Photo: Mason & Smith

When lawyer and tailoring fan Mark Lee got married last December, he did so in a black kid-mohair tuxedo with lapels made of a matte silk grosgrain that had been specially sourced from Florence. However, the softly structured formal suit was not made by one of the established European houses that Mark is a long-time customer of, but by a South Korean tailor who, at the time, had started his business just two years ago.

In August 2020, Cheolmin Kim started his own bespoke tailoring brand, Maestoso, after returning to Seoul after training and apprenticing in Florence — one of Italy’s renowned tailoring hubs — for four and a half years. The Seoul native is also the first tailor that local men’s shoes specialist Mason & Smith is working with as part of its entry into the clothing world. Cutting a dapper figure in suits of his own making, complete with a luxuriant moustache, Cheolmin was recently in town for a trunk show hosted by the latter.

Maestoso's Cheolmin Kim does a fitting for a client.
Maestoso’s Cheolmin Kim does a fitting for a client during a trunk show at Mason & Smith. (Photo: Mason & Smith)

In fact, it was Mark who had a hand in connecting both parties. In 2021, Mark learnt of Cheolmin, thanks to a fellow sartorialist who had told him to check out the latter while he was on holiday in Seoul. There, Mark discovered that Cheolmin had trained under one of his regular tailors, Hojun Choi — who used to be a senior apprentice at famous Florentine tailoring house, Liverano & Liverano, before starting his own shop, Sartoria Salabianca, in Florence.

Comfortably yet smartly dressed in a Maestoso navy suit featuring the soft silhouette that is a hallmark of southern Italian tailoring, Mark tells us over tea, “When I met Cheolmin and saw his clothes, I thought they were really nice, and very similar to the suits that I get made in Florence. A friend and I got him to come to Singapore for his first trunk show (last February). We introduced Cheolmin to John (Chung, founder of Mason & Smith), who he’s now working with, which is great because it would be unsustainable if Cheolmin had to come to Singapore and do marketing on his own.”

What makes Korean tailoring

Maestoso is just one of the Korean names that have been making their mark on the local tailoring scene in recent years. One of the forerunners of the Korean tailoring wave here is B&Tailor, whose trunk shows in Singapore have been hosted by menswear shop Last & Lapel since 2017. Established in 1967, B&Tailor is led by master tailor Jung-Yul Park and his sons, Chad and Changjin.

The Decorum Singapore brings in Assisi Bespoke House, a Seoul-based outfit founded in 2020 by Kim Min Soo, who is mostly self-taught but trained for a period in Milan. Benjamin Barker brings in Ascottage, a three-year-old tailoring brand co-founded by Geoffrey Shin, a London-trained Savile Row alum.

Contemplating what distinguishes Korean tailors, Charles Yap, owner of The Decorum Singapore, says, “Korean tailors, especially those who have been trained overseas, bring the best of both worlds. When you go to an Italian tailor, they craft a garment that’s very, well, Italian. There’s a certain flair, and they have an approach that’s more of an art than a science. The Koreans who have trained in the west take the best of what they have learnt there while adding a more characteristically Asian level of precision and attention.”

Kim Min Soo (right) and Hamin Kim of Assisi Bespoke House do a fitting for a client at The Decorum Singapore. (Photo: The Decorum Singapore)

Explaining why he started bringing in B&Tailor back in 2017, Last & Lapel owner Alvin Gan says, “I like their style. It is inspired by Florentine and Neapolitan styles, but they have made it their own. I’ve tried many tailors myself, and I think they’re one of the best in terms of their style, workmanship, and the way they work with others.” 

Among Asian tailors, the Japanese are also highly respected for their technical prowess and sartorial taste. However, they are seen as less inclined to travel out of Japan to engage with overseas audiences, partly because of a thriving domestic market. In South Korea, says Cheolmin, formal tailoring was trendy for several years, but that moment has now passed among mainstream audiences. This has made it imperative for him and his peers to venture beyond their own shores.

Social media and pop culture

Chad Park of B&Tailor. (Photo: Last & Lapel)

Local tailor Matthew Lai, owner of bespoke tailoring brand Kay-Jen, has observed an increased curiosity about Korean tailors among his own clients. He says, “My clients are mostly in their 30s to 40s. Some of them found me through Instagram, which is also how they know about other tailors worldwide. Some of them follow the tailors who come here for trunk shows, and they try them out and come to share their experiences with me.”

