Thursday, 7 November 2013

Sat 2nd-Weds 6th Nov - Hoi An - Suited & Booted

A lot of people come to Vietnam for the good value tailoring. Some go to Hanoi, some to Hue, but most to Hoi An. With over 400 tailors here its easy to understand why. But that huge choice makes the initial decision as to who to entrust with your measurements and sartorial dreams a little trickier. 

I'll confess here, for those who don't know, that I really love a good suit. I've got a dozen back home ranging from cheap high-street off-the-pegs, designer and sample sale bargains, through fully adjusted second-hand tweed and velvet numbers, a made-to-measure black merino, and finally a full bespoke saville row mohair/wool 3-piece. So I'm well acquainted with what you can expect to get for big dollars or little. And I'm familiar with the tells of cheap tailoring and where corners can be cut. So this post is just for very fussy and fastidious suit fans like myself; everyone else, please, please move on.

In Hoi An, a lot of tailors have realised that people need somewhere to stay when waiting for fittings and have bought hotels. A lot of hoteliers have opened tailor shops. One of the first things you'll be offered when you check into your hostel or hotel is a 10% discount on clothing at the brother-in-law's shop round the corner. Ignore this, you can negotiate it anywhere.

I knew this already, but somehow at 9pm found myself sitting down with a swatch book talking through outlandishly idiosyncratic details with a small shouty lady whose English was not a great deal better than my Vietnamese, but her brother owned the hotel I was in. Before you know it I'd placed an order for a bright navy linen 3-piece, first fitting scheduled for the next morning.

The language barrier is the biggest obstacle to getting the suit you want, firstly the basic build in the correct cloth and lining, then secondly after you've got close, explaining the subtle nuances of a refined fit to someone with whom you share no language of subtlety. The second biggest problem is that these bespoke suits are so cheap that the materials used are not of saville row standard and the willingness to go beyond a second fitting is in short supply. That said, if you're firm, clear, and stand your ground with a smile, you can get a bargain.

The very best way of getting what you want is to take in a suit that you're completely happy with and ask them to copy it. Though as we shall see, even that technique will require checking and tweaking.
The second best way is to take in pictures and photographs. After ordering, (should've done it sooner) I spent a hour or so putting together an Evernote lookbook of designs and details as ammo for the first fitting. 

Well aware that I was asking for something slightly outlandish (a single-breasted two button jacket over a double-breasted waistcoat) I took in pictures. Fortunately since I decided upon that formula two or three years ago, (when I was derided by the GQ style editor for even suggesting it might work), the catwalks have caught up and now there's many example online. It may even be fashionable soon.
My logic is that a waistcoat is always buttoned-up and will look more classically formal as a double-breasted, and also when worn without a jacket, whereas the jacket is frequently worn open and therefore cannot be double-breasted. Hence the mix - a tricky combination of formal and cool (as in not too warm), perfect for a smart summer linen combo.

The following morning I arrived for the first fitting. Trousers first, they were baggy round the thigh and bum, but slim at the ankle, almost the opposite of what I was after. "But you said you want skinny!" Fortunately I'd download a couple of recent Nick Cave portraits, so could demonstrate the slight boot-cut that I wanted - close round the thigh and knee, but with a very slight flare at the shin and ankle; not too much of a problem, she'd left enough fabric inside. 

Next, the jacket, pretty good, immediately felt comfortable whilst looking sharp. It just needed a bit more of a pinch at the waist, a centimetre off the sleeves and working cuff buttons and lapel buttonhole as I'd asked. As I took it off though I heard a sound that alarmed me. I rubbed the shoulder and detected it was wadded with very cheap foam. She opened up the lining and showed me that it was, and that was all they used in Vietnam. I'd been into a more expensive tailor earlier that morning and knew that wasn't the case, so with the help of a quick google search, insisted on a better quality cloth wadding.

Off with the jacket, on with the waistcoat (vest for any yanks reading). We chalked out quite a few adjustments to face and shoulders, then I slipped the jacket back on. Uh-oh! Big problem! The tricky thing with three piece suits is getting the neckline to match. Fine if you're teaming a high six-button vest with a low two-button jacket, there's loads of room to forgive a bad ratio. But since I'd ordered lapels on my d-b waistcoat and I wanted them to sit close and almost parallel to and under the neckline of the jacket, we had a problem, the neckline of the vest was much too high and revealed an uncomfortably small amount of the face panels of the waistcoat. Put simply, it looked stoopid.

As soon as she realised she'd have to buy more cloth for a new front, my tailor got a bit shirty. (As it turned out I gave her a couple of bucks for the waste cloth, it'll be good for repairs and a hat-band.) However, I stood my ground and we agreed to regroup the following day. 

