Hong Kong’s most famous tailor’s shop has been open for less than half an hour and customers are already standing shoulder to shoulder, being deftly measured by a platoon of men armed with tape measures.
Fifty years ago, there were an estimated 500 shops such as this in Tsim Sha Tsui and customers from all over the world, including political leaders, Hollywood celebrities and pop stars, beat a path to their doors.
On August 10, 1966, the South China Morning Post ran a headline announcing that London’s Savile Row, until then the undisputed international home of bespoke tailoring, had been overtaken by Hong Kong. The article suggested the city was now “the sartorial capital of the well dressed man’s world” – but much has changed in the subsequent five decades.
In an era of disposable fashion, with international brands dominating the men’s market, few young people are entering the industry and many fear the future of Hong Kong’s proud bespoke tailoring tradition is hanging by a thread.
If there is a crisis in the industry, though, you would not think so, witnessing the buzz of activity at Sam’s Tailor, on Nathan Road, and the current owner is bullish about the future of his 59-year-old business.
“Not everyone is content with fast food,” says Manu Melwani. Savile Row-trained Melwani took over the reins of the family business from his father, Sam, who founded it in October 1957, to cater to British servicemen stationed nearby. The walls of the shop are adorned with framed portraits of the great and good being measured at Sam’s, including three consecutive American presidents (George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush), Britain’s Prince Charles and music icon David Bowie.
David Bowie just said to me, ‘Look, Sam, just make me a suit that fits,’ so we did,” recalls Melwani, as he casts a watchful eye over the shop. He explains that many of his customers still seek him out from overseas and about 15 per cent of his clients are now from mainland China.
“I always come here because the suits fit the best and the materials are great,” says Karl Heinz Koeger, who has travelled from Germany with his three teenage children just to purchase bespoke creations from Sam’s. He will spend more than HK$60,000 this morning.
“Many of my customers are CEOs or partners – they want a proper fit, not a designer brand,” says Melwani, critically eyeing another customer’s cheap clothes and sagging physique while simultaneously asking an American client choosing fabric on the other side of the shop whether his cappuccino is to his taste.
“Your right shoulder is too low,” he says, gently leading the poorly dressed man by the elbow to a full-length mirror to point out the affliction.
“Play a lot of sports when you were young? Injured your left knee or ankle? Yes ... I thought so,” says the shopkeeper, with little sympathy.
“I am a tailor not a doctor but it is the same sort of relationship,” says Melwani, and all master tailors will tell you that, as with medical professionals, theirs is not a skill that can be learned overnight.
“Since I left school I have been doing professional tailoring for 45 years and I am still learning,” says Bonnie Yuen Pong-kuen, of Yuen’s Tailor, located in the escalator link alley in the soon to be redeveloped Central Market. Yuen shares Melwani’s contempt for fashion brands.
“If you have the money, you can buy any designer brand from any mall but it does not mean it fits you,” he says.
Yuen’s, run by two brothers, is perhaps a more typical metaphor for the state of Hong Kong tailoring. Both Bonnie and his brother, Johnny Yuen Pong-fei, were apprenticed at The Mandarin hotel tailor shop in the 1970s. They became armed forces contractors, based at Stanley Fort until 1994, making formal uniforms and suits for the garrison, becoming experts even in the tailoring of kilts. They retain a small workshop near Central Market and everything is made in Hong Kong and personally supervised by the pair.
“This is not the place for a cheap suit, this is the place for a very good suit,” says Bonnie Yuen, proudly. His creations sell for an average of about US$1,000 and tend to take about a month to produce.
Yuen’s Tailor has a solid and loyal client base of discerning bankers and lawyers based in Central but the small, leased shop from which the business has traded for 22 years is on a one month’s rolling contract as redevelopment looms. And the future of the brothers’ business looks uncertain for another reason.
“I have one son. He [pointing to his brother] has one son, but neither has ever shown any interest in the business,” says Bonnie Yuen, who thinks tailoring in the city might be wearing thin. “There are now less than 40 really good experienced tailors in Hong Kong.”
“That number seems about right,” says menswear entrepreneur and aficionado Mark Cho, who has written the online “Abridged history of tailoring in Hong Kong” and perceives a growing demand for individuality and authenticity.
“A new suit will not transform you into the world’s richest or most interesting man,” Cho says, but well-chosen high-quality clothing should act as an extension of the individual.
“What I dislike about fashion is that it is set up to prey on people’s insecurities,” he says. “I don’t want to wear someone else’s suit, I want to wear my suit.”
The impeccably attired Cho is wearing a smart blue pinstripe suit as we meet at The Armoury (in Pedder Building), the “international classic artisanal clothier” he co-founded. He says the roots of high-quality Hong Kong tailoring can be traced to Ningbo, at the turn of the 20th century, where traditional tailors adapted to meet the demands of the expatriate community in nearby Shanghai. This group was known as the “red gang”, probably because they catered to British and Russian expatriates, colloquially referred to as “red-hairs”.
Shanghai tailoring was exemplified by jackets with a full, shaped chest, particularly suited to a Caucasian build. Time and skill with steam and pressing techniques were required to create the necessary curvature. The Shanghai Cutting and Tailoring College was opened, offering comprehensive training in the trade and cementing the city’s position as a hub for highly skilled tailors.
After the Chinese civil war, in 1949, the red gang could see little future in manufacturing crude baggy blue denim suits for the victorious Communists so they left for Hong Kong, where an alternative tradition of tailoring was already established and practised by the “Guangdong gang”, who had learned their skills locally and adapted them for the needs of the British armed forces stationed in the colony.
