Behind the seams

Yves Saint Laurent famously said “dressing is a way of life”; and none can agree more with this statement other than tailor and founder of Bespoked, Ian Chang. His name should ring a bell with many of you, especially those who frequent at One Utama where his shop is located at the adjoining entrance to One World Hotel.

Having grown up in a fishing village in Kuala Selangor, Ian did not always live by the mandate of sophisticated dressing. When his friends isolated him because of the lack of branded clothing he wore, Ian took it as an opportunity to learn how to tailor his own clothes; but when Savile Row tailors asked him to leave their store because of how he looked, he came back with a fiery determination to learn from the same people that turned him away. Behind the wooden doors of Bespoked stands a great man with an incredible heart to learn, and his pursuit to change the way we look at tailoring.

How did you discover your passion for tailoring?

Once I completed secondary school, I needed money to further my studies. My brother told me that he had a friend who owns a tailor shop and that I can work there part time. At first, I was not allowed to touch the fabrics so I started off by sweeping the floor. You might think that sweeping is a cleaner’s job, but just by sweeping the floor I was able to observe how much fabric was wasted. From there, I was given the opportunity to learn everything from the back end to the front end of tailoring. I saw this as a blessing because I was given a chance to make my own shirts and dress up better than I did before. People were buying stuff off the rack, but I was able to make my own clothes; and that is something I am proud of.

You were given an opportunity to visit the prestigious Savile Row; what happened when you got there?

Before heading over there, I dressed up. I thought I didn’t look too bad; I was wearing sport shoes, jeans, a shirt with a jacket. I brought my backpack with me along with some name cards. When I opened the door to one of the shops, I saw a tailor speaking to a customer. He noticed me entering and quickly came up to me. I thought he was coming to say hello, but instead he asked what was I doing here? I thought I had stepped into the wrong shop! He kindly asked me to leave and escorted me to the door. I couldn’t even introduce myself or pass him my name card. I felt so discouraged and lost my confidence to step into the next shop. For the next three days, I spent my time walking along the streets of Savile Row. As the shops were below ground level, I would sit on the staircase and observe how they worked. Just by watching them, I was able to distinguish the difference between tailoring in Malaysia and England. Here, we tend to rush the product, but they take their time enjoying the process as though creating a piece of art. I guess that is why the finished product is of top quality and workmanship - nothing is hurried.

People were buying stuff off the rack, but I was able to make my own clothes; and that is something I am proud of.

So how did you end up working at Savile Row?

The following year after my initial visit, there was a tailoring competition that took place in Penang. On the form, I saw who were the judges attending and one of them was from Savile Row. I took it as an opportunity and quickly got my portfolio together and made sure this time I made a good first impression. When I met him, I asked for his email and he was opened for me to contact him. After a few correspondence, I asked if I could go over and learn from him, to which he said yes. Once I got the green light, I started saving up money and planning my trip and that took me about a year.

What’s the one most important thing you’ve learned from them?

The passion for the work they do. Along Savile Row, they treat each other like family. After the day’s business is done, we spend time together and share our experiences. There isn’t any rivalry, unlike what we see here in Malaysia where tailors are so concern about who “stole” his customers. If you’re in the same industry, then you’re family. We should be working together to see how we can improve the industry and serve the customers better. Until today, I still ask the tailors in England for advice and answers on certain things that I face difficulties with, and they’re more than willing to help me out.

Why is it difficult to find young people who are willing to learn the tailoring trade?

Nowadays, everyone wants to learn something easy. We’ve accustomed to being assisted in doing so many things. Asking people to use their hands to draw, cut or sew is something they find difficult. There are plenty of designers graduating from our schools, but their experience with technology has made things so convenient. Tailoring is an in depth study of fabrics, detailing, and stitching - it’s a completely different field and not many people have the patience to learn.

There was a point where you wanted to be the best tailor out there. However, now you prefer to take smaller achievements at a time - what changed the way you measure success?

When you get older, your ambition matures with you. I wanted to be the best out there, but in the end I realised that ranking isn’t important. What’s important is creating something more unique than what others have done. Returning customers are my greatest joy. When they tell me they love what we’ve done, that’s more than enough for me.

We should be working together to see how we can improve the industry and serve the customers better

Becoming a tailor wasn’t something Ian anticipated for himself as a teenage boy. Even so, he believes that every opportunity and experience he’s encountered aren’t mere coincidences, but all part of a bigger picture that led him to where he is today.

He chooses not to get caught up in the who’s who of the trade and makes a deliberate decision to focus on providing his customers with honest advice and first class service - rare qualities to experience these days.

I wanted to be the best out there, but in the end I realised that ranking isn’t important.

More on Ian Chang:

Instagram: @bespoked_ianchang