On the second fitting the trousers and jacket were both spot on, almost as good as I would expect at any price. But there were new problems with the new waistcoat, the neckline still didn't work with the jacket. I found myself typing the phrase "maintain sufficient overlap" into google translate. A third fitting brought even more problems - somehow in fixing the neckline, they'd reduced the width of overlap between the left and right panels to less than two inches - it was almost single-breasted. At this point I knew I wasn't going to get another new waistcoat, and the tailor was getting sulky, so had to think of a solution myself. I requested a third pair of buttons to sit I between the existing two pairs, which helped to break up the disproportionately long ratio. That done, I decided to cut my losses, I figured I'd got a beautiful blue linen 2-piece for $135 and a slightly unbalanced matching waistcoat for free.

Whilst all this was happening I'd also commissioned another tailor, one of the big four in Hoi An, to make me a practical summer travel jacket. I decided on Kimmy tailors for two reasons. Firstly, Tim the front sales guy being Canadian/Vietnamese spoke fluent English, and seemed to know a fair amount about tailoring. Secondly, their large cutting room where the tailors, dressmakers and seamstresses worked was upstairs (unlike 95% of the other ships that cutoff-site) so any quick adjustments could be made while you wait.
I wanted a lightweight, half-lined, single-breasted, linen jacket and had very specific requirements for pockets inside and out. Inside buttoned pockets for passport and boarding pass, wallet and phone. Outside patch pockets for a novel, an iPad-mini and a pocket square at the left breast. I gave this brief to Anna, one of the tailors who spoke pretty good English, emailed her a look book of references, and measurement requirements for each of the pockets. I used the Rohan Envoy jacket as a reference for internal pockets.
The first fitting was 36hrs later. My first reaction was that the cloth was a little too grey, and not quite blue enough for my skin tone, but there was nothing I could do about that. It's difficult to make an accurate judgement off a small swatch, so it's always worth looking at a larger piece before going ahead with the commission. Ooops. The fit though, was pretty good off the bat, just a few tweaks to the sleeve length and a little bit off the waist. However, it was immediately apparent that they'd completely disregarded my brief on the pockets. Outside patch pockets were too small, and there was no breast pocket, inside pockets were generic. 
The second fitting later that day was better, they'd changed and added to the pockets, but it still needed a button-hole lapel and working cuff buttons. By the third fitting they got that fixed but it was only then that I noticed the front left side of the jacket was a clear 1cm longer than the right. How curious! At first I thought it may have been my dodgy shoulder throwing it out, but Anna took the jacket off, measured each side and looked a bit sheepish. A fourth fitting soon after almost fixed that problem, and a final little tweak by her master tailor with a stitch and a hot iron left the jacket looking just dandy. I'd also asked for a slim-fitting light blue shirt in the lightest cotton with a white cutaway collar. This they got absolutely right first time, and for $30 I was thrilled with it.
This jacket cost $90, and took three days. Not bad, but I only got near to the tech spec I wanted despite a comprehensive brief, and some major changes.

On my penultimate evening in Hoi An, having worn my blue linen suit for a happy few hours, I decided to go back to T&C for an almost identical one in white. I was chasing the colonial look, the plantation owner, the man from Del Monte, Fitzcarraldo, Denholm Elliot, Eldritch in Dominion, Jay Gatsby etc. and had a look at all those references. I made it easier for Linh, by requesting a flat base to the waistcoat so there was no conflict between the aligning the v peaks at the base, and the double breasted overlap. 
I also took in the blue suit so they could cut to match. You would imagine on that basis, they could get it correct first go, but this was not the case. The next morning we had the usual issues with jacket fit at the waist and sleeve, the shoulders were good though, so that was the main thing. Trousers were fine, good first time. The waistcoat though! They just can't seem to get them right. A second fitting in the afternoon and it still looked boxy. The lapels didn't sit well against the shoulders and there was still surplus cloth between the armpit and the chest, whilst it was beginning to get a bit pinchy round the waist. Again, with time short, I cut my losses on the waistcoat, and settled for a great 2-piece with a slightly ill-fitting vest. 
So, in summary, it's perfectly possible to get a well fitting suit in 48hrs, for less than a high-street off-the-peg in the UK, provided you don't ask for anything sartorially unusual.

Finally, since my walking boots had reached the end of their natural life in the Vinh Moc tunnels, it was time to get a new pair. I'd been to the market and decided against that, so found a nice lady with a shop called Anh Bao and commissioned a pair of stone suede chukka boots, lined with leather and a pair of teal suede shoes for $45 and $35 respectively. An outline of each foot was traced by hand, and four measurements around the toes, instep, bridge and ankle were taken. I went back twenty hours later and the fit was great. The lining in the shoes was mistakenly not real leather, so I negotiated a discount on the, but otherwise I was very happy. I don't expect them to last long, but for that price who would?
Out with the old...

In with the new:

All this shopping was not doing any favours for my wallet, my baggage allowance or my back. I decided at the last minute to send two suits and the teal shoes back to London. At 4kg it cost me $40 including insurance for a 2-3 month service. They should arrive home soon after I do.

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