Professor well-suited to clothe world leadersFormer Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Tae-woo, football player Hines Ward, former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, Russian president Vladimir Putin, former International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch and Li Peng, former Premier of China, have all been customers of the Sun Custom Tailor shop in Itaewon-dong, Seoul.
President John Agyekum Kufuor of Ghana, who visited Korea early this month for a Korea-Africa Forum, ordered a suit from the shop as soon as he arrived in the country.
Lee Saeng-lo, 55, the shop owner, is a university professor with a refined manner who can speak eight different languages. He teaches English to hotel staff at Howon University for four hours every week. Mr. Lee received a master’s degree in hotel management from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, in 1993.
Born in Eumseong, North Chungcheong province, Mr. Lee left home while he was still at middle school to escape poverty.
With the goal of learning English, he delivered the Stars and Stripes newspaper on a U.S. military base in Dongducheon city, north of Seoul. The job allowed him to pay his living and school expenses.
Mr. Lee completed his first degree through a correspondence course offered by the Los Angeles Metropolitan College via the Eighth United States Army. He then joined what is now the Westin Chosun Hotel in 1975.
He decided that selling custom-tailored suits to high-profile foreigners would make a good business, and opened his shop in 1980.
“I was able to speak English and could provide a seamless service ― a better service than a custom tailor in a hotel,” Mr. Lee said. “I hired the best tailors in town and took advantage of my connections with foreign diplomats and chief executive officers, which I built while I was working at the hotel.”
His suits cost from 400,000 won ($420) to 2 million won, which he said was reasonable considering their quality. He also provides unlimited repairs for his garments. According to Mr. Lee, about 30 foreign diplomats in Korea regularly buy suits from him. He employs 10 tailors, who produce 60 suits per month.
“For decades, my suits have been valued by world leaders and I believe they are competitive in terms of quality, price and service,” he said.
Dealing with busy politicians, there were times when he was unable to take measurements for a suit. In 1991, he said, when President Putin had a hectic schedule during his visit to Korea, Mr. Lee only had a glimpse of the Russian president from a distance in a hotel at night but still delivered a completed suit the next morning. He said Mr. Putin was very happy with his suit and wore it for his speech at the National Assembly.
“Mr. Putin was a little brusque but was kind enough to present me with caviar and a bottle of first-class vodka,” Mr. Lee said.
For Hines Ward’s suit, Mr. Lee correctly estimated the footballer’s size from watching him on television.
The late Mr. Reagan also wore a suit by Mr. Lee during his visit to Korea in 1985. Mr. Reagan sent a thank you letter and a picture of himself wearing the suit.
Mr. Samaranch ordered a suit to wear to the funeral of his wife a few years ago.
Mr. Lee hopes to open a first-class custom-tailor-only department store in Itaewon.
“I want to be a civilian diplomat for foreign customers. When I get older, I want to pass the business to my son, who is now working at a hotel,” Mr. Lee said.
by Lee Jae-hoon