BEIJING — Along London’s Savile Row, a Mecca for bespoke tailoring, the world’s most prestigious tailors and shirt-makers work for brands that support the image of Western gentlemen, such as the bicentennial Henry Poole & Co and Gieves & Hawkes.
Bespoke is an art form more than a service to create exquisite artisan suits to measure for each client, explains Shelly Liu, founder, partner and chief designer of MAKAIF Bespoke, a brand in Chengdu, Southwest China’s Sichuan province.
The bespoke masters take measurements of the client’s body, devise a unique pattern for each person, carefully select fabrics and sew the pieces manually until it becomes a gorgeous garment that fits the person perfectly, drawing admiration and awe.
Sharing the same yearning for perfection and a creative spirit of craftsmanship, the bespoke business is soaring in China. From bigger enterprises to small workshops, the sector strives to make suits, footwear and accessories to the rigid standards of the male haute couture industry.
A different style
The idea is not to offer simply a garment but a new style for Chinese gentlemen to present themselves to the world, says MAKAIF’s South Korean designer Mark Lee.
Many Chinese cities, especially those located along the east coast, have reached a high level of internationalization, constituting a mature market for the high-end fashion industry, according to Lee.
“The demand for quality and stylish business attire is strong,” he said.
Educated in the United Kingdom, Liu as a designer highlights the courage and pioneering spirit needed to challenge conventions.
Liu recently launched TINT, a new line of bespoke garments for businesswomen, in Chengdu. TINT stands for “Trend is nonsensical and tedious”.
“With TINT, we celebrate the new generation of women in the business world who do not follow any trends but their own. She is a fashion icon by being who she is,” Liu said.
Simple and classic, elegant and whimsical, fresh and made to last decades, it’s the “war armor” that these brands aim to gift Chinese business people, she said.
Sens Bespoke, a men’s suit maker in Beijing, was founded five years ago by fashion designer Zhao Peng and his partner and patterning master Li Weichao, who chose bespoke for another advantage: zero inventories.
In 2013, Zhao resigned from his post at a major company to establish his own independent designer brand. He soon realized that the traditional fashion business model didn’t apply.
“The traditional business model works when the brand has established sales channels,” he explained. “If it doesn’t sell, the costs will be too high and there will be dead stock and huge waste”, whereas in bespoke, there will be no inventories in excess.
In the past few years, Sens Bespoke’s business strategy targeting socialites and entertainment personalities has been generating satisfactory profits. His creations are often worn by television hosts and actors.
Named by Forbes as one of the Top 10 Best Tailor Shops in the World, Dave’s Custom Tailoring in Shanghai is a valued piece of heritage of China’s suit-making tradition dating back to the 19th century with the opening of the Shanghai port.
The tailor master, Dave K.C. Shiung, born in 1949, began his professional training as a suit-maker at the age of 14. For decades, he has been polishing his skills in custom tailoring.
“Using the same methods as tailors on Savile Row, Shiung creates classic made-to-order business suits. Each takes an average of 40 hours to make. Want a suit made from a rare fabric you once found in Italy? More than likely, Shiung will have it; his fabric selection exceeds 1,000,” according to a Forbes report in 2007.
Tailor Dave is believed to be a representative of the veteran tailors who form a solid foundation for China’s fashion industry.
Standing on their shoulders, the new generation of bespoke designers are devoting efforts to renovating their reputations.
“It has been 40 years since those days when everyone was dressed identically. It has been a rapid development,” Zhao said.
Coming from a time where every individual was expected to follow the same dress code and to go unnoticed in a crowd, the Chinese are more eager to dress up and stand out nowadays.
“The Chinese people have gone past the stage where we only wear clothes to keep warm, as well as the stage where we focused our presentation on a superficial level,” Liu said. “We now long to stand out and express our individuality.”
“I believe that China’s fashion industry will see a transformation, a succession between the old and the new, with new brands being born and old brands struggling to adapt,” Liu said.
Though the foundation of haute couture business in China varies, with polarized quality and talent levels, the future is optimistic, she said.
“With people’s income levels rising and social status improving, the bespoke market in China will grow larger, whereas the challenges will remain for us to keep finding solutions,” she added.
