The survival of the fittest

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The survival of the fittest

"A suit gives the wearer not only the right shape but also an attitude that is distinctive and elegant," says the tailor Lee Soon-shin.

Mr. Lee is dressed in a navy-blue suit with an orange-striped pocket square and a blue-and yellow necktie. Tall, lean and with graying hair, Mr. Lee exudes the gentle aura of a wise and successful chief executive.

His success as a tailor is known beyond Korea, in fact. Besides having held important posts in custom tailor associations in Korea, Mr. Lee has been the the president of a worldwide association of tailors for the past three years, the World Federation of Master Tailors. His shop is a humble one located in a downtown shopping center, the Lotte Hotel Arcade. It is crowded with English signs, but has another sign that says "Haechang" in somber Chinese characters and the year 1929. That was the year Mr. Lee's father started the business, with a shop in Busan.

Haechang, which means "to prosper like the sea," is one of the oldest, most prestigious custom tailors in Korea, and its past clientele list includes the former presidents Syngman Rhee, Yun Bo-sun and other high-profile political figures from the 1950s and 1960s. Foreign dignitaries knew of Haechang's reputation and made orders there; they favored suits of a rare fabric made from a special type of Australian wool, which cost 10 million won ($8,500).

Mr. Lee was born the second son of Lee Yong-su, a custom tailor who learned his trade in Kobe, Japan, near an American naval base. When the young Lee was in his early teens, his family moved from Busan to Seoul, and his father took his business to a shop in Sanlim-dong, near Euljiro, where many Korean tailors worked. At the time, many shops in that Myeongdong area were owned by Japanese. Looking back, Lee says, "Korean tailors owe a debt to Japanese tailors because the Japanese first adopted Western tailoring; but Korean styles became distinctively different, because Koreans are long-limbed and more style-oriented, while Japanese pay more attention to function."

Of his father's three sons, Mr. Lee was the only one who was strongly interested in tailoring and took it up as a profession. When he graduated from Seoul National University with a degree in business, one of his professors, a long-time client of Haechang, said a smart young man should not pursue tailoring because it was a "low-class job." But Mr. Lee was determined. Meanwhile, one of his brothers became a lawyer, the other a banker.

"A tailor was a 3D -- degrading, dirty and difficult -- job which young elites shunned," Mr. Lee explains. "They didn't make much money." As an educated tailor, Mr. Lee created a research forum for tradesmen and merchants. In the late '60s he represented Korea at an international convention of master tailors, and the stylish Mr. Lee even modeled the clothes.

He recalls that his father's suits were in demand before the family escaped to Busan during the Korean War. When the family came back to Seoul, his father set up at another location, near the Chosun Hotel in downtown Seoul. At the time, Korea's leaders -- politicians, bankers, intellectuals -- favored sharp suits, and the business thrived.

But Korea's peacetime history wasn't always friendly to custom tailors. In the early '70s, President Park Chung Hee urged Koreans to wear cheap suits to promote frugality. Men were supposed to wear "People's clothes," consisting of a a simple suit without a tie. Then there was the oil shock in the mid-1970s, which slowed sales. And the rise in ready-made suits toward the end of the 1980s hurt the tailor industry even more.

Today Mr. Lee is worried about the lack of young Korean tailors. "No young men nowadays want to learn a skill that takes 10 years to master," he says. "The shortage of technicians is prevalent worldwide." The Ministry of Labor recently supported a plan to cultivate tailors, but it collapsed. Seoul has only one institute that provides training for tailors.

Since 1969, the number of tailors, 3,000, registered in the Custom Tailors and Designers Association of Korea hasn't decreased, although the number of buyers shrank. Business at Haechang has been slow since it moved into its latest location. "Selling 200 suits per month used to be normal for a small business, but now a tailor with a good name sells fewer than 200 per year," Mr. Lee says. He adds that tailors should compete not in price ?destructive for all -- but technique. The good news is that for the past few years more young Koreans are buying custom suits. Mr. Lee explains, "Wearing a custom tailored suit is not about having a lot of money, but knowing the real value of a suit; the future of tailors faces a competition between a work of art for the specific few and a product for the masses."

