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How Singapore’s bespoke tailors are future-proofing their trade

Collaborating, diversifying, or instituting a mentorship-centred business model: How three of Singapore’s top tailors are staying competitive in a tough trade.

WITH THEIR FORCES COMBINED

  • Matthew Lai and Dylan Chong of Dylan and Son
    SAME BUT DIFFERENT Matthew Lai (extreme left) and Dylan Chong have different working styles, which allow them to work with a wider range of clients.

Since pooling resources as part of their collaboration, tailors Dylan Chong and Matthew Lai have been able to create a larger production space than they each used to have – but this was not primarily a profit-driven move, say the duo.

The more outspoken and older of the two at age 36, Chong indicates the workspace in their current premises, a spacious shophouse unit in Telok Ayer Street. Occupying about half the unit, the workspace consists of several large tables, where three older gentlemen are busy cutting, sewing and ironing on the morning of our interview. Says Chong: “My previous workspace was only about a quarter of this, and there was only room for one cutter and one cutting table.

“The reason we expanded our workspace was to have a greater ability to produce things the way we
want to. I’m employing another cutter, but doesn’t mean business is so good that we need another
cutter. It’s because I think he’s good and can help us to refine how we cut and make our stuff, and bring us one step closer to what we want to achieve.”

In fact, it was this commitment to their craft that brought the two together. Previously, both men had their own tailoring shops – Chong had been running Dylan & Son since 2010, while Lai, now 29, started his one-man operation Kay-Jen in 2014. Following their collaboration, which was cemented when they moved into their current premises last September, there are now two distinct entities to their business: Dylan & Son, which specialises in bespoke orders and is overseen by Chong; and Kayjen Dylan, which is run by Lai, and focuses on more accessibly priced made-to-measure orders.


“The best advice Dylan has given me? You have to choose your battles.”

– Matthew Lai


Having both learnt cutting – a key aspect of tailoring – under local master tailor Thomas Wong (see “Passing the Torch”), they share the same vision. Chong says: “To be competent cutters, and not just business owners with no actual technical ability or knowledge.”

HAVING IT ALL

  • Kevin Seah of Kevin Seah Bespoke
    RIGHT AT HOME Kevin Seah in his atelier at Boat Quay. He will be moving to a bigger space next year, but is keeping mum about the location for now.

Kevin Seah might be one of Singapore’s best-known names for bespoke suits, but his dream is to be the sartorial equivalent of a food stall peddling meat and vegetable dishes. Speaking to us on a rainy day at his gentlemen’s club-like atelier at Boat Quay, Seah declares: “I want to be a cai png stall.” The Hokkien term refers to a local food stall selling rice with a wide choice of accompanying dishes.

(RELATED: Where to find bespoke suits in Singapore.)

He continues: “I want to sell vegetables, chicken, egg – I want to offer variety and options. It doesn’t mean we do lower-grade stuff; it’s about timing. Once you have a certain number of customers who can help to sustain your business, it’s time to diversify.” Paul Smith, the English designer whose business includes tailoring and ready-to-wear lines, as well as a variety of design projects on the side, is an inspiration. This is why 42-year-old Seah, who started out as an apprentice in women’s tailoring when he was just 17, has been building a ready-to-wear clothing collection since the start of this year. The collection adds to the range of items stocked at his shop, such as shoes from makers such as Edward Green and Masaru Okuyama, as well as homewares sourced from countries like Japan and Israel.


“I want to make things that my customers will wear. These are not museum pieces.”

– Kevin Seah


His ready-to-wear collection focuses on “easy-to-wear” pieces with a Kevin Seah twist (and, of course, the label’s quality). Think, for instance, polo shirts made from Japanese pique fabric, and accentuated with hand-stitched bar tacks (reinforcing stitches) in contrasting colours; or more fashion-forward items like Cuban shirts. These off-the-rack pieces also serve as base models for made-to-measure orders. Seah elaborates: “Our clients can customise the fit, fabric and colours; this is not something the big shops can do for you. But we have 40,000 fabric samples here, and we can make it happen.”

It doesn’t stop there: He plans to debut his ready-to-wear collection next year at Pitti Uomo, a major international menswear trade fair held in Florence biannually. But he’ll have to keep an eye on the clock. Says Seah: “Retailers in Japan, Italy, the UK and the US have expressed interest – but I haven’t had the time. Hopefully, I’ll be the first Singapore brand to present at Pitti.”

PASSING THE TORCH

  • Marcus Lio and Thomas Wong of The Prestigious Bespoke
    TWO OF A KIND Master Thomas Wong and “disciple” Marcus Lio at The Prestigious.

When local master tailor Thomas Wong was first asked to impart his tailoring skills to former civil engineer Marcus Lio three years ago, he had his reservations. The 70-year- old veteran, who now closely mentors a team of young tailors at his atelier, The Prestigious, recalls: “I said, how can? An engineer wants to learn tailoring? How difficult would it be for me to train him?”

However, his doubts evaporated after meeting Lio, and seeing the jacket and trouser patterns that the latter had drafted. Wong, who also teaches menswear tailoring at Lasalle College of the Arts, shares: “He was self-taught. Being able to draft patterns like he did is not easy, and it showed me he was committed to this.”

Today, Lio is a lead tailor at The Prestigious, which stands out on the local tailoring scene with its unique mentorship model, helmed by Wong. (The latter will soon be joined by a Savile Row tailor, who comes on board as a mentor and co-technical director.) Lio is also one of Wong’s handful of “disciples” – a term reserved only for his best students, who include Dylan Chong and Matthew Lai, who are profiled elsewhere in this feature.

Seated next to his mentor during our interview, Lio shares that he decided to start a tailoring business with a partner after returning to Singapore from Australia, where he had spent several years studying and working as a civil engineer. Lio remembers: “We came into this industry not knowing much. We used to outsource jobs to local contractors. However, you cannot solve customers’ problems without any technical background yourself.”


“The most challenging part about tailoring is that there are no definite answers.”

– Marcus Lio


Three years on, this is not a problem for Lio, although he humbly acknowledges that there is still much to learn: “It’s tough to try and think like Mr Wong, and to maintain the standard of The Prestigious, which has been one of the top tailoring brands in Singapore for a long time.” The younger tailor believes, however, that he has surmounted the biggest obstacle facing the next generation. He says: “The greatest challenge for them is finding an avenue to learn. If there wasn’t a Mr Wong here, I would be wondering, who can I look for to teach me?”

PHOTOGRAPHY Vernon Wong
ART DIRECTION Fazlie Hashim