On any day in Tsim Sha Tsui you’d be lucky if you weren’t asked “suit, Sir?”, among offers for other exxy accessories and services. Recently I’ve been getting quite familiar with the many streetside seamstresses who – unlike the tailor who crafts a suit from beginning to end – work more commonly with simpler alterations like hemming pants. So when the HK HUB asked if I’d like to get a custom-made suit in Tsim Sha Tsui I jumped at the opportunity.
Tailors in Hong Kong are notorious for the fast, often 24-hour, turnarounds. In a city where time is money and suits are plentiful, a one-day suit seems practical and convenient to most, but to really perfect your fit you need to allow more time.
Empire International Tailors have a reputation as one of the best tailors in Hong Kong, a city known for its handmade suits. I got in touch with Mark, easy to do via their website, and set off to meet him and begin my suit.
To my surprise, Mark was young, well-dressed and handsome. I’d always pictured Tailors as men well and truly into their forties who wore driver’s caps and vests. Mark was the third generation born into a family business which has been around since the 80s.
Day 1, The Choices Are Endless
First things first: Function. After finding out what kind of suits I already owned, a black, a navy and pin-striped number from Ben Sherman, I was asked what I’d be using it for. Do you need winter fabrics, all season or summer? For a first-timer something versatile in all seasons fabric would be suitable, but since I already owned a few suits I opted for something a little more playful. I wanted something with a little colour but not to the point it would stand out in a crowd. Surprisingly enough, black is the least requested colour.
After 15 minutes of scrolling through half a dozen fabric folders with at least 20 choices in each, I realised that besides and herringbone and pin-stripe I knew little of patterns. Among the choices were subtle patterns like nailhead and the similar birdseye as well as the chalk stripe, shark skin and my pattern of choice: charcoal grey base with a subtle lavender window pane pattern. Mark tells me charcoal grey and navy are go-tos for anyone after something quite versatile.
Next we looked at some cotton fabrics for a shirt. With my original fabric hanging out of its book I ran at least a dozen different cotton fabrics by it and finished with a classic blue solid. Mark tells me I made my choice rather quickly and many people can take hours trying to pick a colour to match, but I think he was just being polite.
Following that, an older gentleman pulled out his tape began to take my measurements. This was quicker than expected and required almost no movement on my end. At this point I thought we were pretty much done, but there was more to come.
The Devil is in the Detail
Are you a peak lapel Harvey Spectre kind of a guy or will you keep it simple with the notch? Here I learnt a handful of terms that I could only keep track of by taking notes on my phone: Pick-stitched, 2” wide notch lapel? From the collar to the cuff, you can customise your suit to suit your lifestyle and personality. Classic suits are fashionable right now, and you can keep it classic with only minor adjustments like an adjustable waist over belt loops. The customisation is the fun part though, where you get to set yourself apart with detail. Being a lifestyle writer, I opted for a darker half lining inside my jacket with two pen pockets either side – just for good measure.
For a lot of men who’ve never made a suit before, this would be quite daunting. Are you expected to know everything, nothing or have some idea in mind? Initially I went with the idea of walking out with some kind of brown English looking herringbone and I left with a charcoal.
I was invited to return a few days later to watch a man everyone called Sifu chalk line and cut my fabric. Sifu means “master” in Cantonese. His given name is Awai and he has been with Empire since 1983 and has been tailoring since the age of 14. Tailoring is passed down from generation to generation in Hong Kong, father to son. There’s no training school or anything like that – interesting fact.
Just as a bartender develops his shake, or barista steadies her pour, Awai Sifu’s hands seemed to flow as he slid the iron, wooden ruler and chalk across the fabric, mapping out the geography of a suit.
Day 2, Basted Fitting
The last time I left Empire International Tailors my suit was nothing more than a rectangular piece of fabric around the size of a coffee table with a few chalk lines and cut outs. Today, it was kind of like a hand-me-down from my nonexistent older brother. I thought I’d be trying some kind of fabric cardigan which would later be lined and adjusted to my fit. Instead, I was trying a one-sleeved, cardboard-collared vest and a pair of baggy trousers held together by a pin. To be fair it kind of looked like a suit, but there were just a few too many loose threads and white stitches for a first-timer like me to understand. Unlike its not-so-convincing counterparts, the shirt fitted surprisingly well and only required an inch off the sleeves.
One thing which had changed since my last visit was an awareness which I had begun to form for suits on both mannequins in windows and people on the street. I was starting to feel like a little bit of an expert with a slight eye for detail and a couple of new terms up my sleeve. This newfound knowledge prompted me to make a special request: Angled back pockets. A slight detail which may or may not make your backside seem better shaped. Sifu saw it as a bit of a strange of request and mentioned the difficulty because of the pattern, but was happy to do it for me anyway.
Day 3, Second Fitting
Still a one-armed vest of some sort, but now a fitted one. After some minor alterations the jacket had begun to take shape around my body and was fitting rather snug. While still sporting a cardboard collar and pins for jacket buttons, the trousers had been completed and had begun to look quite the part, angled pockets and all (worked like a charm). A layer of padding had also been removed from the shoulders which allowed for a slimmer fit and helped the jacket sit better over all. One can only assume it’s because of my naturally broad shoulders, or at least that’s what I’ll tell myself. But, still a one-sleeved number with loose threads in sight, the end product still seemed far.
Your time frame will be your biggest enemy when it comes to the right fit: If you have the time, take it. The more time the tailor has to work at tailoring the suit around you, the better it’ll fit and look.
Day 4, The Fit Off
It was a busy Friday afternoon at the tailors. Each visit to the store I’d see a couple of people in store and a couple more walk-ins make their way in and out, but it had never been this full before. On this day I heard a handful of accents from Australia to Europe, some came for fittings, others to pick up their suit.
After only a short wait in warmly lit fitting room with a leather couch, wifi and beer, the big moment arrived.
And as cliché as it may sound, I couldn’t have been happier. What’s even better than a brand new suit which fits like a glove is the chance to watch your creation come to life. It’s nice to know your suit is one of a kind. The experience has left me hungry for a winter coat, something a little old fashioned.
When initially asked how many fittings I’d like to do I was told you can get away with one, but for the best fit you should allow time for two or even three, and today this made a lot of sense. Of course, a 24-hour job will fit better than a store bought suit, but if you’re wanting the experience and fit of a bespoke suit it’s best to give it time, and two or three fittings. Hong Kong tailors are hard workers, not magicians. If time really is money, then the best value will come from two to three fittings saving the cost of alterations at a later date.
Mark’s Suit TLC:
Depending on how many suits you own, you should rotate them as regularly as you can. Dry cleaning is a must every three months and if you simply need quick freshen up steam pressing works wonder as it also helps fight bacteria.
Founded in 1983, Empire International Tailors have a solid reputation both in Hong Kong and internationally as high quality bespoke tailors. Every suit is handmade in their Hong Kong workshop by experienced master tailors. Call or email to make an appointment to discuss your custom-made suit.
Address: Empire International Tailors, Shop No-6, G/F, Houston Centre, 63 Mody Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong
Call: 2723 2673