Everything’s Dandy in Hong Kong

by The China Watch on April 28, 2012

THE ARMOURY | The interior of the Armoury, a haberdashery specializing in little-known European brands

INSIDE A LOW-CEILINGED room on the fifth floor of a building in Hong Kong’s main business district, a handful of customers are getting a very businesslike bespoke service. Expat finance types and tourists in shorts and T-shirts pore over swatches of suiting and shirting fabrics at Jantzen Tailor, attended to by young salesmen who take rapid measurements and query them on their preferences—”Monogram? Cuffed trouser?”—the way a fast-food cashier might ask if you want fries with that.

 

This is the quick-turnaround tailoring that Hong Kong is known for—not as fine as Savile Row, perhaps, but not nearly as expensive, either. Affordable “custom” (a flexible term) clothes are one of the most popular souvenirs of a stay in this vibrant and international-flavored city-state, and playing the game of getting them (avoiding dodgy Kowloon touts, understanding that “Italian Shirting Concepts” means the fabrics are not, in fact, made in Italy) can be an entertaining (and exhausting) educational experience in itself.

And, yes, at the more reputable outfits—such as Jantzen, where the majority of custom shirts go for less than $50—you can get a good product for the money. But come to town with higher hopes than that and you’re likely to be disappointed. Hong Kong, for all its tailoring traditions and shopping malls full of big-name brands, has never exactly been considered a style capital.

 

That may be changing, though. A handful of new and revamped establishments are putting the city’s celebrated stitching skills to use, turning out bespoke clothes that pass muster in stylish environs anywhere.

 

One of those new shops is Moustache, located on an inclined street that straddles Hong Kong Island’s Sheung Wan and Central districts. On a recent weekday, as Marlene Dietrich music filled the shop, a rack of unfinished navy blazers trimmed with basting thread hung opposite a made-to-order patchwork-print bathrobe.

“We were blown away by how many tailors there were [here], and we wanted to take advantage of that,” co-owner Alex Daye explained. He and his partner, Ellis Kreuger, who opened Moustache in 2009, charge $1,100 to $1,500 for a two-piece suit. (The garments are cut by Mr. Kreuger, who has worked as a designer in New York and London, and then sewn by Hong Kong tailors.) That’s expensive by local standards, but their suit’s selling points include better fabrics, many of them from Japan; a hand-stitched, as opposed to fused, canvas lining; a lighter construction, ideal for tropical climates; and a cut that’s infinitely more flattering than “the straight-down silhouette the Hong Kong tailors do,” added Mr. Daye. He also recommends not asking traditional local tailors to add mod, idiosyncratic touches to a suit. “They won’t do it, or they’ll do it badly to show you how wrong you are.”

 

A suit from Moustache takes four to five weeks to deliver, although Mr. Daye said the shop will “try to figure out a game plan” for a customer who is only in town a week or so. In transitional Hong Kong, where many of his clients occupy “murky ground between resident and tourist,” the long turnaround has not been much of a problem. Mr. Daye added that as word gets out, younger locals—”fashion-obsessed kids who used to associate a tailor with somewhere their dads went to” are starting to patronize the shop as well.

 

With help from in-the-know blogs, the Armoury has put itself on the international menswear map since opening in 2010. A well-edited specialty shop that eschews fashion brands in favor of dressy, extremely high-end items made by small-name (and mostly European) manufacturers, it’s in a league of its own in Hong Kong, where big luxury labels have reigned supreme in recent decades.

“Hong Kong is very much a black-suit place,” co-owner Alan See said, surveying his 800-square-foot shop. On this particular day in March, there wasn’t a single black suit in it. There were, however, pastel and glen-plaid jackets in summer-weight fabrics. And, on a table next to a vase of fragrant lilies, a display of Ettinger London leather wallets. And wood-handled Fox umbrellas, Austrian hand-welted oxfords and half-open drawers lined with colorful Drakes and E. Marinella neckties from Italy.

 

According to Mr. See, the online orders that come in from the U.S. virtually every day are mostly for ties and shoes. But the Armoury has also partnered with the respected Hong Kong tailor W.W. Chan & Sons for its custom-clothing program. At $1,300, it’s the shop’s entry-level bespoke suit. (Compare that to $6,700 for a suit by Florentine tailor Antonio Liverano, with whom the Armoury also works.) But it meets the boutique’s ultra-discriminating nouveau-dandy standards, Mr. See said. “They do proper suits—no shortcuts.”

This summer, Mr. See and his two business partners plan to open a smaller outpost at nearby Landmark shopping center. Theirs will be the third recent opening at the upscale mall that carries an air of old-school civility—alongside Tassels, a high-end shoe boutique, and the first Asian outpost of Gentlemen’s Tonic, the English mini-chain of retro barber shops.

 

The renewed interest in bespoke has given a boost to tailoring-oriented international labels like Dunhill, which runs a custom program at its three-story Hong Kong boutique and “home.” But most of the city’s family-owned tailoring outfits are too disconnected from the up-and-coming market to take advantage. “What these tailors need is that young guy spreading the word,” Mr. See said.

The only one that seems to have that is Ascot Chang, which was founded in Hong Kong in 1953. Shortly after joining the payroll in 2008, the founder’s 25-year-old grandson, Justin Chang, enlisted a New York designer to help the company with seasonal ready-to-wear presentations—”to show our customers ways of dressing beyond the classics,” he said.

 

As times have changed, the company’s international profile has grown. When Mr. Chang’s grandfather organized his first New York trunk show, in 1969, a bespoke shirt by Ascot Chang cost less than one bought off the rack at a Fifth Avenue department store. Now, at $150 to $300 apiece, they cost between two and three times as much.

 

In late March, the company (which has shops in New York and Beverly Hills) expanded its local retail holdings yet again, with an upgraded space in the Prince’s Building, a sleek office tower and shopping center. According to Tony Chang, who runs the company, Hong Kong’s high-end custom clothiers might soon face a shortage of skilled personnel. “The younger tailors are in their 40s and 50s, and a lot of them can’t find good apprentices,” he said.

 

Especially in this city, where tailors don’t feel the same sense of prestige enjoyed by their counterparts on Savile Row, it’s more appealing to order a custom suit than it is to sew one. Like the rest of Asia, Hong Kong is on the up and up. And these days, the elder Mr. Chang said, “Young people love to make fast money.”

Founded in 1953 in Hong Kong, Ascot Chang has become more fashion-forward thanks to modernizing touches by the owner’s grandson.

Moustache owners and former New Yorkers Alex Daye and Ellis Kreuger bring their fresh aesthetic to Hong Kong with quirky bespoke suits.

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