Fighting copycats while consolidating the brand’s own competitiveness, Zhao admits that the path toward the bright future is not easy.
“Bespoke in China is still bound by each company’s geographical advantage,” he said.
“More Chinese manufacturers are finding that selling to the rapidly growing number of mid and high-income earners in China can be more lucrative than exporting,” said Ed Gribbin, senior adviser and former president of apparel product consulting firm Alvanon, in a 2016 interview with Women’s Wear Daily.
Fashion in China is no longer an industry of cheap labour, but an energetic stronghold of tailoring expertise, craftsmanship and innovative designer spirit, Liu said.
“China’s fashion industry is finding its path at its own pace,” she said, adding that “Chinese style” had long been interpreted as patterns and elements from historical archives or Oriental stereotypes.
However, in recent years, local designers have been pushing for creations representing a modern China to be recognized internationally.
“We are no longer blindly chasing in the footsteps of the major brands from the West; we’ve begun to display our strengths in profound understanding of both Western and native cultures,” she said. “There are numerous independent designer brands presenting fabulous novelties to the public on Web-based platforms every day”.
“In comparison with many luxury brands’ ‘pret-a-porter’ garments, our bespoke brands understand the shape of the Asian males’ body better, and we know how to make clever designs to flatter the slender oriental figures of our men,” said Zhao.
The domestic brands’ superiority is also reflected in a higher price-quality ratio, he said.
In MAKAIF’s case, it is a registered trademark in China with its team being a collective of new-generation designers from different cultural backgrounds, with high levels of education, who are well travelled, according to Liu.
The team is composed of professionals from China, the Republic of Korea, the United States, Italy, Portugal and the UK.
Both brands have participated in the Pitti Uomo show in Florence, Italy, the most important international event for menswear and men’s accessories collections.
“It is our goal to prove to our customers that a domestic brand can compete with the most outstanding brands in the world and even succeed in this competition,” Liu said.
She keeps as a souvenir a card sent by an Italian client, on which the words “I love them” and “thank you very much” are for her evidence that Chinese bespoke garments are valued in Italy, a prominent centre of high fashion.
Besides Italy, the brand exports bespoke products and services to the UK, the home of bespoke tailoring, as well as the US, ROK, Thailand and several African countries.
Information technology has made it easier for the fashion industry to predict trends and boost mass production, and become one of the most successful businesses of the era.
Problems have also emerged from the fast fashion rampage. Huge amounts of textile waste, damage to the environment, poor welfare of workers, and monotonous, standardized fashion designs, as smart factories run business with the aid of big data analytics and supply chain digitalization.
Nonetheless, customers are still fond of the smell of natural wool, appreciate the works of experienced tailors and prefer to own something personal, made-to-measure, and unique.
From inside the fashion industry, the fourth industrial revolution is taking place with a demand for “returning to the natural”, said Liu, who is also a published fashion researcher.
On a global scale, the McKinsey Global Fashion Index has shown that emerging markets such as China in the Asia-Pacific region will be leading fashion sales worldwide by the end of 2018, and that the rise of sustainable fashion is generating the highest interest among investors.
The McKinsey survey said that China is leading the sustainability movement.
The State of Fashion 2018, a report by Business of Fashion and McKinsey, said that sustainability will be at the centre of innovation in the fashion industry in 2018.
“In China … the value they place on how brands do business, what brands stand for is off-the-charts compared to any prior generation,” said Levi Strauss’ Chip Bergh, as quoted by the report.
Another important topic will be the issue of waste. Areas such as on-demand manufacturing and supply chain process reengineering are worth exploring, said the BoF and McKinsey report.
“I would rather spend 999 yuan ($147) on a dress of higher quality that is more eco-friendly and will last for years instead of purchasing one for 99 yuan that will end up in the donation box months later,” said Tang Beijia, founder and CEO of GoZeroWaste, a promoter of green lifestyles to reduce the amount of waste in daily life.
The sustainable way of life is gaining popularity in China amid its efforts to tackle waste issues.
“I believe we as customers have the vote and by choosing products and services that are more responsible for the environment, we are pushing the development of the Chinese economy toward a model that’s greener and more sustainable,” Tang said.