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Peter Chu Ian Fong
Photograph: Calvin Sit

Trading stories: Traditional tailors and new innovators

Long-running stalwarts and new innovators measure up the history of Hong Kong's bespoke business

Written by
Time Out Hong Kong

Hong Kong became synonymous with the sartorial arts in the mid 20th century, as China’s Communist Revolution led to the relocation of skilled Shanghainese tailors to our city. Since then, suit making has become interwoven into the very fabric of Hong Kong culture, changing with the times whilst retaining many of its traditional roots. We sat down with W.W. Chan & Sons’ Patrick Chu and Arnold Wong, and Cuffs’ Ian Fong to chat about the industry and its evolution over the decades.

Meet the men behind the suits

Patrick Chu, 52, is a partner at traditional Shanghainese bespoke suit purveyor W.W. Chan & Sons Tailor Ltd. He has been with the company for over 30 years. 

Image: Calvin Sit

Arnold Wong, 36, is currently the shop manager at W.W. Chan & Sons Tailors Ltd., where he's worked for 15 years

Image: Calvin Sit

Ian Fong, 38, is a Cambridge graduate with a background in food and drink. In 2011, he founded his now award-winning modern bespoke brand, Cuffs. 

Image: Calvin Sit

I: Please tell me about W.W. Chan & Sons Tailors Ltd. I know it has a long history.

P: Our founder, Mr. W.W. Chan, was born in 1922 in China, and studied at a famous Shanghainese tailoring college, graduating in 1948. China was going through the turmoil of the Communist Revolution at this time, so after graduating, Mr. Chan moved to Hong Kong and started making suits. In 1960, he opened his original tailor shop in Tsim Sha Tsui. His son took over the business years later, and the company changed its name to W.W. Chan & Sons Tailor Ltd. Our brand has grown over the years, but we still employ traditional Shanghainese methods, everything is cut in the same way Mr. Chan did years ago. How about your company, Ian?

I: I founded Cuffs in 2011, but before that I had zero background in tailoring. I originally studied engineering and then went on to work in the food and beverage industry before getting into fashion. While working in eateries, I picked up entrepreneurial skills and decided that I wanted to start my own business. I noticed that the tailoring industry had room for improvement. It can be tough for some customers to visualise what they want before it’s in front of them. Some people find traditional tailoring experiences a little intimidating. My goal was to introduce a user-friendly experience accessible to everyday folks. Tailoring in Hong Kong is such a valuable art, and I want to do what I can to help the industry thrive.

Tailoring originally became famous in Hong Kong for its quality and speed.

A: I agree that tailoring here is special. Hong Kong has always been a hub for travel, shopping, and business, and tailoring originally became famous here for its quality and speed. Over the years it also came to have its own look – somewhere between the British and Italian styles. Hong Kong tailoring is also very versatile as it uses elements from many different styles of tailoring.

I: For me, tailoring has always epitomised that ‘East meets West’ character of Hong Kong. The style has Western influences, but here we are able to do things cheaper, because of the strong links that we have with suppliers in China and other parts of Asia. Hong Kong tailoring has a price-to-performance advantage over that in Europe or America. Of course, you guys have been around a little bit longer than me, so what changes have you seen in tailoring here over the years?

A: One of the most interesting changes we’ve seen over the decades is how much more discerning men have become since the early days. Back in the 60s men’s taste was simple and straightforward compared to today; most of our customers wanted suits purely as a practical outfit to wear for business. That all changed in the 80s when a lot of young people started to study abroad. Customers became more aware of international trends, and although it was an exciting time to be a tailor, it did present challenges.

Customers are becoming more demanding, with a very detailed vision of what they want.

I: Yes, I’ve noticed this trend continuing even in the last few years. It’s fascinating because the evolution of online platforms has led to some customers having a very clear image in their head of what they want. 

A: Definitely, the development of the internet and people’s accessibility to information has had an impact on us too.

I:  These days, it can be easy for a customer to show us what they want by pulling up a photo on a website or on their Instagram. It allows us to know what the customer wants, but it poses a challenge because customers are becoming more demanding. Sometimes they come to us with a very detailed vision of what they want. I think we can both agree that it’s a positive challenge because it forces tailors in Hong Kong to learn and grow. Let’s just hope that we the next generation continues to learn and grow in the same way, because that’s one of the biggest issues the industry faces.

P: I think that the lack of new blood in tailoring is also a challenge. Majority of tailors in Hong Kong are well into their 60s and 70s. A tailor in his 50s is considered young! We try to pass on skills to the young generation, teaching them proper cutting and tailoring. Fortunately, we’ve had some people who are eager to learn the traditional skills. We’re in our third generation, and we hope to go on for many more years.

I: I think it can be hard to attract youngsters to the industry because it’s a hard job; sitting at a sewing machine and putting the hours in to learn the craft is no walk in the park. I have young people showing some interest in working with me, but not as far as apprenticing yet. 

P: Let’s hope that going into the future, young people will continue to get involved in the craft. I think what both of our tailor shops are doing is important because it inspires the new generation to appreciate tailoring the same way that we do.

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