The Jetrosexual Look

Custom tailoring in Asia now goes far beyond business suits. Our reporters on getting stylish clothes, cheap.

December 15, 2006

 

Business travelers have long frequented tailors in Hong Kong for conservative attire like suits and French-cuff shirts. But as a new crowd of young jet-setters flocks to Asia's growing tourism hubs, like Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, they're discovering their own tailoring bargains. Carrying pictures ripped from fashion magazines and originals bought at home, they're requesting customized knockoffs of everything from Marc Jacobs cords to "Project Runway" dresses -- and treating Asia's tailor shops as a personalized version of H&M, the Swedish discount chain that has made high-fashion designs accessible to the masses.

[Variations on a blouse: Left to right, the $80 Zara original; a $135 reproduction from Lester Wong; a version by Yaly Couture for $17.]

Variations on a blouse: Left to right, the $80 Zara original; a $135 reproduction from Lester Wong; a version by Yaly Couture for $17.

The new approach has been fueled in part by the growing sophistication of the Asian textile industry, which has made it easier for local tailors to get high-quality fabrics in a variety of patterns and colors. But it also reflects changes sweeping Asia's travel industry. Once a haven for the backpacker set, the region is increasingly attracting a new breed of iPod-toting, designer-denim-clad urbanites who hop between cities on new discount airlines for sub-$50 fares. The travel industry has even coined new terms for them: "flash-packers" or "jetrosexuals."

"They come to Asia reading Wallpaper instead of Lonely Planet," says Peter de Jong, President of the Pacific Asia Travel Association. "They might still carry back packs, but they want fluffy towels, and bars with 16 kinds of vodka."

They also want customized knockoffs of designer duds -- and local tailors are scrambling to fill the new requests. In Kuala Lumpur, Lester Wong, 38, says he regularly reads Vogue to keep up with trends. In Mumbai, India, shops that once focused on custom suits are now fielding requests to imitate Betsey Johnson dresses. The change has been most dramatic in central Vietnam, where the moped-choked city of Hoi An has been transformed into a tailoring hub. One of the biggest operations there, Yaly Couture, has doubled its tailoring corps to 200 in the last two years. Other shops nearby specialize in copying trendy sneakers and boots -- though some claim Cambodia is the place to knock off your Manolos.

"It used to be more business clothes," says Kelly Huong, 28, Yaly's sales manager. "But now the customers want something more funky, more special."

Copied, Not Counterfeit

Asking a tailor to copy a designer garment is different from another issue that's causing an uproar in the industry: pawning off fakes as the real thing. Unlike counterfeit clothing -- items with fake labels or distinctive logos -- copying the design on a piece of clothing isn't illegal in the U.S. Want to pay someone to copy an Armani suit? No problem, as long as you don't try to put an Armani label in it. Proposed federal legislation would provide three years of protection for designs, but only against knockoffs intended for sale or use in trade. Individuals copying clothes for personal use would not be affected, according to the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which backs the bill.

[A $25 take on a dress by Kara Janx of 'Project Runway,' made in Nha Trang, Vietnam. Snaps in front pulled at the fabric.]

A $25 take on a dress by Kara Janx of 'Project Runway,' made in Nha Trang, Vietnam. Snaps in front pulled at the fabric.

Whether it's ethical is a matter of some debate. Steven Kolb, the executive director of the CFDA, frowns on the practice. "I don't like the word unethical, so I don't want to use that word," he says. "But it's unfair." However, a spokesman for the Giorgio Armani Corp. says it has no impact on the company's business, and adds, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

How easy is it to assemble a designer-looking custom wardrobe at chain-store prices? To find out, we visited 20 tailors in Thailand, China, Vietnam and Malaysia. (It was, at times, humbling work: A tailor in Bangkok described one male reporter as having a "difficult body.") Armed with a few favorite articles of clothing and magazine clippings of designs from the likes of Z Zegna and Hermès, we sought out the best replicas -- and the best bargains.

We then brought our purchases to New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, where Mark-Evan Blackman, chair of the menswear design department, and Sass Brown, a professor of fashion design, evaluated them. (The verdict: Keep it simple, and bring originals.)

