Young entrepreneurs reinvigorate Hong Kong tailoring
Cuffs' shirt bar.
Getting fitted for a dress shirt can be humbling. Especially when Cuffs founder Ian Fong is measuring me for a form-fitting shirt. Feeling it hug my waste makes me never want to eat again.
Fong, 31, thinks of Cuffs as a “cool tailor.” He and his business partner, 28-year-old Mario Jutronic, are attempting to redefine the tailoring experience in Hong Kong. As Fong puts it, a traditional tailor shop is, “fairly frumpy-looking and usually run by an old man.”
But Cuffs looks nothing like that. It’s spare, clean and painted white. Dance music fills the space. Here customers can order their shirts at a “shirt bar,” and there’s a lot on the menu.
“Fabric, collar, cuff style, linings, details, buttons, all that,” Fong tells me.
Judging by the number of tailor shops closing here, some new blood may be just what the industry needs. At one point, there were 1,000 tailors in Hong Kong. Today that number is closer to 400, and it’s dropping fast.
Consider my usual tailor Chu Lun Tang. He’s 80 and on a recent visit to him, I found out that he was calling it quits this February. He’s got a bad right foot and it’s hard for him to stand for long periods of time. As he tell me simply, “Now foot no good.”
Like other tailors here, Mr. Tang targeted tourists and western businessmen, which was a money-saving move according to Fong. They visit, “order 10 shirts and then they leave.” The chance of them coming back and making adjustments is lower, and adjustments cost time and money. Cuffs, however, is willing to take on adjustments because their target market is local, young and choosy.
Cuffs isn’t the only new tailor shop making waves on this densely populated island in the South China Sea. Tucked inside a dark and dated shopping arcade near Cuffs’ Causeway Bay store is Hola Classic, a tailor shop opened by two young couples last August. It’s rare to see women behind the counter in a men’s tailor shop, but that’s not the only way Hola is breaking the mold. They make whimsical tweed suits along the lines of a hipper "Downton Abbey."
“We focus on customers between 23-40,” says 27-year-old Carmen Lam. “So they can still buy our suit and our products.”
To appeal to the younger crowd, she says you’ve got to offer hip clothing at an affordable price. Hola’s suits range between $130-$260, very affordable for custom clothing. They can keep prices low for now because they have affordable rent, a rarity in the world’s most expensive commercial real estate market.
“Luckily we have this shop signed for a few years,” says Hola partner, Peggy Yeung. “But after that, we’re not very sure where we can go.”
And if they have to move, Yeung says it will makes their costs very high. And that results in higher prices. Another challenge facing this new breed is that none of these young entrepreneurs are actually tailors. They’ve all hired older men to make their hip clothes. And what happens when those older men retire? As Yeung says, “We hope we can do it.”
Or as Ian Fong thinks, the work will be outsourced to China. “Simply because there are very few people actually sewing shirts here in Hong Kong anymore.”