Inside Job: tailor

Frank tries his hand as a style advisor to the newly wealthy

Every man needs a suit. They generally fit really badly, are rarely replaced, and cause panic each time they need to be worn. Will it fit? Is it clean enough after those hilarious japes at the last wedding?

However, most of us generally know how to wear them. But in a country that’s developing at such breakneck speed, some people are from a background with no or little history of suit-wearing.

So where do you start? Principle M is a great first step. Not only do they patiently hold your hand through the entire tailoring process, but buy a suit from them, and you can phone in a panic at any time to ask what to wear with it.

My job was to use a range of techniques and technologies to help an existing client, Donovan, pick his next suit, and his bewildered friend his very first.

They agree to me being there in the same way one agrees to letting the student doctor observe during a physical, so I try to be as professional-looking as possible, while myself learning on the job.

Thankfully, stylist Elsa Zheng and tailor Daniel Gu had given me a crash course.

The whole concept of getting a suit made seems so intangible to the tailoring virgin that we start off by briefly looking at some ready-made suits before sitting down with lots of fabric samples for colour ideas. Donovan, the existing client, chooses first as an example.

At Principle M, one of the, well, principles is to start a client off with a plain, preferably grey suit. Not black. They’re trying singlehandedly to steer China’s middle and upper management away from boxy black numbers. Donovan had already taken that leap and was ready to take his next handstitched step into the unknown.

The new direction, we decide as a group, was blue. With checks. As a lawyer, Donovan needed to look the part. But not those fabrics because they’re too thick for the office and not those because they don’t match your skin tone. We go through plenty of examples of Italian and English materials and refer to the Pinterest boards Elsa had prepared.

These are a treasure trove of looks, styles and reassurance. However, why just look at pictures of other men? At Principle M, you can provide photos of the shirts, ties, shoes and fedoras you may already have and these can then be curated by Elsa to show you how to combine the right elements to get that killer look, or in cases like this, pick a fabric that will match your existing accessories.

So we have a fabric. Now for the measurements. Off come Donovan’s long johns. It gets very personal and very frank very quickly. Not only can they tell you where you’ve gained weight (to the millimetre) since your last visit, but in general your body is totally exposed. You have to face dozens of fabric swatches and style ideas as well as discover that one leg is longer than the other, one shoulder higher and you do indeed have a long neck.

Still, there are no judgements here and I manage to get some of the dozens of measurements taken without causing any offence. Two-piece or three? How much stuff do you put in your pockets? Do you put your wallet in your back pocket? ‘Of course not,’ replies Donovan, ‘my wallet’s far too fat.’ There’s an almost endless list of choices to advise on. Just as well tailor Daniel can whip out a sketchpad and pencil to illustrate any problem areas.

Donovan was now well on his way to suit number two, and attention turned to his friend who had recently relented to mounting pressure to get suited and booted. He’d put it off long enough and had been rumbled when on work trips abroad, but things had recently come to a head. He’d got engaged so would definitely have to wear a suit. And his fiancée was present.

This is where the newness of the suit as a concept in China is more apparent. Even words such as ‘lapel’ are new territory. This calls for patience and tact. So when we’re a couple of hours in and reach the fiancee’s Pinterest-fuelled impasse of ‘I don’t even know what grey any more,’

I helpfully wade in and suggest to the groom, ‘How about navy, seeing as that blue jumper suits you so well?’.

This effectively brings the session to an end as a lot more thinking needs to be done on all sides. Donovan pays for his suit (no haggling) and will be back in a couple of weeks for the fitting of the dummy suit.

It isn’t a problem that the groom hasn’t made his choice yet. A long-term relationship has begun. The traditional relationships that used to exist in the West between tailor and client, until being lost through the move to off-the-peg, have been transplanted to China. Why now? Perhaps because the suit’s contribution to getting ahead at work, standing out and giving an air of worldliness is becoming increasingly necessary in ultra competitive China.

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