We had some great successes. One wide-collared Hugo Boss-style shirt from Kuala Lumpur, for $50, has become a favorite item of clothing. A pair of $40 trousers made in Hoi An, based on a photo of Dolce & Gabbana pants, looked almost as slim as the original. But there were pitfalls, too. We couldn't always find the right fabrics -- we had to give up on making a dress from a Marc Jacobs design when the tailor couldn't get a lightweight chiffon. Some of the nicest duplicates were more expensive than the originals. One Bangkok shop was so late in finishing a cowboy-style shirt that we almost missed a flight, and a tailor in Beijing who claimed to have TV-star clients had trouble telling the difference between green and black.

Still, some customers can't get enough of the deals. Nik Doda, a 33-year-old restaurant owner in Dana Point, Calif., gets most of his clothes custom-made in Bangkok, in a small shop off a street packed with foot massage parlors and chicken satay carts. He recently ordered up a sparkly white three-piece suit inspired by the hip-hop icon Diddy for $350 and a copy of a pink Armani blazer for $200. "People just assume he buys his clothes in Italy," says his wife, Mandy Doda.

A decade ago, travelers to Asia were frequently limited to cheap fabrics and outdated styles from yellowed catalogs. But in recent years, many European and American fashion giants have outsourced some production to countries such as China, Malaysia and Vietnam. "Even the high-end Italian manufacturers are getting their stuff spun or woven in China now," says Philippa Watkins, a textile specialist at WGSN, a London-based textile and apparel research firm. "As the Chinese production gets better and better, it's putting European mills out of business." The result is a trickle-down effect in fashion expertise across the continent -- from stitches and manufacturing techniques to cuts and styles.

Jet-setting customizers have to be prepared to give up some sightseeing. On her recent vacation in Bangkok, Theresa Gama, a personal shopper from Phoenix, Ariz., says she felt like she spent nearly as much time with her tailor as her husband. The burgundy-and-gold evening suit she had made required four separate fittings. One evening, she and her husband had to dash off in the middle of a romantic dinner to meet the tailor. Another time, the tailor visited the couple at midnight in their hotel room for a fitting. "I feel like I missed Thailand," says Ms. Gama. "I spent the whole trip rushing off to fittings."

And when Tim Yu went to Hoi An this summer, the 26-year-old clinical researcher from New York tried to replicate a shirt from Steven Alan, a New York designer known for his rumpled look. Mr. Yu says his tailor managed the twisted placket -- an unusual feature at the neck -- but took two fittings to copy other oddball details, like reverse stitching. The fabric is also a little too thick, says Mr. Yu, who says he's "still working on washing it a couple hundred times."

Steven Alan, the designer, says copying his shirts is difficult because he uses expensive, hard-to-find fabrics, but he doesn't mind if an individual tries to copy older items. "If I had a great coat and it wasn't made anymore, I would try to have it made again, too," he says.

[The $50 Prinze Collection shirt (left) had clean stitching inside the sleeve. The $10 shirt from a Hoi An market (center) did not. Right, the $119 Hugo Boss original.]

The $50 Prinze Collection shirt (left) had clean stitching inside the sleeve. The $10 shirt from a Hoi An market (center) did not. Right, the $119 Hugo Boss original.

In general, the FIT experts were most impressed with the simpler items we brought back -- the casual shirts, blouses and pants. We got the best results when we brought a piece of clothing to be imitated, rather than a picture from a magazine. (Jacket patterns, for one, involve about 100 measurements, from the height of the armhole to the placement of the waist, which can be hard to replicate based on a photo.) Though one pair from Kuala Lumpur fit well, none of the jeans accurately matched the original denim or washes.

We were happiest when we held out for the best fabrics and materials, even if it meant extra time and expense. When looking for pure cotton or wool, Mr. Blackman recommends asking for a small swatch, and then burning it with a match. If the burnt fabric feels hard, like plastic, some of its fibers are artificial, he says. The way to tell if a button is actually pearl: It will feel cool against your cheek "on even the hottest of days," Mr. Blackman says.

