During the colonial era Shanghai was home to many famous tailors, but the ensuing Mao era, which clothed the country in a uniform sea of anonymous blue cotton, sent most of them packing for Hong Kong. But as Shanghai gradually regains its place as China’s premier business center, the tailors are swarming back to clothe the captalists. For men, the variety of choices and prices (ranging between US$73-3,000), is pleasant but bewildering.
When shopping for a suit, the first question is what do you need it for. "I don’t work in fashion or marketing, so the ‘truly best suit’ isn’t necessary," said Matt Koon, an American who works for a consultancy in Shanghai. "But attention to detail is important to me; the finishing work is how you know a good tailor." Koon has steered clear of the higher-end custom tailors, but he doesn’t rely on the tailors who work directly out of the fabric markets either. Instead he buys his wool at the fabric market and takes it to a tailor he trusts who has his own shop.
For many like Koon, especially those without the budget to afford to spend more, a RMB500 (US$73) suit works just fine. But for those who need their suit to look spiffier for longer, a fabric market suit has drawbacks – including the fact that most are recognizably cheap to those who know suits.
Raymond Kiang, who came here from Hong Kong and now runs Eleganza Uomo, a small chain of tailor shops around Shanghai, said that for starters, a fabric market suit isn’t actually a custom suit. "I would say that about 70% of these suits’ features are standardized," he said. "They aren’t designing from scratch like we do. They use standard paper models – 42 large, 42 regular – and then they make a few adjustments."
Fabric market suits are stitched entirely by machine, and then "fused" together with glue. Such suits are analogous to made-to-measure suits that are customized after being picked off the rack, but customers can’t try them on first and there are no multiple fittings. This makes any further alterations painful. Still, at RMB500 each, one could have seven fabric market suits made for the cost of a single hand-stitched custom suit.
Custom suits, designed using "floating canvas" construction in which each panel is cut to individual specifications, take much more time to construct, require multiple fittings and therefore demand a much higher skill level. Prices start around RMB3,500 (US$500).
At the lowest price point such a suit may still be partly fused. While fusing is abhorred by some purists, it is not necessarily an inferior method: Ermenegildo Zegna suits are fused and yet retail for over US$1,000. Kiang of Eleganza Uomo defends the practice: "We do partially fuse our suits, because Shanghai is quite humid. Humidity makes the fabric crease on purely hand-stitched suits. We use partial fusing in the lining, particularly in the chest, to help keep the shape better. But everything else is stitched."
Finally there are the top-end tailors, whose prices start around RMB6,000 (US$900). This upper stratum may actually be the level where China’s cost advantage is most significant; a US$900 suit from a top Shanghai tailor can be comparable in quality to Savile Row equivalents, if lacking the same cachet. However, at the uppermost end of the price range, part of the price difference is also driven by fabric costs, in particular the cost of 200-threadcount wool, which is delicate to wear and difficult to work with – and nearly impossible to find here.
Bespoke tailor W.W. Chan & Sons, founded in Hong Kong over five decades ago, aspires to occupy this high ground, pricing their suits above US$1,000. "We are serious about our suits, and so are our customers," said Peter Chan, general manager of the Shanghai branch. Tailors from the company frequently make custom fitting trips abroad, where they measure clients and keep their measurements on file for future orders.
Regardless of the structure and pricing, some say that the most important factor is a customer’s relationship with his tailor, which can last a lifetime. For Greer Bevel, a teacher at an international school, this was the clincher when picking a private tailor who visits his house for fittings.
"If anything goes wrong, he’ll come back and change it," Bevel said. "If I get fat, for instance, he’ll open it up. It’s nice to know the person who made the suit for you. You have a relationship with your tailor, which I think is important."