Ambassadors, royalty and numerous members of the business community: Master tailor Thomas Wong has outfitted them all in his five decades in the tailoring business. And now, the 69-year-old veteran would like his clients to put their sartorial faith in the young team at his recently relaunched atelier, The Prestigious.
Presently located at Boat Quay, The Prestigious is Wong’s brand and the name of his former tailoring shop, which was housed at Shaw Centre for 13 years until the shopping centre closed for major renovations in 2012. At the new atelier, every piece of bespoke clothing is made in-house by a six-person team of tailors and apprentices – under Wong’s watchful eye. Outsourcing, a common practice in the industry, is a no-no here.
Most of the team are graduates of the menswear course started by Wong at Lasalle College of the Arts four years ago. “Lecturer” is the latest addition to his impressive CV: A prominent member of the local tailoring community, Wong has also served as the chairman of the Singapore Master Tailor Association and the president of the Federation of Asian Master Tailors. Outspoken and humorous, he shares his thoughts on learning, teaching, and passing the tailoring torch to the next generation.
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What is the most important thing you want your students to learn?
I want them to be able to do everything: To cut and make shirts, trousers and jackets. This is actually very rare here. Usually, you are either a cutter or a tailor. And if you know how to cut a jacket, you probably don’t know how to cut a shirt. There’s also a lot of hand-sewing. Students spend quite a few months learning things like pad stitching to make a lapel roll; all this is done by hand.
You teach tailoring as part of Lasalle’s fashion design course. You must have seen some crazy student designs…
For her final project, Joyan (Chan, a junior tailor at The Prestigious and one of Wong’s former students) made a jacket with turned-out pockets. I tried to stop her but she submitted it anyway (laughs). My students can be creative, but they must think, is there a market for my design? I tell them, if your design is so far out, people will only dare to wear it 100 years later – and you don’t have 100 years to wait for that time to come. They must be able to make a living from their designs.
Has teaching changed the way you think about your craft?
Before, I was very conservative. But now, because of my students, I’m more open. For example, the Neapolitan jacket is a style that came out around the year 2000. It has a sleeve that is puckered and puffed. In classic tailoring, we always try to find the best way to make the sleeve round and smooth – we don’t even want a small pleat. And now people were making pleats in the sleeve on purpose! Before I started teaching, I would have said, “Cannot.” But now, I think it’s okay. It’s up to people to decide if they want to do it.
Are there people who hesitate to pay the same prices for work done by your team, instead of yourself?
Some of my team can do certain things as well as I can, or even better. A few of them sew Milanese buttonholes much better than I do, now that I’m getting older: They’re younger, they have more patience. Sometime ago, one of my big customers placed an order worth $18,000. He was happy with the first order, and last week, he placed another order worth more than $30,000. I tell my customers, “Let my disciples and my people work for you. You can come here and yum cha (“have afternoon tea” in Cantonese), and watch my staff working, and see that I’m guiding them.”
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