At £4000 a suit, is my tailor richer than I am?
It’s often said, “do what you love and you’ll never work a day again” however in the world of bespoke and tailored suiting, such perfectionist passions are beginning to grow wholly incompatible with the capitalist “zero sum” game. While luxury brands are doing well (global economic slowdown notwithstanding), the industry is largely kept buoyant by the growth of High Net Worth Individuals (HWNI). According to Bain & Co, the fashion industry is on target for close to USD300 billion annual sales worldwide. The not so good news? Bespoke tailors aren’t exactly sharing a large slice of the pie.
Does your £4000 suit mean tailors earn big bucks in bespoke?
I spoke to Kevin Seah, a veteran bespoke tailor based in Singapore. For those unaware, Seah is a man whose love for tailoring led him to an apprenticeship while most of us were still playing video games; training in artisanal crafts is a painstaking tedium for the un-inclined and beginning as a trainee for womenswear Kevin eventually opened his own menswear outfit to serve the burgeoning sartorial sensibilities of Singaporean men. For him and others in his trade, it takes upwards of 70 hours to make a bespoke suit- the difficulty lies in the fact that from creating the pattern to cutting and then the actual tailoring right down to buttonholes, each handmade step is a time consuming labour of love.
“There are only a number of hours one can work in a day.”
With a single tailor in store, production is next to impossible to scale up, “There is only this number of hours one can work in a day. Just as importantly, it’s difficult to find skilled workers as well as not as many one to take up a career in tailoring and sewing.” On the other side of the continent, crossing into Europe, Richard Anderson of Richard Anderson Bespoke Tailors Limited has managed to shave some 15% off his timing, charging GBP4068 (including V.A.T.) for a two piece, it takes him 60 hours to produce a suit. Unlike Asia where there’s an unhealthy deference to “money making” trades like bankers, doctors and lawyers, an unexpected disparity catches me off guard when Richard tells me that thanks to the resurgence of the well suited gent, he get gets approximately 20 applications for work and apprenticeships.
When you compare 70 vs 60 man hours per suit, it’s also quite probable that with experience, you are bound to develop natural efficiencies that increase your productivity . That said, with this kind of labour intensiveness, some of the newer less established tailors I have spoken to admit that they often don’t spend the time to make something for themselves instead, they spend the time on jobs that put money on the table. Though it seems counter-intuitive, the veterans know a thing or two about putting some time aside for personal marketing.
“I always wear our own suits as a form of advertising to promote a new fabric or design,” says Richard. Not surprisingly, the first thing that strikes you about Kevin Seah is that he is always a walking advertisement (suited in his own creations), one could infer that he cuts cost that way with minimal advertising and heavy word of mouth for business. His ubiquitous “rabbit” logo (a symbol of his Chinese horological birth year) often precedes him; yet whether in Singapore Jalan Kilang or English Savile Row, the world of bespoke suiting is, according to Anda Rowland of Anderson & Sheppard: great for reputation and lousy for profit.
“I’m in it because I am passionate about this business.”
When I queried Kevin on Anda’s assertion, he’s quick to agree, “I know how hard it is to sustain this kind of business. People are always comparing us to brands and the fact that they can buy something on the spot without waiting. I’m in it because I’m passionate about this business. Bespoke is ultimately a service and we need retail to sustain our bespoke business, having said that profit that comes from accessories can compliment our bespoke services. We have to modernise this business to survive. Creativity is the key.” Mr. Anderson didn’t comment on Rowland’s statement but he did offer this, “You have to make sure your business plan is tight and as you move forward, your year on year costings are accurate to help you achieve the necessary margins required.”
For many sartorialists, waiting a few months for a suit doesn’t provide the same satisfaction as getting a big name suit right off the racks at one of the cold malls along Singapore’s orchard road strip explains the Singaporean tailor, “Real bespoke customers understand why they have to wait. They are paying for our expertise and attention to fit and quality. They can pay more for something that is made to fit them.” Even now, Richard Anderson has just launched a new ready to wear line, “We kept getting asked for ready to wear in the shop and we felt that the time was right. Having been at No. 13 (of The Row) for the last 11 years, our bespoke service was nicely established and we felt that we could dedicate some time and effort to RTW without neglecting bespoke.”
While global fashion sales amount to USD300 billion worldwide, bespoke houses like Anderson & Sheppard average around USD6 million a year. Indeed, mass produced ready to wear will always outpace the speed and costs involved with human hands but then again, it’s borderline ridiculous, in fact downright untenable to expect Joe Average to pay over USD3000 for each suit ergo economies of scale is necessary to satisfy the demands of the majority. If anything, I find that thanks to similar economies of scale amongst bespoke houses, it might be the small independent tailor’s saving grace- potentially, small (at least in terms of revenue) outfits like Kevin Seah Bespoke can earn as healthy a profit margin as an established player like Richard Anderson. If anything, this “Achilles heel” protects our beloved bespoke services from being absorbed into mega-fashion retailers- our tailors wouldn’t need to sell thousands of suits, just around 50-70 a year to make a decent living.
As both Richard and Kevin have mentioned, it’s a work of passion and even in the age of mass consumerism and production powerhouses like China, bespoke isn’t about to disappear. In fact, after a period of decline, it appears that bespoke is making a comeback. To wit, I offer this analogy from another handcrafted art- watchmaking. After possible death at the hands of quartz, in-house crafted movements have returned stronger (and more expensive than ever)- they’re not churning out G-Shocks but manufacture CEOs are not starving either.
When asked if there was a way to “get rich” providing bespoke services, Kevin smiles, “I see many getting into this “bespoke” business misusing the word and concept. Its very sad! They can only compete on price and time will tell on the sustainability. Without volume, they’ll be done for. I do not believe in volume driven business.” Richard is a little less ambiguous in this regard as he proffers this tidbit, “tailoring has been good to me.”
Editor’s note: Kevin Seah Bespoke suits start at SGD3,000.