While the industry players we spoke to felt that Korean pop culture has little bearing on the way the country’s practitioners of traditional tailoring operate, there is a sentiment that the dominance of K-culture has opened the doors for its various exports, including tailoring. Says Alvin, “I wouldn’t say it has led to a direct interest in Korean tailoring, but it has certainly opened the doors to Korean things. People are willing to try all kinds of Korean products, so when they look at tailoring, they might also search in that direction.”

We would not underestimate the ability of Korean pop culture to create an awareness around even a niche field like formal tailoring. In 2021, when the television series Vincenzo aired on Netflix, Lai had two clients come into his shop separately to ask for wedding suits resembling the ensembles worn by the show’s titular character, a dapper Korean-Italian mob lawyer played by Song Joong-ki. With a laugh, Matthew says, “I told them my suits would have certain differences. And, of course, I have to tailor things to an individual’s body proportions. But I said, ‘Okay, I can try.’”

The practical reasons

An Assisi overcoat in the midst of completion. (Photo: The Decorum Singapore)

On a practical level, one frequently mentioned reason for the increasing popularity of Korean tailors here is that their services are more accessibly priced than some of their European counterparts. While Korean tailors offer garments with varying levels of customisation and handwork, and hence command different prices, the consensus among the players we spoke to is that they offer a high skill level at reasonable prices.

In The Decorum’s roster of international tailors, for example, Liverano & Liverano constitutes the top-tier bespoke offering — where prices for a jacket start at $9,900 — while Assisi is a relatively accessible option, with prices for a made-to-measure suit starting from $3,600. (Incidentally, Liverano’s senior tailor and cutter, Seung Jin An, is also Korean.)

Korean tailors, especially those who have been trained overseas, bring the best of both worlds.

The Decorum Singapore owner, Charles Yap

“With their price points, Assisi is definitely more popular with our clients, while Liverano is more of a niche offering,” says Charles. According to him, Assisi’s popularity with clients has been steadily growing since they began having trunk shows here in 2022. The Decorum flies the team into Singapore four times a year. He adds, “Our four-day trunk shows for Assisi tend to be fully booked, with clients who make appointments and also walk-ins. There is a high incidence of repeat guests — approximately 70 per cent of clients proceed to commission additional garments.”

Accessibility is another key factor for the growing local interest in Korean tailoring. The relative proximity of South Korea to Singapore makes it more convenient for its tailors to visit our shores frequently. While the Assisi team heads here for quarterly trunk shows — during which the team takes measurements for new clients and does fittings for existing ones — Maestoso’s Cheolmin visits at least three times a year.

Building relationships

Maestoso’s Cheolmin Kim does a fitting for a client
Maestoso’s Cheolmin Kim does a fitting for a client. (Photo: Mason & Smith)

When you have a trusty tailor who knows the quirks of your physique and devotes a good amount of time to crafting garments that help you make the most of it, it is almost inevitable that you will form a strong relationship with them. Says menswear fan Mark, “If I’m in Korea and Hojun (of Sartoria Salabianca) is there for a trunk show, he will take me around to eat the local food. Cheolmin would do the same.”

At The Decorum, clients of the tailors who fly in for trunk shows often take the latter out for meals. Says owner Charles, “Our clients often offer to take them out because it’s no longer just a business relationship; there are also friendships being developed.”

Indeed, loyal customers often go a step further by helping to advocate for tailors and brands they believe in, just as Mark played a key role in helping Cheolmin enter the local market. And because Singapore is a popular base for South-east Asian clients, expats based here can also help to raise the profile of these tailors in our neighbouring countries. Charles shares, “We have a Filipino client who lives in Singapore. He’s such a good friend of Assisi that he encouraged them to go to the Philippines, with a well-known store called Signet. Every time they are there, he flies over to help sell them at Signet, just as a friend.”

For Cheolmin, clients here go way beyond being mere buyers. Noting that his Singapore audience is very knowledgeable about all things sartorial, he says, “As a tailor and person, I want to keep improving and developing. I’ve been learning so much from my clients here. Having conversations with them is important because they also influence, inspire, and motivate me.”