Tailoring businesses like Raja Fashions and Mohan’s Custom Tailors outsourced long before outsourcing was cool.
Seeing the number of customers walk into a ritzy Hilton Club suite for a custom-made suit, one would never imagine that the United States is in the midst of a recession. Bankers, sales people, advertising reps are having their arms, legs and shoulders measured, as they mull over the latest suit styles and fabrics. Soft spoken, 26-year old Vishal Daswani, director of Raja Fashions, part of Hong Kong’s bourgeoning tailoring industry, patiently runs a potential customer through rows of sample swatches.
Nevertheless, Daswani acknowledges that Raja Fashions has introduced recession packages, throwing in free gifts, such as six custom-made shirts or a cashmere top coat, with a three suit package. Mohan’s Custom Tailors, a throbbing tailoring business based out of Manhattan, has seen orders slump by almost 30%. Mohan Ramchandani, its 50-year old proprietor, says customers who ordered 3-4 suits every year now order 1-2 suits, forcing him to slash prices by 20-50% and offer special deals like three custom made suits for $1,499.
Tailoring businesses like Raja Fashions and Mohan’s outsourced long before outsourcing was cool. Raja Fashions employs between 400-500 tailors at its headquarters in Hong Kong. The company has three people sales teams in different parts of the world. By advertising in newspapers, such as the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, as well as through word-of-mouth publicity, the company recruits clients all over the world, including the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. During these sales tours, the Daswanis and their sales teams book a swanky hotel suite, where they meet and take orders from new and old customers. The customers have to show up, choose from a wide selection of material, pick a fabric and design, have their measurement taken and make the payment. The suits are then sewn in Hong Kong to specifications and shipped to the customer in four to six weeks. Daswani claims that 90% of the customers do not require any modifications, but if they do, they can go to their local tailor for minor fits, or return the suit for major alterations.
Why would anyone wait a month or more for a new suit, shirt or topcoat, when they can go to the local store and buy it off-the-rack? “We offer a lower price point, good workmanship, top quality and made to measure clothes that perfectly suit a customer. Where else will anyone find a well tailored suit that meets their lifestyle, body type, climate and movement?” says Daswani.
Why source customers abroad? Daswani explains: “We started our sales tour after 1997 when many expatriates left Hong Kong for the United Kingdom and the United States. So we basically went after our customers and visited them in their hometowns and the company grew from there.”
For those who are wondering why these companies don’t simply operate out of a store, Daswani responds: “Our mobile shop model allows us to have the flexibility to set up shop wherever and whenever we like. Setting up individual shops would be too capital intensive and would require management and sales to be located in each city. With our business model we can be fitting up the Wall Street boys one day and White House officials the next.”
Mohan’s Ramchandani, who runs his business out of a single office, disagrees: “It is good to have one fixed location that customers are familiar with, and with a base in a big city like New York, you can be sure to get a regular flow of clients.”
Challenges for these custom tailors abound. They are frequently undercut on price by tailors who use cheap or fake designer fabric or have their suits made in sweatshops in neighboring China. The industry has weathered many storms, like the dress-down trend or sky-high rents, inexpensive off-the-rack clothing or a shortage of skilled labor. Finding younger skilled tailors to replace aging tailors is increasingly difficult as very few youngsters nowadays like to work in such a labor intensive industry. And if you thought your daily commute to work was exhausting, imagine these tailors have to travel thousands of miles across continents to source clients. Automation is another threat. High-tech machines can now take measurements and stitch clothes. But Ramchandani remains undeterred, “Since these machines cannot make customized fits but standardized ones, the customer will not find their suits comfortable or fitted.”
Mohan’s responds by offering a lower price point: “We price our suits in a range between $500-$2,000 while competitors charge $4,000 per suit on average. U.S. tailors prices are almost double while their quality is the same as ours. We also distinguish ourselves by giving free alterations to customers for up to a year, to accommodate for weight gain or loss, or minor repairs.”