In our hunt, we visited shops recommended by friends, other tourists, guide books, concierges and other tailors. Below, our findings in four cities:

Bangkok

Our mission: Two shirts, a skirt, jeans and a jacket from designer originals, plus a men's cowboy shirt from a GQ photo.

In Bangkok, tailor shops are nearly as common as noodle carts. Finding one that's reliable is the hard part. (Beware of shops offering too-good-to-be-true deals like $150 suits in 24 hours.)

When we landed, we called six concierges at luxury hotels for recommendations. Four mentioned Thai Square Fashion. The shop has free pick-up and drop-off service, but our van was late, leaving us sitting on the curb on a hot, dusty street for 20 minutes. The offer of free beer at the shop wasn't enough to offset the rest of the experience: The salesman was pushy ("One shirt? It's cheaper to get 12"), the $40 "Brokeback Mountain"-style shirt we had made arrived at our hotel late (more than 48 hours after we visited, just moments before we had to leave for the airport), the cuffs were wrong and the fit was too big.

We had the easiest time at the World Group. The sunny, two-story showroom has vaulted ceilings, marble floors, giant tanks of colorful tropical fish -- and the widest selection of fabric we saw in town. It wasn't always cheaper than buying off the rack. A knockoff of a gauzy black silk Armani Exchange blouse cost twice as much as the original, at $200. An imitation of an $80 Banana Republic shirt with fancy roll-up cuffs cost... $80. We ordered it anyway. The final product, made out of white Egyptian cotton with a subtle herringbone pattern, was far nicer and fit better than the original. (The showroom we visited is currently undergoing renovations, but they have a second shop nearby that is similar.)

Lucky Man Fashion stocks a small but solid collection of European cashmere and wool, and patterns from brands including Zegna and Valentino. We ordered items based on a shirt from Bali with complicated fabric buttons and ties for $35, and a linen skirt from Benetton for $30; both were as good as the originals.

Splurge: World Group, near the Oriental Bangkok Hotel.

Best bargain: Lucky Man Fashion -- the owner even helped us plan the rest of our evening.

Tip: Don't trust the concierge; some take commissions from tailors.

Beijing

Our mission: Three look-alikes: A Marc Jacobs chiffon dress, Seven for All Mankind jeans and a Burberry hooded coat.

While Beijing tailors have been known for quickly made suits and qipaos (traditional Chinese dresses), many now are willing to create high-fashion garments. We found high prices. One tailor quoted a price of $780 for a design based on a Burberry cashmere-blend coat, because she used "special French cashmere." That was more than the original's retail price of $758. Instead, we bought a $185 version, made from a soft 80% cashmere blend, at the Yashow Clothing Market. "It's a little flimsy," said FIT's Ms. Brown. "But it's sewn well and the lining is quite nice."

WHERE TO BUY
 
 
BANGKOK
 Lucky Man Fashion, D-3 AM Plaza, Hotel Ambassador, Sukhumvit Soi 11, 66-2-2540444, luckymanfashion.com
 Thai Square Fashion, 60/8, 62, 62/1, Soi Rongmueng 5, Rama 1 Rd., 66-2-6123125; World Group, 1302-4 New Rd., 66-2-2344799
BEIJING
 Cao Shifu, Phone: 86-13-522243865
 Huang Yue, off the Sanlitun bar street, 86-10-64171093
 Yashow Clothing Market, 3/F, 58 Beijing Gongti North Rd., 86-10-64157109
HOI AN
 Thu Thuy, 60 Le Loi St., 84-510-861699; Yaly Couture, 47 Tran Phu St., 84-510-861119
KUALA LUMPUR
 LW Creation, F030, Sungei Wang Plaza, 60-3-21411154
 Prinze Collection, F113, Sungei Wang Plaza, 60-3-21456610
 Ray Tailor, S079, Sungei Wang Plaza, 60-3-21425518
 Summermen's, Lot F138, City Square Centre, 60-3-21662202

We asked three tailors to make jeans based on a pair of Sevens, which we had bought on sale for $99. Only one was willing to recreate them, for $100: Huang Yue, in the alleyway off the Sanlitun bar street. The tailor got some details right, like pocket placement and belt loops, but because the fabric was much thinner, the fit looked looser. Ms. Brown was more dismissive: "I haven't seen denim like this since the 1970s." For the $348 Marc Jacobs embroidered cocktail dress, we called Cao Shifu, who says he works with TV stars in China. One bonus: Mr. Cao makes house calls, though he does the sewing at his mother's house. But after he spent three days searching every market in town for the right kind of chiffon and velvet in berry, he said, he only came up with maroon floral prints on heavy fabrics. He was apologetic, and refunded our $64 deposit on the $102 dress.

