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Making the cut

Singapore's next-generation tailors, whose niche business had grown in a recently revived trade, now face fresh threats.

MAKING THE CUT: Singapore’s next-generation tailors, whose niche business had grown in a recently revived trade, now face fresh threats.

“We’re a small operation and the service we offer is very personal. It’s strictly by appointment,” says Dylan Chong of Dylan & Son.

"We see custom-made tailoring making a comeback," says Tulsi Kamath of Perfect Attire. "People are again going to tailors."

"Here (in Singapore) we have a dress-down work culture. Our men don't wear a suit to work. It's the weather, which is our main problem," says Kevin Seah of Kevin Seah Bespoke.

"There'll always be a need for tailored clothing because there are many different body shapes which can't fit into standard size clothing," says Fong Loo Fern of CYC.

"Tailoring is not a lucrative business, but it still provides enough to put food on the table and a bit of fun," says Matthew Lai of KayJen Dylan.

Thomas Wong at The Prestigious with his trainees and staff. “I want to train a new generation of tailors and breathe life into the industry,” the master tailor says.

IN the sea of "business casual", where fast fashion rules and Silicon Valley tech-heads set the scene in jeans and hoodies, the man (or woman) in a tailored suit stands out. And in recent years, those in the tailoring trade have enjoyed a renaissance of sorts. Rising demand for all things custom-made and bespoke has helped grow the niche business of tailors.

A new generation of snappy dressing has also led many younger customers to have their outfits made to measure by skilled clothiers. Yet in Singapore, these craftsmen come up against one very prosaic obstacle - the heat. Singapore is hot, all year round, and it's no wonder that casuals are first to come to mind when it comes to what to wear in this tropical city-state.

Even when the occasion calls for it, formal attire takes a back seat. At weddings - and some business meetings - T-shirts and jeans are not uncommon. At work, "dress down Friday" is fast becoming "dress down everyday", and smart casual is now the everyday corporate uniform.

And in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Singapore's near-lockdown, which has also turned the home into a workplace, must surely have given it added impetus.

While that's good news for manufacturers of informal wear, from Bermuda shorts to jeans and T-shirts you buy off the rack, local menswear tailors will not be pleased to hear it.

Already, like many small-time operators, these people who custom-make suits, jackets and formal workwear are among the hardest hit in business in the current crisis.

"Our orders have dropped by more than half because of Covid-19," reports 33-year-old Tulsi Kamath, the co-founding partner of Perfect Attire.

This was in early March, before tighter restrictions were imposed on businesses and movement. With customers now kept indoors and retail businesses virtually suspended, her sales would have come to a standstill.

If the stay-home order eventually leads to a switch to casual wear for good in the workplace, when things return to normal, it will be a double whammy for the local tailors.

Yet, while some may not survive it, the viral nightmare will pass - perhaps in a year when a vaccine is found. And the sun will rise again to remind the survivors that they still face an unfriendly climate.

Even now in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it hasn't slipped Kevin Seah's mind. "Compared to bespoke tailors in Europe especially, our problem is the weather we have," he tells you.

"In Europe, people require clothing for four seasons," adds Mr Seah, who owns menswear tailoring shop Kevin Seah Bespoke in Bukit Merah. "Here we have a dress-down work culture. Our men don't wear a suit to work. It's the weather, which is our main problem."

Tailoring, which Wikipedia defines as "the art of designing, cutting, fitting and finishing clothes", thrives on formality. Yet, while it makes a man looks sharp, a formal suit or jacket on him is most uncomfortable in the tropical heat.

Back in the day

Still, there was a time when menswear tailor shops were found in nearly every corner of Singapore - and visiting them was a regular thing men did. Those were the days before ready-to-wear shirts and pants hit the shops, says Dylan Chong of Dylan & Son, a second-generation bespoke tailoring outfit.

He recalls visiting his dad's tiny outlet on Shenton Way then: "People went there to make trousers for work. They even made the shorts they wear at home."

The 1960s, 1970s and even the early 1980s were "the golden age of tailoring" according to the 39-year-old. This, of course, came to an end when off-the-rack apparel conquered retail stores and the tailoring trade was relegated to the ranks of a sunset industry. Many, including Mr Chong's father, were reduced to doing alteration work - making adjustments to the ready-to-wear that customers brought in for fitting.

