When you think of tailoring, a few places spring to mind. The first, of course, is London’s Savile Row, spiritual home of the bespoke suit and home to many of the world’s foremost tailors. Milan vies for a spot at the top table, beautiful Italian fabrics combining with that typically Milanese style to create clothing with cosmopolitan verve in the best Italian tradition. Paris will always be chic, no matter the clothing, so you can be sure that its tailoring is up there with the very best. New York brings a freshness to the table, a ‘Savile-lite’, doing away with some of the stuffiness Mayfair can engender in its customers.
There is, however, a place you might not immediately think of that has a stellar reputation among those in the know.
“I know a good tailor in Hong Kong.”
If James Bond says so, there must be something in it. Sean Connery, in his turn as the famous international spy, mutters these words in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, and the statement still rings true. To a select group of stylish travellers needing a quality suit, Hong Kong’s tailoring scene is a privileged club.
Hong Kong’s provenance as a world-class tailoring destination is arguably tied to its imperial past. As part of the British Empire from 1842-1997, thousands of British soldiers and civilians arrived in Hong Kong looking for their fortune - and usually, a good suit to go with it. After 155 years of direct British control, Hong Kong was returned to China, but Britain’s sartorial influence remained. Add to this the huge numbers of French expats who have made Hong Kong their home, and you have a British-French-Chinese hybrid style seen nowhere else.
Quick, quality tailoring
While quality tailoring is a speciality for Hong Kong’s suiters, another phenomenon has arisen due to the region’s hectic, day-and night pace: the 24-hour-suit, a suit made after one meeting with the client and in the space of a day, sacrificing as little quality as possible. As a world hub for tourism and business, visitors to Hong Kong are no strangers to jetting in and out in a matter of days. The demand for quick, quality bespoke suits has fostered within the tailors here a unique energy. The fastest city in the world needs fast hands.
My father, himself a Hong Kong Taylor of a different kind in the late 1970s, bought two brilliantly cut but rather outrageous safari suits just before returning to England. He told me of his first day back: “I had two suits: one very light blue, and one biscuit-coloured, with lapels to match. The first morning I woke up in England, I put my blue safari suit on without thinking to get the bus into town.
“I realised I had this suit on when people started looking at me funnily, this man in a pale blue short-sleeved safari suit with wide lapels. Needless to say, I never wore them again. Not even indoors.”
Made-to-measure in Kowloon
It seems, then, that whatever the customer wants, the customer gets. The main hub of both ready-to-wear and made-to-measure suit making in Hong Kong is Tsim Sha Tsui, on the Chinese mainland. A stone’s throw from the first area in the world to have one million inhabitants in a square mile, the bustle of this part of the Kowloon Peninsula rubs off on its tailors, with seemingly endless fabric choices and every cut option under the sun.
One place, Sam's, is actually reputed to be the originator of the 24-hour suit. Sam’s, of Burlington Arcade (which looks surprisingly similar to its London namesake) is a three-generation tailor, having opened in 1957, and has made suits for, among others, Prince Charles, Presidents Reagan and Clinton, Naomi Campbell, David Bowie, and (another) James Bond himself, Roger Moore. For a quick sartorial upgrade, there aren’t many better places to stop.
“We became famous for the 24-hour suit because we work with so many celebrities,” Roshan Melwani, grandson of the eponymous Sam, told fashion website Highsnobiety. “Whether they’re actors, sports stars, performing artists, politicians, you only really get one meeting with them.
“In order to work with people like this you have to finish in 24 hours, because they’re not in Hong Kong for more than two days. So we got pretty good at it a long time ago. We’ve managed to hone our skills over the years.”
The time the tailors have might be somewhat truncated, and the quality of finish might be more down-to-earth than a three-month consultation on Savile Row, but considering the speed with which each piece is made, a suit from Kowloon is a must for any traveller wanting to look good during their short time in Hong Kong. Just ask Bond.
Writer: David Taylor