International meetings to share techniques, information and culture and build links will help repopularize the concept of custom tailoring, he says.

Does Mr. Lee have any pet peeves? "Korean men wearing short-sleeve shirts with a suit. A classic gentleman would never do such a thing."


When you find a good shop, wear it out

Bahng Kyu-ho has been ordering suits from the Haechang store for the past 33 years. As a young man, Mr. Bahng, now in his mid-50s, favored Haechang's classic style suits. Today, as he comes in for a fitting, he is wearing a Ferre's sport jacket over gray slacks. His belt and wallet are both alligator skin. Both the tortoise shell glasses and the black pen tucked in his shirt pocket are Mon Blanc. His favorite brand names are all European and famous for their elegant style, such as Ermenegildo Zegna, Cerruti and Christian Dior. He moved to Hong Kong decades ago, but every time he comes back to Seoul, he orders a suit or two from Haechang. He has tried suits made by Chinese or Indonesian tailors. "But nothing beats Korean tailors' works," he says, while trying on a half-finished jacket.

What makes a Haechang suit worth a price tag of some 1.5 million won ($1,250)? "First of all, the stitches are sturdy and the shape is sleek," Mr. Bahng says. "The suit is very comfortable, and I get compliments when I wear a suit from Haechang." He is clearly pleased with the shape of the navy blue suit he has ordered, as a tailor, Han Chang-nam, and an assistant, Bae Jong-nam, check on the fit.

Mr. Han joined Haechang in 1985, Mr. Bae in 1994. With Lee Soon-shin, they consider themselves a team. Already familiar with Mr. Bahng's shape, they can skip some of the fitting.

Both Mr. Han and Mr. Bae say Mr. Bahng has a discerning eye for fine clothes and knows how to talk with tailors. "To satisfy such a sophisticated client like Mr. Bahng, integrity and discipline are required," Mr. Han said. In return, Mr. Bahng continues to appreciate the quality suits he gets from one of Korea's most dedicated tailors.


Sew, what's new? Just ask 400 tailors

"Dressing Up Asia," the main event at this year's convention of the Federation of Asian Master Tailors, held in Korea, didn't surprise anyone for being full of sharp dressers. At the Seoul Plaza Hotel in downtown, where the biannual convention took place from Monday until Friday, 400 custom tailors from 8 Asian countries had a rare chance to show off their time-tested skills and share the newest techniques.

The event kicked off as the chairman of the convention, Ko Kung-ho, welcomed various VIPs, including the minister of labor, Bang Yong-seok and the president of the World Federation of Master Tailors, Lee Soon-shin. Some of the master tailors who staged demonstrations included Cho Jung-dai from Korea, Goro Sato from Japan and Lee Chin-chun from Taiwan. Industry experts, including non-Asians, gave professional reports. The highlight of the convention was a fashion show, held over at the Hyatt hotel on Tuesday night, followed by an award ceremony. The grand prizes went to Kim Deok-je from Korea and Lin Chem-Chun from Taiwan.

The JoongAng Ilbo English Edition spoke with a master tailor from Italy, Mario Napolitano, about his tastes.

How long have you been in the business?

Fifty years, since I started in Naples. I learned techniques and inspiration from my father and uncle. When I was 12, I began working while going to a tailoring school. Three years later, I moved to Rome, although my father was against it. There I learned tailoring from various shops where I worked.

What is a great custom tailored suit to you?

It's my personal fantasy come true. In each suit, I put new ideas and unique character. A suit not only expresses the tailor's professional passion but also the wearer's individuality and sensibilities. A suit can also give the wearer the right shape by camouflaging physical flaws. A man who weighed 180 kilograms came to me one day and ordered a suit. When he came back and put it on, he was so impressed with the way he looked that he cried. An English writer once said, "British textiles and Italian tailors make the best suit." But personally, I like using Italian textiles, such as Ermenegildo Zegna and Loro Piana.

Fewer men are wearing tailored suits.