Yet, businesses like banks, retail chains, airlines and security agencies continue to demand tailor-made uniforms. Their frontline staff, crew and guards need to look smart and professional. CYC still has a sizable slice of this business today, according to its managing director Fong Loo Fern.

In fact, things seem to be looking up now. New tailoring shops have popped up in recent years, many in or near the Central Business District (CBD), where their customers work.

"When I first started (10 years ago), there were only two or three tailors near us," recalls Mr Chong whose workshop is located on Telok Ayer Street. "Now I can count nearly 10."

New customers, especially the young, are rediscovering men's tailoring, thanks to the Internet which is also fanning the revival of traditional craftsmanship. This has inevitably led the enterprising and passionate among them to open their own shops.

Ms Kamath, who arrived from India to settle in Singapore, was among them. She set up Perfect Attire with her husband, who still has a day job, in 2014, after spending four years learning the ropes of the trade.

Matthew Lai, who fell in love with menswear street fashion "since young", took the plunge at the tender age of 25. He worked two years in the tailoring business before striking out on his own, teaming up with Dylan Chong to start KayJen Dylan (KJD).

Many of the newcomers are graduates of the LaSalle College of the Art and "disciples" of Thomas Wong, the doyen of the tailoring trade (see sidebar). They project a professional and polished image - and are savvy in exploiting social media to promote themselves.

When meeting clients, Mr Chong and Mr Lai wear a jacket and tie. Their workshop is in a prime locale and it has been done up by pricey interior designers.

The new breed of tailors call themselves bespoke clothes specialists. As opposed to the make-to-measure practitioners who rely on pre-existing patterns, a bespoke creation is entirely original and unique to the client.

It takes in details like the "abnormalities", if any, of the customer's body structure, his posture and the way he walks, explains Mr Lai who focuses on the made-to-measure side of the business, while his more experienced partner concentrates on the bespoke part.

The fabrics that bespoke tailors work with - cotton, wool, cashmere, linen - bear famous names from the fashion world - Loro Piana, Ermenegildo Zegna - and they often come from the UK and Italian mills which are known to produce top-quality materials.

And it shows in the prices. Dylan & Son's bespoke suits cost S$2,600 upwards, while KJD's make-to-measure ones start at S$1,500. A two-piece bespoke suit made at The Prestigious, the workshop Mr Wong runs, is at least S$6,000.

Come full circle

While their numbers have risen, the presence of the bespoke tailors is hardly noticed. No big sign hangs at their door that says "Tailor". Dylan & Son sounds more like a law practice than a tailoring outfit.

The shops may be in the CBD, but most are not at street level where there's more visibility.

Dylan & Son's 1,000-square-foot workshop is at the top of an obscure and dim pre-war three-storey walkup shophouse. The name stamped on the metal plate at the bottom of the stairs is so tiny that it's easy to miss.

That's not because they want to convey an impression of exclusivity. Most tailoring specialists simply can't afford a better site in the CBD - and they can't handle many customers.

"We're a small operation and the service we offer is very personal," Mr Chong explains.

Walk-in customers will not be entertained. "It's strictly by appointment," he says.

Tailoring doesn't make you rich, according its practitioners. On top of the long years it takes to master the skills, the lack of pecuniary attraction has turned many ambitious young men away from the trade, they say. The tailors that BT spoke to declined to give financial details, but claimed to make enough to cover costs.

Yet the payback can be satisfying. "Tailoring is not a lucrative business, but it still provides enough to put food on the table and a bit of fun," Mr Lai says. He gets a lot of kicks from making nice clothes for appreciative customers. "There's much satisfaction there."

For Mr Seah of Kevin Seah Bespoke, who has wanted to be in the trade since he was 14, tailoring fulfils a teenage dream: "I can't imagine doing anything else besides designing and making clothes." Mr Seah, who at 45 is among the oldest of the new breed, still sees himself in tailoring in the next 10 years. "We can grow into a bigger business, specialising in making other beautiful products. Quality tailoring will never die," he says.

