It has mystique. It suggests elegance and opulence, not unlike owning a Rolls-Royce or a home in Palm Beach. OK, maybe it's not that ritzy, but it is a wonderful conversation piece at parties. And ever since watching my first James Bond movie, I have longed to own such an icon of perfect tailoring.
Once the province only of the moneyed world traveler, the Hong Kong suit is no longer out of reach for the average man. Several of the larger firms come to the United States once or twice a year to take orders and measurements. The suits are made back in Hong Kong and then shipped to the customer.
I, fortunately, got the chance to experience the real thing when I made a trip to Asia recently.
While planning my trip, I had been concerned that buying a custom-made suit might be too much hassle in the little time available for visiting Buddhist temples and eating exotic foods like snake and jellyfish, but it turned out that being suited in Hong Kong is relatively painless. My three visits to the tailor left plenty of room for sightseeing, and I still got my fill of dim sum. There are more than 2,000 tailors in Hong Kong, although only a few hundred are listed in the two pages of the phone book. On the street, however, it's nearly impossible to avoid hawkers handing out brochures and coupons for shops offering free shirts, free fittings and the like. It is also difficult to sort the good shops from the bad.
I was fortunate to have reliable contacts. My brother works in Hong Kong, and although he isn't the tailor-made-suit type, several of his business partners offered suggestions. Some of the tailors they recommended were too pricey for my budget, but they did at least offer a good starting point. I also called concierges at several tourist hotels to see where they send their guests.
The name that came up several times was Princeton Tailors, at 4 Mary St. in Kowloon. Princeton is right around the corner from the Peninsula Hotel, reputed to be one of the finer establishments in Asia.
Also from the concierges I learned that in general the price of a suit depends more on the fabric than the cut. Everyone also warned me that unless I went to the more reputable shops in the city, I should be prepared to bargain. I was sharpening my haggling skills in my dealings with souvenir vendors all over Hong Kong and China, but at Princeton I found they were unnecessary. It was established very early on that Princeton is not flexible on prices. But they were also not unreasonable, and in the end I was satisfied my $380 suit was worth it.
The wool suits ran $300 to $500 U.S., with cashmere considerably more expensive. Princeton had dozens, perhaps hundreds, of fabrics. After looking at some bolts, I chose a dark gray with a fleck of red. I decided on a classic style -- single breasted, two-button front with flap pockets. The material: Superfine 120 Wool Chinchilla Cashmere England, which translates to a blend of mostly wool woven with some chinchilla and cashmere at 120 threads per inch. It's a supple material with a light sheen, but not at all like the lustrous blue Hong Kong suits James Bond wore in his flashier moments.
Princeton has had famous and satisfied customers who have sent back pictures with appreciative greetings. George Bush smiles stiffly from an official Oval Office portrait. Jimmy Carter tries to look presidential in a snapshot with his tailor.
I had called ahead for an appointment but instead was given a window: "morning." Despite that vagueness, Mr. Albert H.K. She, who sold me my suit, was very precise. My initial measurements took only a few minutes.
I asked for an inside pocket deep enough to hold an airline ticket or a passport wallet. No problem, no extra charge. The lining, which I did not see beforehand, is a mixture of silk and rayon. Upon wearing the suit, I found it to be light and comfortable on the inside and without the heaviness of fabric I had expected.
One of my concerns was getting the pants hemmed to the right length, because I was in tennis shoes. Mr. She assured me they could account for that and do it right.
On my return the next day, I found my unfinished, one-armed suit surprisingly well-fitting and just the right length. Having never before gone the custom-suit route, it was awkward trying on pants that had no zipper, no buttons. I was quickly pinned, so there was no need to worry about modesty.
Few adjustments were necessary, although the shoulders felt a bit tight. Friends in the United States had advised me that suits from Hong Kong can be made with too little breathing room. That is, the continental styling of the suit looks great when you're standing, but is too narrow for sitting and moving.
Mindful of this, I had asked for a little ease in the pants, but I forgot about the jacket. The shoulder adjustment was done in the final measurements.
The suit fits like a glove that fits well. I have now worn it in cramped airline seats and traffic court benches, and it has held up beautifully.
In Hong Kong, a suit is made by a tailor team. One person does the pants, while the more accomplished tailors do the jackets. Novices might only do collars.
To understand the process better, I took a tour of one of the shops where Princeton Tailors' suits are made. There, a handful of workers were busy cutting, sewing and ironing. Another group played a spirited game of mah-jongg. Every afternoon at 5, workers get a break to play the game, which is as prevalent as tea trays.
Aside from the mah-jongg game, the actual work goes at a fast pace. Using only a list of measurements on a clipboard, a worker cuts the material without using any patterns. Fabric is marked up with chalk and ruler, sometimes a curved one.
"It takes several years to learn to do this," said Mr. Simson C.W. Sin, the vice president of Princeton Tailors. Generally a tailor will start to learn the trade around age 13, staying in it his whole life. Buttons are sewn on by hand, and the buttonholes are hand-sewn as well.
Young would-be masters start by cleaning up around the shop before graduating to pants, which call for the most straightforward cutting. After some years, they graduate to men's jackets.
Besides my suit, I decided to have a shirt made because, well, you just have to. It took five minutes to measure me, and the next day my shirt was ready. My suit had taken about four days, and in fact it was ready before I was able to pick it up.
On my last visit I asked whether it would be possible to get an extra pair of pants made at a later date and learned there is no guarantee that the same material will be available. Some tailors in Hong Kong will include an extra pair of pants with a suit, and perhaps even a cheap watch or two. Princeton does not. A second pair, I learned, would cost me $110. I don't wear a suit enough to wear out the pants quickly.
When I do wear it, however, I feel a certain kinship with Agent 007 -- not the Roger Moore off-the-rack variety, but the Sean Connery original.
HONG KONG TAILORS
Twice a year, Princeton sends tailors to the United States for a whirlwind tour, hitting 40 cities in 85 days. One of their stops is in Washington, at the Capitol Hilton at 16th and K streets, today and tomorrow. Call (202) 393-1000, ask for Mr. Dennis Sin and Mr. Tony Wong. They visit Philadelphia May 13-15, at the Doubletree Hotel, (215) 893-1600, and will be at the Hilton & Towers Hotel in New York City May 21-26, phone (212) 586-7000. If you see a suit you like, Princeton can copy it using just a photograph or magazine clipping.