The roots of the Hong Kong tailoring industry can be traced back to Shanghai at the turn of the 20th century, European colonialism, and the Chinese Communist Revolution. At the time, the tailors of Shanghai were primarily migrant workers from Ningbo, a much poorer city south of Shanghai. The skills of these tailors came from a variety of sources: there were enterprising British tailoring firms who started up branches in Shanghai and trained up Ningbo migrants, as well as more experienced Ningbo tailors who had first migrated to Dongbei, the far north of China, where they had learnt their trade from Russian tailors before moving to Shanghai. In 1941, “The Shanghai Cutting and Tailoring College” was created, offering comprehensive training in the trade and cementing Shanghai’s position as a hub for highly skilled tailors. The style and techniques practiced by these tailors was known as the “Red Gang”.
The clientele of the Shanghai tailors were primarily European expatriates living and working in the city. The unrest and uncertainty of the Chinese Communist Revolution during 1946-1949 forced European firms to relocate to British-owned Hong Kong, a drastic change as Hong Kong at the time was considerably less developed than Shanghai. As the clientele moved, so did the Shanghai tailors that supplied them.
At the time, Hong Kong also had its own local Cantonese tailoring industry with its own style and techniques. Shanghai tailoring, being based on British and Russian techniques, made jackets with a full, shaped chest, requiring time and skill with steam and pressing techniques to create curvature, and was particularly suited to a Caucasian build. Cantonese tailoring did not use the same techniques as it was more geared towards a Chinese physique, thus requiring less work in shaping the chest. This type of tailoring was known as the “Guang Dong Gang”.
The two types of tailoring flourished side by side as Hong Kong grew, with Tsim Sha Tsui becoming the tailoring district of Hong Kong. Mirador Mansion on Nathan Road at one point housed 500 tailors. Hong Kong’s tailoring industry was first funded by European clientele but as the decades passed, American and Japanese customers soon overtook them as their economies became global powerhouses. The changing waves of newly minted visitors arriving in Hong Kong made Tsim Sha Tsui the ideal home for the tailoring industry as the area was dense in hotels and tourist traffic.
Tailoring in Hong Kong was an easy business to get into assuming one had the skills to produce garments. The cost of rent prior to the 80’s was affordable and cloth suppliers were willing to supply raw materials on favourable payment terms, meaning starting a tailoring house in Hong Kong required very little capital.
Since the advent of cheap and accessible air travel in the 70’s, Hong Kong’s tailors have generated a large amount of business away from home using the concept of travelling tailors. Much like Savile Row’s regular visits to NYC and other American hotspots, many of Hong Kong’s tailors travel overseas to see clients and take orders. These expeditions were not only a healthy source of income but also kept tailors busy during quieter periods in their domestic market.
The rise of Italian fashion and fabrics in the 80’s was a major turning point for Hong Kong tailoring, in particular the introduction of superfine Italian cloth. Previously, English cloth was the norm, typically woven in a 2x2 formation with sturdy yarn at 11 to 13 oz weights. Italian textile companies, led by Zegna and Loro Piana, were encouraging the use of lighter weight cloth and the adoption of the “Super” number, a measure of yarn fineness. The English mills stayed true to their heavier cloth, at the time measuring Super 70, whereas the Italians pushed the Super number ever higher, debuting Super 100 at an 8 oz weight. It was dramatic difference on par with comparing a winter cloth with a summer cloth. Customers asked for it and Hong Kong tailors responded to the demand.
The Italian superfine cloth was a challenging cloth to work with for younger, inexperienced tailors. Compared to heavier British cloth, it was not as forgiving of mistakes during construction and did not respond in the same way to steaming and pressing techniques. The problem was further exacerbated by the humidity of Hong Kong, which causes cloth to lose some of its springiness, especially super fine ones.
The structure of a jacket’s chest is one of the fundamental parts of its construction. Traditionally, a canvas interlining made of horsehair is inserted to provide structure but it was significantly more difficult to apply this technique to finer cloth because of its delicate nature. While this was not an issue for highly skilled tailors, it was a stumbling block for those new to the trade. The challenges of using the new Italian cloth spurred some tailors to experiment with a new method of constructing jacket chests called fusing, which uses a type of interlining canvas that is glued into the jacket to provide structure. Although the result was inferior, it was good enough and considerably quicker and easier to make this way.
Fusing created a divergence in the Hong Kong tailoring industry, with tailoring companies either pursuing consistency, speed and volume production or maintaining skilled artisanal labor. Generally speaking, the highly skilled tailors who could handle trickier cloth and traditional techniques stuck with their craft whereas the less technically competent or more commercially oriented would develop their business using fused construction.
From the 2000s onwards Hong Kong’s tailors have seen the tremendous effect of the internet on their business. General knowledge about tailoring is freely available and many of Hong Kong’s tailors have been identified by the online community as a way to commission good quality bespoke garments at a reasonable price. Coupled with the resurgence of interest in tailored clothing over the recent years, the tailors of Hong Kong are busier than ever.
Today, as is true with many traditional industries, Hong Kong faces a skills shortage as the current generation of tailors retire. The training process to be a tailor is long and difficult one, and today it is a career driven by passion rather than financial necessity as it was a hundred years ago. Fortunately, with the increased profile of tailoring, there has been significantly more interest in the trade in recent years with some new green sprouts of talent emerging. Although young tailors are rare in Hong Kong, they do exist and continue to develop a style descended from their Shanghainese and Cantonese predecessors. Hong Kong tailors have also made inroads into China, developing workrooms and opening new branches in various parts of the country catering to the modern Chinese consumer and for some, coming full circle from their exodus in the 40’s.
Special thanks to Peter Chan of WW Chan and Tony Chang of Ascot Chang for their invaluable knowledge and advice in producing this abridged history