With hundreds of tailors in the business of customizing suits it’s not easy for one business to distinguish itself from others. Ramchandani finds that customers confuse his name with that of a close competitor Pierre Mohan, who runs MoSanti Tailors out of Beaverton, Oregon. La Rukico Tailors, based out of Manhattan, adopts a different approach by recommending something called “The Kelly Diet,” which stresses that anyone can lose 20 pounds by putting on a customized suit. MoSanti Tailors, which targets U.S. clients, highlights that its US-based business allows customers to talk to fluent English speakers. The company’s website cautions: “If your clothes don’t arrive, then you have to call Hong Kong, and the phone is likely to be answered in Chinese. And how much can someone in Hong Kong do to solve shipping or customs problems in the U.S.?”
And that price value, these tailors hope, will help them beat the recession. Daswani recalls how his grandfather started his own tailoring business with other Sindh entrepreneurs in Hong Kong, and how his father, in his early twenties, spun off his own enterprise, Raja Fashions, with equal aplomb. He says: “The most famous tailoring businesses in Hong Kong are run by Indians and have earned a reputation locally for producing high quality suits at competitive prices. Most Indian tailoring businesses are second or third generation so they are quite established here. Our workshops are run by local Shanghai tailors. Labor is much cheaper than the U.S., but conditions are still good. So basically the storefront and sales are handled by Indians and the actual tailoring is done by the Chinese in both Hong Kong and China.”
Many Hong Kong based tailors chose to leave Hong Kong for greener pastures, as well as during the anxiety in the 1980s and 1990s over the reversion of the island to Chinese control. Ramchandani is one of them. He came to the United States from Hong Kong in 1972 to set up his own shop. His family of seven brothers was in the clothing business, which sparked his interest in the tailoring business. He trained in Ahmedabad and Hong Kong before moving to New York. Impressively, the demure man started working out of an office in the Grand Central station and over the years has developed a reputation among the sports celebrity community.
While Raja Fashions was reluctant to disclose client names, Ramchandani proudly points to pictured frames of his celebrity clients, including basketball legend Patrick Ewing, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, and New York Knicks’ Walt Frazier. Ramchandani describes Annan as soft-spoken, humble and kind. He says he met Giuliani in 1994 when the former mayor was campaigning in the same Grand Central building where Mohan’s office is located. The 7-foot tall former New York Knick Ewing became Mohan’s client after a nurse who delivered Ramchandani’s son, impressed by Mohan’s clothes, recommended him to Ewing’s mother, who at the time was looking for an affordable tailor for her son. Ramchandani still recalls his trip from New York to Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., to fit Ewing, saying he had to stand on a stool to measure the 7-foot tall basketball player.
Celebrities are not the only interesting aspect of the tailoring business. Many get amusing requests from clients. Ramchandani recalls stitching colorful flamboyant coats for magicians, fitting an 18-month-old baby into a suit for his father’s wedding and a Pakistani client who wanted the same suit as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
The tailors employ a wide range of marketing tools to promote themselves. Mohan’s spends almost $50,000-$60,000 every month on marketing and advertising. Raja Fashions, on the other hand, uses word-to-mouth publicity as its biggest marketing tool and relies on existing clients to recommend it to friends and colleagues. Some have established a barter system with media companies, such as CNN, exchanging banner space for suits or utilizing direct mail, online and print advertising in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Economist and London Times.
The next time you dream about slipping into trousers that perfectly hug your waist or wearing shirts that snuggle your shoulders exactly where you want them to, whether you’re tall or stout or knock kneed or broad-shouldered, you know exactly where to go to trade the pan-chewing darji sprawled on a mattress in India for a tailor in a spiffy hotel suite in New York, Greenwich, Conn., or Washington, D.C. asking you solicitously if you prefer Zegna or Armani. And, as, Raja Fashions current ad pitch boasts, “Even the Price Suits You, Sir!”