Travel, tailoring a perfect fit in Hong Kong
In his tiny workshop, Sam Melwani of Hong Kong’s Sam’s Tailors checks work in progress by a cutter. PETER NEVILLE-HADLEY/HORIZON WRITERS’ GROUP
HONG KONG -- Up and down Kowloon's bustling Nathan Road any obvious tourist will be accosted every few minutes. "Hello, Sir! You want cheap suit?"
One moment you're marvelling at the bustle, at the juxtaposition of fine hotels and tenements, and looking up at vast neon signs projecting over the streets. Then suddenly you're looking at a flyer that's appeared in your hand, and trying to avoid someone gesturing into a shop.
"Hello, Sir! You want tailor? Small shop, small price!"
Many have heard Hong Kong is the place to have a shirt made or a suit tailored to hide the results of too many business lunches, or even a pair of hand-made shoes. Perhaps Hong Kong's low labour costs and history as a British colony really do mean that Savile Row-style tailoring is affordable. But Kowloon is prime tourist territory, and also home to fake watch vendors, and bait-and-switch electronics shops. Can you buy a suit without being cheated?
There are tailors who buttonhole you in the street, and there are those who wait quietly in workrooms hidden upstairs or tucked away in small arcades, letting word of mouth lead you to them. The former entice you in with the offer of a two-piece suit and a shirt for as little as $280. But once inside you may discover any cloth worth wearing is significantly more, and everything else is extra. You wanted buttons? Don't expect more than one fitting, if that.
"Suits ready in seven hours," say some signs. Real tailors want three fittings and preferably four days.
It's likely word of mouth will lead you to Sam's Tailor in the Burlington Arcade. Many a dignitary, crowned head or celebrity has preceded you although the premises are cluttered and unassuming, and to step inside is to return to the 1960s. Walls are lined with rolls of fabric and completed garments awaiting collection. Orders are still handwritten and snipped samples of chosen fabrics pinned to them. The shop is so small there's scarcely room to swing a catalogue.
Second-generation tailor Manu Melwani ("Just call me Sam") began his career as a cutter in the 1970s, eventually taking over the business his father had started in 1957. By now he's used to dealing with customers who don't really know what they want, and takes them firmly in hand.
"What do you want the suit for," he asks. "For an interview? For a wedding? Dark suit or light?"
He calls instructions in Hindi, Cantonese and English, and rolls of fabric appear.
"This stripe -- I would like you to have it," he says persuasively. "Or I would say charcoal grey would make a very good suit for you."
The single largest price influence is the cloth. Sam's two-piece suits in fine Italian wool start around $450 but with the very best fabrics they'll cost more.
Italian, loose-fitting American, or a tapered English cut? You can adjust details as much as you wish, but there's a certain weight of tradition once a cut is chosen. Particular lapel and pocket styles are implied, and certain numbers of buttons at the sleeve, but always with functioning buttonholes, and all hand-sewn.
"With a double-breasted suit I would like you to have cuffs with your pants. But we're offering the bespoke suit of your choice. If the customer wants three legs, I'll do it," says Sam, but presses on.
Collar, cuff, and fitting decisions are made, and for the most part his recommendations are taken, although it's tempting to interfere.
"At fitting time we're going to talk about it. Now we're very simply cutting the suit to the size and making a British suit for you. Classic look. Double-breasted."
Tradition has it that Hong Kong's best tailors are of Shanghainese descent, and rather than standing up for his Indian heritage Sam warmly agrees. There are many Shanghainese among his 55 staff, some in a tiny neighbouring workroom where fabrics are steamed, then delicately marked out in tailor's chalk.
A Chinese tailor takes a second set of measurements and asks questions about waist heights and trouser widths. He reads the body much like a doctor, tuts over a slight difference in shoulder heights, and promises to hide the bulge of a wallet. Whatever you want to bring to his attention he's already noticed.
"You've come," says Sam with an avuncular smile, "to the professionals."
En route to a recommended shoemaker, the street vendors pounce again. But brandishing Sam's business card works like garlic on vampires, and they retreat.
At Shoeman Lau, in business over 40 years, the manager ("Call me George") apologizes that he'll need four days because tomorrow is Sunday. It's hard to complain since elsewhere bespoke shoes typically take six to eight weeks to obtain.
Any style may be chosen from plain to the most complex brogue since the main cost is the leather. A pair of calf-skin shoes goes for around $250, and involves just one fitting, but there are displays to tempt you to try something more exotic, such as snake, lizard, or crocodile, although prices rise steeply.
An outline of each foot is swiftly drawn and multiple measurements are taken. It's all over very quickly.
The next evening the suit is taking shape. Every aspect is checked. There are questions about pleats, belt, the position of the cellphone pocket, and lining.
The next day Shoeman Lau owner Amy Han oversees a trial walk around the shop in mock-ups made from canvas. There's a pinching in one shoe, which is marked. The last on which the shoes are built will be adjusted. They are confident the shoes will be perfect. When collected they are glove-like and supportive from the first step.
A second fitting at Sam's leads to slight changes to the shoulder and trouser lengths, and by the third all is perfect, although on the walk down the street another tailor, rather than being repelled by the sight of a bulging green Sam's bag, gives chase.
"How much you pay for a shirt? How much you pay? 70 dollars US? I only charge 35. I only charge 35!"
NEED TO KNOW
The suit described was made in super150 Italian wool, and cost under $650. After a brief inspection, a Vancouver tailor estimated the same suit would cost 50% more, plus tax in Canada. A standard fine wool suit goes for about $450 in Hong Kong. A bespoke cotton shirt with Oxford collar cost $75 and might be double at home. Starting prices for bespoke shoes in Canada is near $650, in Hong Kong $250. In Hong Kong there's some room for negotiation, especially if buying multiple items. Women are also catered to but some tailors prefer to have a garment to copy. Shoeman Lau has many women's styles and will also copy a pair you bring in.
-- For information on travel to Hong Kong, see discoverhongkong.com.