Ms Kamath has grown Perfect Attire from a two- to a 25-men strong operation, with the main tailoring work done in India. She has the ambition to take it to other countries. "We see custom-made tailoring making a comeback," Ms Kamath says. "People are again going to tailors."

CYC, whose VIP clients include the late ex-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, is proof that tailoring is here to stay.

Started in 1935 by Mrs Fong's grandparents, who were skilled tailors from Shanghai, the shirts specialist had expanded into producing ready-made shirts in the 1970s, but rising labour costs later put an end to that venture.

When Mrs Fong, a trained accountant, took over the reins of CYC in 1993, its management system was in a "dinosaur" state. She introduced computerisation in the company, sharpened CYC's marketing strategy and polished its brand. In 2005, coming full circle, she steered CYC into the custom-tailored suits and pants business.

"We're working with a very well-established production house in Malaysia," says Mrs Fong, who is now in her 60s. "We lack skilled craftsman in Singapore."

Which is a big concern for Mr Wong, who is dedicating himself to train and groom tomorrow's tailors. The LaSalle College of the Arts, where he teaches, is also preparing to offer a full diploma course in menswear tailoring. This is good news for the trade's future.

"There'll always be a need for tailored clothing because there are many different body shapes which can't fit into standard size clothing," Mrs Fong adds.

Grooming tomorrow's tailors

The doyen of the trade worries that tailoring may die with the passing of his generation

WHEN master tailor Thomas Wong is asked why he still practises tailoring at his age, when he's already teaching it, his reply is this: "If I don't work, I will be teaching my students history, old things. If I work, I can teach them new things, new techniques."

He is, in fact, also holding two jobs doing both - splitting his time lecturing at the Lasalle College of the Arts as well as working at The Prestigious, his tailoring workshop.

But the 73-year-old, who still retains a full head of hair though the hair is turning grey, is trim and looks fit enough to carry on for another five to 10 years.

Mr Wong dresses as you would expect a master tailor to dress - smartly. For the interview in his workshop, at the top of a three-storey pre-war shophouse in Boat Quay, he dons a stylishly tailored blue pinstripe pants he made years ago, which is still looking good, matched with a hand-made blue-checkered long-sleeved shirt, a gift from his students, and a purple tie.

When Mr Wong lifts his right hand, the sleeve withdraws to reveal a Vacheron Constantin gold watch - a sign of success.

The man has outfitted powerful politicians and business tycoons, including former Indonesian vice-president Adam Malik, and Shaw Vee Meng, boss of the Shaw Organisation in Singapore.

A doyen in the tailoring community, not just in Singapore but also in neighbouring countries, Mr Wong was twice elected to head the Singapore Master Tailor Association and remains honorary president of the Federation of Asian Master Tailors.

Recently he was also invited to help upgrade India's tailoring skills.

"Tailoring requires deep knowledge," he says. That is, a deep knowledge of fabrics as well as clothing design and construction. It takes years to acquire it, according to him.

It takes even longer to master the skills of tailoring - like stitching, cutting, hemming and sewing.

"Tailoring is very tedious," Mr Wong continues. Finishing a single suit jacket alone, he says, involves 240 steps and more than 80 hours. "No short cuts," the perfectionist says.

In his 1,000-square-foot workshop, with only the help of sewing machines, Mr Wong and his "disciples" work entirely with their hands to produce pants which costs S$2,600 a pair, jackets priced at S$5,000 apiece and suits that go for S$6,000-S$8,000 and up.

That's no small change. Yet it's not uncommon for VIP clients to splurge up to S$30,000 and more each time they drop by.

Mr Wong was only 16 when he went into tailoring, but his talent and hunger to learn were recognised from the start. Many famous tailors took him under their wing.

"I'm still learning," he says. But what really bothers him these days is that the tailoring craft may die with the passing of his generation.

The Prestigious, which Mr Wong operated for 13 years before closing it in 2012, was relaunched in 2014 to groom tomorrow's bespoke tailors.

His proteges are his former students at LaSalle. "I want them to be able to do everything," he explains. "To cut and make shirts, trousers and jackets."

Three years after its comeback, The Prestigious was named the best new entrant to the retail scene by the Singapore Retailers Association.

"It wasn't about making money," Mr Wong adds. "I want to train a new generation of tailors and breathe life into the industry."

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