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Dressing down in style

With the need to dress up having fallen to an all-time low as many remain largely housebound, bespoke tailoring specialists are offering a more casual route.

Before Covid-19 struck, businessman Uinardi Ng used to place regular orders for formal work attire – including work shirts and trousers, suits and tuxedos – at PIMABS, a bespoke menswear store started by industry veteran Leslie Chia in 2004. However, now that he has to be in the office only on alternate weeks and has fewer face-to-face meetings, he is favouring clothing that is relaxed, casual and comfortable instead.

Ng is not alone in his sartorial sentiments. While fashion retail has been badly buffeted by the pandemic – the local apparel and footwear industry saw a drop of 22.8 per cent last year – bespoke tailoring businesses have experienced a distinctive set of challenges. With working from home a big part of the new normal, several tailoring shop owners saw a significant decline in the demand for formal working attire. Many no longer need to dress up for the office or just about anywhere else.

Dylan Chong, founder and owner of Dylan & Son, says, “Working from home has meant a big reduction in the demand for formal suits, wool trousers and business shirts. With so many weddings being postponed and pre-wedding shoots overseas cancelled, there has been a drop in the demand for event suiting, like tuxedos. Although we do not have any tourist clients because of the time required to make our products, the border closures have also meant no vacations, which has reduced the demand for seasonal items like tweed jackets or trench coats.”

Behind this gloomy picture, however, is a silver lining. Amid the downturn in the fashion industry, sectors such as activewear, athleisure and loungewear have thrived as consumers seek greater comfort and utility. As a result, tailored menswear specialists are seeking to serve these new needs – with their refined sartorial twists, of course.

(Related: Fashion spread: a simple spin)

  • Tailoring

    Common Suits launched its polo shirts last December.

Relaxed Repertoire

While T-shirts, polo shirts, basketball shorts and cargo shorts are not items you typically expect to find on a bespoke menu, they are among the products several tailoring businesses began offering during the pandemic. While they have always offered casual clothing as part of their bespoke catalogues, those items previously comprised pieces that were still somewhat dressier, such as unlined sports jackets or shirts and trousers in breezy materials like cotton and linen.

Chong elaborates, “Although we’ve always been able to make them, we have seen an increase in requests for linen trousers in brighter colours, short-sleeved camp-collar shirts, cotton Gurkha-style shorts and softly constructed sports jackets in various checks and stripes. Also, we racked our brains and came up with a few items designed for the working from home culture.” Said items include a pair of drawstring shorts the basketball fan christened the Mamba as a tribute to the late NBA star Kobe Bryant. Customers can orders theirs in hopsack, flannel or a cashmere-wool blend.

Common Suits, started by Javin They in 2014, launched its made-to-measure polo shirts last December, following requests from clients. “Covid-19 increased the demand for our polos,” says They. “We recently had a three-day roadshow at (local- designer retail space) Design Orchard and several people expressed interest in our polos, including some who had not heard of our brand before. Many told us that they had stopped wearing work shirts and pants to the office and were wearing polo tees and chinos instead.”

Common Suits’ polo shirts are sold on a made-to-measure basis, which means that each piece is made according to a customer’s measurements by making adjustments to a fixed template. They are made from mercerised cotton pique that is textured and has a slight sheen on the outside but is soft to the touch on the inside. Additionally, they feature a one-piece collar construction for a dressier feel, as opposed to the two-piece construction style found on most off-the-rack polo shirts.

For Common Suits customer Edwin Sia, these are not only comfortable but also smart enough for a Zoom call or an informal client meeting. While the idea of a custom polo shirt might not make sense to everyone, the former gym regular enthuses, “I used to lift weights, so I’m a bit bulky. With off-the-rack polos, I have to get a bigger size for the top to fit well but the bottom would then be too loose. They’s polos fit me perfectly.”

Over at bespoke tailoring brand Kay-Jen, owner Matthew Lai found an upside to the slowdown in sales caused by the pandemic. Says Lai, “I’ve always wanted to do my own polos and T-shirts. During Covid-19, I had the time to find manufacturers and get samples made. I produced a small batch of these items that sold out pretty quickly.” Instead of the usual smooth cotton, Lai’s tees are made from a lightweight cotton cable knit that adds some pizazz to everyday ensembles while being suitable for our climate.

Extending his repertoire of casual bottoms, Lai also teamed up with Alvin Gan, owner of menswear retail shop Last & Lapel, to create a pair of cargo shorts. While the term “cargo shorts” usually gives rise to an image of crumpled bottoms with too many overstuffed pockets, the duo had something quite different in mind. Available on a made-to-order basis, their version is made of a heavy cotton twill from Italian fabric merchant Caccioppoli that allows it to retain its retro-style wider structure and features double pleats that are sewn down (“so your pleats stay throughout the day,” says Lai).

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Beyond Bespoke

With the pandemic set to stick around for a bit, most proprietors we spoke to have plans to grow their casual clothing offerings. Common Suits’ T-shirts arrive this month, while Lai is looking to release Kay-Jen tailored nylon shorts. Chong is an exception, emphasising that he wants Dylan & Son to remain known for its classic bespoke tailoring. Some, on the other hand, see an opportunity to extend their offerings beyond bespoke tailoring or, indeed, apparel itself.

Last December, PIMABS’ Leslie Chia launched Les is More, a line of casual ready- to-wear comprising pieces such as T-shirts, polo shirts and jogging pants. Available in three styles, including a crew-neck and a henley, Chia’s T-shirts are made of organic cotton and have design-driven details such as wider hems – which help the tops to hang better on the body and “look more luxurious”. They have been well-received by clients such as Uinardi Ng, who prefers more relaxed clothing, including PIMABS’ bespoke casual shirts and trousers, in these stressful times.

Even though Chia, like his peers, has always offered casual tailoring on a bespoke basis, he decided to position Les is More as a ready-to-wear collection to suit current consumer behaviour: “With bespoke or made-to-measure, people still need to come and see you. But, right now, many people don’t even want to come out. I find that customers now want casual pieces that are also relaxed; they don’t need custom clothes that fit them perfectly.” The trained fashion designer also has plenty of ideas for other products and is currently developing his canvas shoes and tote bags.

At Kevin Seah Bespoke, its eponymous founder has plans to grow his company in an even more diversified manner. Having started his range of casual ready-to-wear in 2015, Seah shares that the “drop in sales in the tailoring side of the business” has been helped by “an increase in sales for our ready-to-wear line, especially the block- print shirts launched in 2019”. Nonetheless, to Covid-proof his business, he has expansive plans.

Firstly, Seah, who got his start in designing luxury womenswear, wants to “focus on and build our women’s tailoring”. He is also looking beyond the world of apparel. “We launched our online lifestyle store during the pandemic, and that will continue to be a key focus. It’s a curated lifestyle store where our clients can buy our clothing, as well as watches, wines, art and gourmet food.”

When asked about his outlook for the future of the menswear tailoring businesses here, Seah is firmly positive: “We just need to keep creating pieces that will interest our clients and suit their lifestyles. Rather than let this pandemic create more negativity, we have to continue our lives with style. That’s what bespoke is all about.”

(Related: Cargo shorts are back in style)