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Old school meets new school at Joe’s Tailoring

This stalwart of Singaporean tailoring runs a dynamic bespoke business catering to both the old and the young.

Silk pyjamas, bridal lingerie and outfits for beloved pet pooches. These are not the typical articles of clothing one would expect to find at a traditional suit tailor. But what the VIP clients at Joe’s Tailoring want, they get – as long as it can be tailored.

At this stalwart of Singapore’s tailoring industry, the three millennial scions of founder Joseph Koh are boldly shaking things up by offering an unconventional range of bespoke clothing that includes polo T-shirts and swim shorts.

“We are still a bespoke tailor, but we try to make pieces that are more relevant to current trends as well as the local climate,” says 30-year-old Joanne. She spent 30 months learning the art of tailoring in London’s Savile Row. To cater to changing sartorial preferences, she has modified some designs of traditional suits to produce unlined jackets with natural shoulders and higher armholes.

Her dapper brother Justin, 27, is the source of many newfangled ideas such as reversible coats with waterproof technical fabrics. He’s also introduced a new category of accessories to the business that ranges from dress shoes to umbrellas. Bubbly Joy, 28, holds the ropes as the company’s de facto spokeswoman and handles the paperwork.

Since joining the family business, helmed by their mother and boss Wai Wan, who “oversees everything”, between two and four years ago, there is no doubt that they have infused their youthful energy.

However, what matters the most, says patriarch Joseph, is that they first understand the nuts and bolts of what it means to be a bespoke tailor, including learning to cut and sew, and to provide clients with the best possible service. In their spare time, the two younger Kohs are also learning the tricks of the trade from their father.

“I’ve always wanted to build a made- in-Singapore bespoke brand, so they must have the right foundation as tailors,” says the senior Koh, who launched the business in 1983. Since then, he has built a following of clients, including ministers, CEOs and top business executives.

(Related: Tailors in Singapore: Bespoke suits, custom suits, and menswear)

A self-professed old-school tailor, he says with a laugh that he and his wife are slowly but surely growing more receptive to the next generation’s “crazy” ideas, especially because they are proving profitable. Besides drawing new and younger customers, approximately 30 per cent of their clients – both male and female – have gone on to order the newer offerings.

In many ways, the past year has been an eye-opener for the whole family. While they had to delay plans to expand the business to Australia, the pandemic gave them the opportunity to see the company in a different light.

“When the circuit breaker was announced and we had zero business, we were very touched when our factory workers offered to take no-pay leave,” says Joy. Joe’s Tailoring is one of the few tailoring houses in Singapore that runs its own factory with some 40 workers. “This has also reinforced our father’s emphasis that our artisans are the lifeblood of the business.”

For the elder Kohs, 2020 was the year they were finally convinced to embrace digital technology. Previously, they felt it was necessary to meet clients in person to seal the deal but learnt otherwise when they discovered that Zoom consultations with clients stranded abroad reaped many orders.

Buoyed by this positive response to digitisation, the younger Kohs plan to roll out an e-commerce platform and other tech-based advancements. Says Justin, “Our parents are now more open to our ideas of using technology like FaceTime and social media to our advantage.”

(Related: How Singapore’s bespoke tailors are future-proofing their trade)