Mr Daswani, who keeps all customer measurements and preferences on file, and communicates with clients by e-mail or telephone to verify details.
'Internet business now accounts for at least 20 per cent to 25 per cent of our business. It has grown a lot. It's mostly repeat business,' he said.