I see a difference in culture. Those who know about value wear custom tailored suits. The problem with young Italian men is that they prefer design and modeling industries to tailoring. Both of my young sons chose to become medical doctors. I travel to Asia to give lectures, and I hope the Asian tailoring industry will do better. Back home, unlike most tailors who are reluctant to share their secrets, I like to work in an open space with 200 trainees.


How they measure up

According to a local association of custom tailors and designers, these are Korea's best tailors:

Choi Hong-gab, Hanyoung Tailor. Namdaemun-ro, 02-735-1988

Kim Sung-dae, England Tailor. Sogong-dong, 02-774-9694

Kim Yong-eon, GQ Tailor. Jangchung-dong, 02-2264-0031

Ko Kyung-ho, England Tailor. Yeoksam-dong, 02-561-2787

Lee Byung-mun, Zenith Tailor. Samseong-dong, 02-557-4229

Lee Soon-shin, Haechang, Sogong-dong, 02-776-1667

Park Jong-oh, Life Tailor, Sogong-dong, 02-755-3583

Park Sang-jin, Mimosa Tailor. Euljiro 1-ga, 02-757-3456

Park Ung-hyun, Dondoll P&H Tailor. Sogong-dong, 02-756-9696

Shin Han-soo, Samyoung Tailor. Gwangju city, 062-285-2555


He keeps celebrities in stitches

Lee Deok-no, better known as Hilton Lee, is the owner of Hilton Tailor. But he doesn't look like a typical tailor. Dressed in a pale-green high-collared shirt with a single tacky Versace button, he talks and acts more like an entertainer. His shop, on Itaewon's main street, is packed with rolls of cloth and the walls are covered with framed pictures of celebrities. He proudly points at them one at a time: "Look, there's me with Steven Seagal; this is Magic Johnson, the famous basketball star; and here's my customer Pavarotti." Presidents, ambassadors, officers, rock stars -- the list goes on.

Hilton Tailor has been in Itaewon for 27 years. "There are about 150 tailors here these days," Mr. Lee says, "but when I began, there were only a dozen, the area was considered too remote to do business."

Born and raised in the North Chungcheong province city of Eumseong, he aspired to study at the best high school in Cheongju, the capital of the province. But he made good friends with an American military officer, a Mr. Wilson ?a circumstance which changed his life. Upon finishing middle school, Mr. Lee came to Seoul, following Mr. Wilson. Mr. Lee attended two high schools, one inside the military base and one near Yongsan Garrison where his friend lived and worked. Mr. Wilson got him a job in the post exchange selling magazines. That was the first time Mr. Lee saw fashion magazines. By that time, he was fluent in English.

In 1975, when he was 23 and had just finished his compulsory military service, Mr. Lee wanted to do something on his own. "Looking back," he said with emotion, "I knew nothing; so before opening my own business, I wanted to learn something." He heard that tailors made a lot of money and so he got a job at a tailor shop. He had to sell eight suits per day, a job too tough for a young beginner. After a tough month, he decided to open his own shop, the same that stands now.

Soon after he started the shop, a drove of Korean entertainers became his A-list clients. Between the end of the '70s and the end of the '80s, through word of mouth, American officers, ambassadors and foreign entertainers frequented his shop. A celebrity would order 30 suits at a time.

What was his secret? When clients expected a new suit to take a week to a month, Mr. Lee guaranteed a perfect suit made within 24-36 hours, which included sizing, fitting and delivery. "I have a knack for making people feel comfortable and natural," he says. "And I do my business in the least normal way. Even when I pay double to my staff, I don't charge extra to my customers." He charges on average $350, and hasn't changed that price for years.

What about quality? "Do you think my clients would keep coming back to me for all those years and tell their friends to visit me in Korea if my suits failed them?" he says. "I know Korean politicians and bankers who would never go to downtown tailors unless they were given free suits."

Most importantly, customers come to Mr. Lee because of his fashion sense. "I watch fashion cable every night," he says. "Heavy lining is out. Modern men like lighter suits that flow naturally. Americans like to look lean. South Americans like fitted styles. Europeans are more sensitive to trends. When my client walks in, at one glance I pick up his preferences and give my technicians tips. The result is satisfaction."

by Inēs Cho

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