MTM On The Cheap: Tailoring In SE Asia

Words by: Matt Clarke


Every year, an army of tourists flood into Thailand and Vietnam and it would be a fair guess to say that most of these depart with at least one item of ‘bespoke’ clothing in their clutches. Of course, it is not bespoke in the true sense of the word, but it is clothing that has been produced specifically for them, in their size, in their choice of material, and to their design. And it probably cost them next to nothing.

Stepping out onto the hustle and bustle of a Bangkok market street for the first time I was left feeling dizzy as my senses were simultaneously assaulted by a cacophony of street noises, an avalanche of exotic Asian colours, and a bemusing olfactory blend of putrid sewage water and freshly grilled street‐vendor meats. It takes a while to acclimatize. But, when you do, you’ll discover something charming; Bangkok has literally dozens of streets devoted entirely to tailoring.

On any one of these streets you’ll see row after row of brightly signposted men’s tailors, each boasting a proud display window stuffed with their handiwork. Suits, winter coats, waistcoats, shirts – all can be made for you at a nominal price. If you hesitate too long outside one of these shops, an army of ragamuffin boys wil mob you, each imploring you to come inside their shop which, they will insist, produces far superior merchandise at a far inferior price to their neighbours.

At this juncture it is worth telling the reader frankly and unconditionally that a suit made in Thailand will not be as good as one made in Savile Row or the like. The model in Thailand is very much that of mass MTM production*. However, if approached in the right way, a SE Asian suit can go a good distance towards approximating something that in England or the US would cost perhaps 30 to 40 times more (a suit in Thailand should only cost you around Ł50 including a tip).

When you have decided upon your shop and stepped through the doorway you will be greeted informally and effusively, as is the Thai fashion. Magazines and lookbooks (normally slightly dated offerings from the major Italian fashion houses) will be thrust into your lap alongside something cold to drink. If you have the time and inclination before your trip, a quick sketch or photograph of a suit you like will go a long way towards breaching the language barrier and ensuring that your tailor understands perfectly what it is you want them to create for you. Likewise, Thailand’s legions of tailors are excellent at copying an existing article of clothing that you have brought along with you.

Once you have made a firm decision on all the details of your nascent masterpiece your tailor will call you back for a first fitting. Depending on your schedule this could be as early as two to three hours later or the next morning. This is the basting stage where the jacket resembles a waistcoat. The lapels need to be shaped; the length and fit of the jacket can be altered; and the sleeves need to be added. After trying it on and making the necessary adjustments, it will be sent back to the factory and, the next time you lay eyes upon it, it will have been transformed into a finished suit.

Incidentally, most tailors will offer you a reasonable selection of material; if you are not satisfied with the selection in your shop, the tailor will take you to some of his other shops which are normally situated on the same road but trading under different names – the concept of monopoly is hardly recognized on Bangkok’s tailoring roads. If your high sartorial standards are still not satisfied, ask your tailor to write down the address of the Indian market in Bangkok and jump in a cab. In fact, it is worth doing this anyway.

The Indian market is a collection of shabby shops and stalls which sell every sort of fabric imaginable – from curtain material to sari silks your eyes will take in everything as you traipse around these dirty streets, undiscovered or uncared for by the tourist masses. There’s an utterly magnificent selection of suiting and shirting material but, as the first grope of a fabric bolt which has caught your eye will inform you, it is clear that the denizens of Bangkok’s fabric market prefer quantity and variety to quality. To a man, the Indian market’s enterprising shopowners will brazenly claim that their material was made in England etc. but that is not true; it is all produced in factories in Thailand’s industrial area on the outskirts of Bangkok. At best, the fabric quality is reasonable: not great but not awful, either. You can, of course, bring your own cloth with you from home and have the tailor make this up into a suit.

As for the finished article, if you’ve never had a suit made before, you will be astounded at how good it looks. Provided you were careful in your choice of design and fabric, you will probably have fifty percent of the look of a Savile Row suit for a fraction of the price. It will fit you well, flatter your body lines, and of course you have the pleasure of knowing that you designed something that was produced specifically for you! If you are a bespoke regular, the likelihood is that you’ll be disappointed with what you get. It will be good but not great; there were several little details that went wrong with each suit I had made. Perhaps one shoulder was slightly too tight, which ruined the line, or the pockets looked slightly too high relative to the length. I had thought it a real bargain getting a couple of suits made but I haven’t really worn them since I got back to the UK. Nonetheless it was an enjoyable experience and allowed me to experiment with different designs very cheaply.

If my Thai suits did not turn out exactly as hoped for I am bound to concede that shirtmakers in Thailand are superb. I used Raja on Sukhumvit Road. Raja is a somewhat lanky and genteel tailor whose shop has serviced officers of the Western embassies in Thailand for a good number of years. His shop offers an astounding range of shirting materials, imported from Egypt; the range available easily surpasses that offered in Jermyn Street whilst the quality of the materials is marginally less impressive.

On your first visit you’ll meet Raja, choose materials, and discuss the fit and style you’d like over a cold drink in his air‐conditioned studio. After taking your measurements and discussing what kind of style and fit you’d like, Raja has his workers produce a sample shirt the next day. When you come in next to try on the sample shirt, Raja will poke and prod you and, after discussion between the two of you, the necessary adjustments will be made. If necessary a completely new sample shirt will be produced.

When you come in to try on the shirt for the final time, all the adjustments will have been made and it should fit well. If you are happy with it, Raja will go on to produce the rest of your shirts, using the pattern created for the sample. Patterns are kept indefinitely and you can order from abroad safe in the knowledge that you know exactly what you will be getting.

The stitching and handiwork are excellent on Raja’s shirts whilst the materials are also of a high standard (mother of pearl buttons were standard whilst I was there). The whole experience was pleasant and releaxing and, to this day, I still wear the shirts he made for me five years ago – an accolade, indeed, for a Ł15 shirt.

* Throughout this article I have not touched upon the ethical consideration of getting a suit made in Asia. Whilst there I went to visit a factory. Impressive in size and organization, the factories comprise of banks upon banks of machinists, sitting at their sewing machines – each focusing on an individual part, say the collar, in a streamlined production line. Working in this way – very much like the London tailoring shops used to – they are able to achieve extremely quick turnaround times. The conditions were not awful; but it was hot, and looked a backbreaking task. I was not able to speak to anyone working there so I cannot say how they felt about what they did; although I’m sure that of the measly Ł50 you spend on the suit, they will get but a tiny, tiny fraction for their trouble.