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The tailors
Feature: 3/10/2004



Aspects of bespoke garment making in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is famous for its tailoring, and no Hong Kong tailor is more famous than Sam. Endlessly self-promoting, the dapper 54-year-old has a client list that includes Presidents, Kings, and Prime Ministers.

At first sight, his tiny shop in a down-at-heel arcade just off of Kowloon’s busy Nathan Road seems an unlikely place to find top quality bespoke clothing. But then you see the photographs of the rich and famous, who clearly know a good thing when they see it.

Sam with President Clinton, Sam with Pierce Brosnan, and Sam with Michael Jackson; Sam with Prince Charles, Sam with David Bowie, and Sam with Tony Blair; and even Sam with Queen Elizabeth the Second; a charmingly informal photograph taken aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia.

But you’d not go to Sam for the celebrity photographs, rather a hand-made suit. Possibly his best testimonial, and the one of which he is quietly most proud, is that until the Union Jack was hauled down in 1997 he was the only local tailor authorised to provide uniforms for officers of the British Garrison.

Sam, real name Manu Malwani, provides Savile Row quality work at bargain basement prices. Overheads, in his slightly shabby shop and his six workrooms mean that he can keep costs low.

Hard work
He learned his trade from his father. “Dad taught me the virtue of hard work, something I’ve been keen to instil in my own children”, he says.

He can be found opening his store at nine in the morning. “I’ll finish my last fitting between seven and eight in the evening, I then go off to the workrooms to supervise my tailors – if we are busy I’ll not leave until 2am, sometimes later”, he says. “My Chinese tailors are the very best.

“We don’t use paper patterns, my cutters chalk onto the fabric, and much of the work is hand stitched”, he adds.

It’s clear from the bolts of cloth on display that he only uses the best quality suiting, made in the finest mills of England and Italy.

And he is more than content to keep his thriving business small. “I’m happy to know that everything we make is supervised by me”, he says. “Every time you recognise a famous brand name, just remember how much advertising and promotion they have to do to keep their name in the public eye.

“Then ask who’s paying for it – you are. My reputation lies with my customers”.

He refuses to be drawn on which of his globally famous clients is best dressed. “All of my customers are people of distinction with great style and taste”, he says diplomatically.

A world away
Across Hong Kong’s bustling Harbour from Sam’s and a few minutes walk from the Star Ferry is another tiny shop, but the owner’s philosophy is a world away from Sam’s.

Linva Tailoring in Cochrane Street caters exclusively for women, and specialises in that most famous and alluring of Chinese garments, the Cheongsam.

No celebrity photographs adorn the walls here – although the shop’s owner (or more correctly, Master), Mr Leung Shifu, does have a movie poster half hidden by racks of intricately crafted garments. He made all the costumes for the cult movie “Peony Pavilion” and dressed Rie Miozaya, its star.

Master Leung was born in Guanzhou. “My family moved to Hong Kong in ‘48”, he recalls. “And growing up here in the early 1950s, life was hard.

“I went to work as an apprentice at the age of 14, putting in long hours in a shop in Central making Western (we called it French then, I remember), and Chinese fashions”.

Everything was hand-made and bespoke. “Life was more formal then, and office workers had a strict dress code. The Cheongsam was something of a uniform, with different employers adopting their own distinctive style”.

Changing times
Times change, and today's work clothing tends to be casual and Western. There is still a market for traditional wear though. Prices for a hand-made Cheongsam start at around £250, but prices go up (and up, and up) when the finest fabrics are used.

“The finest Swiss silks and cashmere can easily push the cost up to over £2,000”, Mr Leung says. “The real skill of a traditional tailor is to accentuate the strong points of a customer’s figure and hide the others”.

Those customers, fifty per cent of whom live overseas, certainly can’t expect their orders to be completed in four days here, though. Typically, the finished garment will be ready in a month or two.

“Our customers order dresses for special occasions, and don’t mind waiting for quality”, says Master Leung. “Everything is hand stitched, and lace and embroidery is made by a dwindling band of artisans at home”.

He fears that the trade will soon die out. He says: “This sort of tailoring work is more suited to men than women, and no young man can stand the hard work and long hours needed to acquire the craft skills.

“There are much easier ways of making money”, he admits – although it is clear he wouldn’t want to change any aspect of his life.

This article is edited from a feature by Glyn Genin, a journalist living in Hong Kong, and used with the author’s permission.
Author: John Gibbon
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