You can still hear Hong Kong master tailors refer to the red gang and Guangdong gang traditions, and long-established firms such as WW Chan & Sons, on Queen’s Road Central, can, according to Cho, trace their roots directly back to the red gang.
The two forms were synthesised and modified as new, lightweight Italian fabrics became popular in the 1980s, making traditional jacket construction extremely demanding.
“If you know the Shanghai and Guangdong styles and methods, you can learn the best from both,” explains Bonnie Yuen, who takes pride in the fact his jackets always have a stitched canvas construction in the old red-gang style and are never glued.
“There are people who care about quality and their number is growing,” claims Cho, who also owns Drake’s, the classic English necktie company. “They are interested in knowing the stories behind products, who makes them, how they are made.”
It is an international phenomenon.
Gieves & Hawkes, of No 1 Savile Row, remains the iconic international bespoke brand. It boasts of having dressed Admiral Lord Nelson, Winston Churchill and the current Prince of Wales but Gieves & Hawkes is a Hong Kong-owned company.
“Bespoke is at the heart of the ... brand and, without doubt, interest in the craft is growing and is increasingly resonant internationally,” says William Matthews, Gieves & Hawkes’ head of UK marketing and PR. Much of that interest is in mainland China, where traditional craftsmanship is highly valued by the urban nouveau middle-classes.
This year, Gieves & Hawkes undertook a multicity tour of China and bespoke cutter Richard Lawson was featured on Chinese network television. Matthews says 50 apprentices are being trained in London to cope with the forecast demand.
Sadly, it seems that at the moment when the finest traditions of high-quality tailoring are being appreciated internationally, the industry in Hong Kong is falling apart at the seams.
“That’s exactly what is happening right now,” says Sheetal Pritmani, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, trained at London College of Fashion and founded Milk Shirts, in 2012. The company is a specialist high-end supplier combining traditional shirt tailoring with the power of the internet. Its shirts are designed and tailored in Hong Kong and, although it’s a local success story, the lack of young people entering the industry is inhibiting growth.
“In general, there is a scarcity of local tailors, and it has been especially challenging to find tailors interested in taking on work that requires high-quality sewing and finishing,” says Pritmani. “Unfortunately, bespoke tailoring is a dying trade and one that requires a lot of skill and precision.”
“Hong Kong is lagging in terms of fresh blood and older tailors having younger apprentices to pass the skills on to,” confirms Cho, attributing the situation to three main reasons: the time needed to train a tailor and the pay they can receive; a local perception of the job as being one that is not particularly prestigious or cool; and the general lack of awareness that being a tailor is a career option.
The same cannot be said for Britain, South Korea, Japan, Italy or France, where, as Gieves & Hawkes reports, being a tailor is becoming a more popular career for young people.
Would local firms such as Yuen’s help a young person who came into the shop and was passionate about being a tailor?
“That’s a difficult question because it has never happened in 22 years,” says Bonnie Yuen, although he does admit to having received a few inquiries from youngsters who were interested in fashion design but not prepared to sit behind a sewing machine for hours and learn the foundation skills.
Cho warns that those skill shortages, combined with high labour costs and rents, mean many Hong Kong tailors are now just shop fronts for cheap work being undertaken on the mainland or elsewhere.
“The cheap and cheerful tradition of Hong Kong tailoring has scuppered the industry in the long term,” he says.
Being a successful bespoke tailor in 2016 has a number of upsides, not least the opportunity to travel. While Hong Kong tailors head to Australia, Europe and North America to meet and measure new and existing clients, Cho invites leading tailors from Naples, Milan and Japan to meet Hong Kong customers at The Armoury. Melwani has just undertaken a six-week tour of Europe but, instead of souvenirs, he returned with a pile of Polaroid photographs, which he is flipping through at his shop.
“Look at him,” he says, dismissively pointing to a picture of a young man pulling on a pair of trousers. “No hips at all.”
Melwani says Sam’s employs more than 50 staff and usually takes on two or three apprentices a year. All training is in-house, “where I can keep an eye on them”. He says apprentices are usually Hong Kong-Chinese youngsters recommended by staff or family members and are paid well. Neither he nor his son, Roshan, who has helped develop the online presence of Sam’s, share the pessimism of others in the industry, but they seem to have elevated their business beyond the level of pure tailoring to become a Hong Kong institution.
“If the money is there, people will want to join the industry,” says Roshan Melwani, who believes society is progressing beyond its obsession with further education and the so-called professions because of a lack of vocational skills in the developed world. Like Cho, he sees a renaissance in the demand
for real craftsmanship and the artisan tradition, and this presents an opportunity.
“More than ever, now, young people are interested in fashion and clothing. If they want to cut it, design and commentary are not enough – people will need to create,” he says, “and in order to do so they will have to train at something tangible.”
Sam’s’ apprentice programme lasts for as long as seven years, so it’s not for everyone, but Cho thinks apprentice artisan tailors in Naples, London and Tokyo will eventually find their way to Hong Kong, just as their predecessors did.
“My hope is that the perception of the tailor, his product and his career will change and young Hong Kong people will be inspired to be tailors themselves,” says Cho, who believes authenticity and skill will eventually win out over fashion and expensive brand marketing.
“Brands may come and go,” says Manu Melwani, while opening the door of his shop for another customer, “but a good bespoke suit is always in fashion.”
Do you think tailoring is a dying art in Hong Kong? Tell us your experiences, good or bad. Email [email protected]