Best result: The bustling Yashow Clothing Market.

Instead: Skip the clothing and go to the Dashanzi Art District, where numerous artists have studios in old factory buildings.

Hoi An

Our mission: Copy designs based on eight mostly men's pieces, from a $375 APC jacket to a $119 Hugo Boss shirt.

On a recent afternoon in one shop, J.B. Mollett, a 23-year-old art-gallery assistant from New York, showed off several items he just had made, including a corduroy jacket with sleeves and lapels made from a brightly colored Mexican rug. "People will ask me where I got them and I can just say, 'It's custom,'" said Mr. Mollett. "They don't need to know it was $5."

Hundreds of tailor shops are packed into the half-kilometer-wide warren of two-story wooden houses in the center of Hoi An. While locals walk by wearing ironic T-shirts with slogans like "I'm hip," touts use a mixture of guile ("Have you seen my aunt's shop?") and guilt ("When will you come?") to lure in customers.

Some Americans we met on arrival recommended a stall in the labyrinthine fabric market. The results were disappointing. "If a student turned this in, I would fail them," Mr. Blackman said of a $10 Hugo Boss knockoff. So we turned to the larger, more expensive shops that get the most business. Thu Thuy did the best job on a pleated women's blouse, for $35, and Yaly Couture was a good value. Mr. Blackman said Yaly's $15 Agnès B-like shirt was sewn "better than the original," and approved of the technique on the $40 Dolce & Gabbana-style trousers. (Agnès B declined to comment.) The shop's $60 one-button Z Zegna look-alike jacket fit well, but included shortcuts to save time and fabric. Mr. Blackman's biggest complaint: The light-blue lining under the pocket flaps was visible from the sides. "That's pretty awful," he said.

Best bargain: Yaly Couture for trendy men's shirts and pants.

For women: Thu Thuy, with helpful service.

Tip: Give very detailed instructions about what you want, and leave time for fixes.

Kuala Lumpur

Our mission: Stock up on trendy jeans, shirts and a slim-fitting men's jacket.

At Sungei Wang Plaza, a seven-level shopping center popular among young Malaysians, women and men congregate around the cafés wearing hot-pink Converse low tops, spike-studded leather belts and distressed-denim jeans.

The same mall is a good bet for fashionable copies. Ray Tailor's $212 version of a $375 APC jacket was sewn more cleanly and evenly than any jacket we had made, Mr. Blackman said. (Ray Tailor used to cater almost entirely to locals, says co-owner Jon Khooyensun. Now, 30% of the business in the five-year-old shop comes from foreigners.) A $50 version of a Hugo Boss shirt from Prinze Collection is now one of our favorites because of its unusually colorful striped pink fabric. The downside: Neither piece was completed during our four-day stay, but both shops mailed them to the U.S. for an extra $23 and $34 each.

On the other side of the complex, Lester Wong's tiny LW Creation is papered with clippings of his women's designs in magazines and on runways. Mr. Wong, who had two runway shows in November at KL Fashion Week, expertly reproduced an $80 Zara blouse -- but it cost $135.

Summermen's has a more traditional look, with bolts of wool and cotton lining the walls. But salesman Mohamad Azizi says he's doing more casual clothes and stocking trendier fabrics, such as a stiffer new cotton blend that includes 7% metal that's advertised to "provide protection from harmful radiation." Summermen's $100 replica of a tricky Steven Alan shirt rated well with Mr. Blackman. The cotton was almost as fine as the original, he said, and it matched the unusual stitching on the sleeves and rumpled collar.

Top tailor: Summermen's, for traditional and trendy.

Hippest shops: Ray Tailor and Prinze Collection, both in the Sungei Wang Plaza.

For women: LW Creation, though the prices are relatively high.