Bespoke tailor service helps former drug addicts get back on their feet

A bespoke menswear service aims to salvage the skills of ageing master tailors and help former drug addicts get back on their feet, writes Bernice Chan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 6:52pm

The workroom on the sixth floor of an industrial building in Lai Chi Kok is a stark contrast to the cramped cubbyholes that elderly artisans once toiled in. A bright and airy space, it is filled with racks of unfinished jackets and tailors gathered at worktables, busily ironing sleeves, cutting fabric or stitching seams.

"Clients want to see the workshop because they want to meet the tailor who is making their suit," says Bonham Strand chairman Jong Lee Jong-chul.

We want the lion's share of the money to go to the people who make the suit
Jong Lee, Bonham Strand

This is the heart of a social enterprise that aims to revitalise Hong Kong's waning tailoring industry while helping young former addicts learn some practical skills to help them get back on their feet.

Specialising in bespoke menswear, the venture has had its ups and downs since opening in May last year. Lee and co-founder Brian Ng didn't know much about the tailoring business. But they are happy to report that it is now finally coming together.

Lee, a 45-year-old Korean-American, came to Hong Kong five years ago to work in private equity. Two reports in the South China Morning Post within days of each other - one about how drug addiction was on the rise in the city, the other about the decline of the tailoring business - gave him the idea.

"Our theory is to try to make this a social enterprise, taking a discarded industry and discarded people [former drug addicts] and make an omelette, kind of like jujitsu capitalism," says Lee. "When your opponent has you down, how do you get back up on your feet?"

With his background in venture capital, Lee framed it in terms of acquiring distressed assets at low prices; tailoring fit the bill, although he was not buying but building a business in a distressed sector.

After a year of research on the market size and competitive landscape, Lee and Ng began to target masters, or sifu, working in places where tailors' shops were clustered, such as Mirador Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui, pitching their workshop idea.

"They thought we were crazy," says Lee.

"The Mirador Mansion tailors usually get paid by the piece and they have to supply the material themselves. They make HK$6,000 to HK$9,000 a month and have to supplement their income working as security guards," Lee says. "But here we have a workshop setting where they would get a base salary and open-ended compensation that could double their income to HK$16,000 to HK$19,000, while receiving monthly bonuses and a lunch allowance."

Video: Hong Kong bespoke tailor service helps former drug addicts get back on their feet

Lee started the venture with HK$5 million of his own funds. However, the partners could afford to take a few risks: the workshop occupied relatively inexpensive premises within the Hong Kong Commons hub for start-ups, a subsidiary of Lee's RGL Holdings company.

"The first six months were tough because we went through two or three [pattern] cutters," Lee says. "These tailors are a rapidly diminishing asset, but we were having difficulties working with them. They were sceptical because we were a new company. But three to four months later people noticed that we were still around and then better qualified people expressed an interest in joining us. I even have a woman who makes buttonholes by hand."

While he is used to juggling complex finances, Lee admits managing personnel for the tailoring service was a huge challenge and says he's lucky to have recruited Christina Po Oi-fun as his workshop supervisor.

The energetic 61-year-old previously worked in merchandising, sourcing clothes from mainland factories for inexpensive retailers in Europe. While she didn't have experience in the tailoring business, Po proved to be a natural at her primary role of managing the sifu.

"When I first arrived they were having issues because of suits that were altered eight to 10 times and still not finished," she recalls. "When you can't do it well then it affects business. But I could tell who was doing a good job and who wasn't and it took up until May this year to weed out the weak performers. Now the team is good."

Word of the workshop has spread not only within Hong Kong but overseas, with 30 per cent of its customers drawn from Australia, Japan, Switzerland, Canada, the United States and South Korea. Suits cost between HK$4,000 and HK$16,000, depending on the fabric.

Hong Kong tailors have had a rough time in the past 30 years, Po says. "After the mainland opened up, business went north and many sifu went to China, but they soon came back to Hong Kong - after they taught people how to make suits, they were not needed any more. When they were in China, they were apart from their families, which affected their relationships. And then when the tailors came back, it was hard for them to find jobs again."

So the new bespoke service aims to retain the skills of the ageing master tailors, and pass them on to a younger generation.

The other aspect of Bonham Strand's mission stems from Lee's keen interest in giving a second chance to youth at risk. Having grown up in Los Angeles, Lee is conscious of the damage caused by drugs and how people struggle in rehabilitation.

"These people want to clean up their lives, and they have a very structured schedule for 12 to 16 hours a day. They also have to keep distracted from their hell by keeping busy and doing detail-oriented things, because there are studies that show this allows their brain to reset. So I was thinking structured, repetition and detail oriented, and tailoring is that kind of job."

Lee and Ng's strong Christian faith driving their mission to help others is also what sets Bonham Strand apart from other businesses, Po says. "This industry is hard to make a lot of money. But here they are willing to help others and try new things."

Lee says they cold-called rehabilitation centres, many of which had never heard of using tailoring skills to help young people get back on their feet. Nevertheless, Caritas Wong Yiu Nam Centre in Clear Water Bay decided to give it a shot, and Bonham Strand seamstress Chung Yin-wing has made four weekly visits to teach the young men there how to sew.

"I wasn't daunted by the youngsters' [record]," says Chung, 54. "The kids are so young, from around 15 years old to their 20s, but they veered off their path and we're trying to help them get back on track."

Although most had never handled a needle and thread, quite a few were eager to learn, she says. They suggested making bandanas that could be tied around their heads when playing sports and the results were surprisingly good.

Chung has also conducted similar outreach programmes for organisations such as Barnabas Charitable Service Association, where she taught women placed at its Lamma training centre how to sew ties.

The goal is to eventually have interested former addicts come to the workshop after they leave rehab, to train one-on-one with a sifu.

"We give the kids an opportunity to work on things and see which ones demonstrate commitment and dexterity," Lee says. "After the kids finish their lockdown of three months of being clean in the rehab centre, they are placed in a halfway house where they are allowed to go out during the day but must come back in the evenings. It's during the day that they need something to do."

The scheme is still very much in its infancy.

But Lee has big plans for Bonham Strand. In the next few years, he hopes to transform the start-up into a manufacturer that might employ more than 200 workers, applying for a small-to-medium-sized-enterprise (SME) loan under the government's SME guarantee financing scheme, just like any other company.

"The [clothing] industry has to match our compensation because if you want a good tailor you cannot pay them by the piece," he says.

Lee hopes to create employment for young former addicts through an apprentice programme. "It can take a minimum of six months to learn how to make pants, a year at most. We hope to have teams of apprentices working with a sifu; they can make more money because they can complete more orders. Where else can you get a HK$20,000 job where you can work indoors, have a respected profession and don't need a university degree?"

His even bigger vision is to take the Bonham Strand model back to the US and help young convicts use their time in prison to learn the craft of tailoring.

"I'd like to see 40 to 50 cities with Bonham Strand Miami, Bonham Strand Chicago ... we are charging less than it costs to get a fake Hugo Boss suit and it's bespoke. And we want the lion's share of the money to go to the people who make the suit. It's a potential US$100 million to US$200 million business."

[email protected]