One of the most enduring pleasures of a trip to Thailand? Visiting one of Bangkok’s hundreds of thousands of tailors. After all, which makes the better souvenir: one of several million Chinese-produced “Thai silk” change purses or a suit made just for you?
Why Go to a Tailor?
In the age of mass-produced clothing, most of us buy off-the-rack suits and shirts. The price is right, but getting a good fit is harder. You know the drill: you get the collar right, and the sleeves are too long. You get the sleeve length right, and the buttons pucker. You get a great fit around your waist, and your legs look like they’re lost in sagging cylinders of cloth.
At a tailor, careful, repeated measurements produce a shirt or suit that conforms to your body in every way — so, of course, the fit will be remarkable. Tailored clothing shows off your best assets, complimenting your body and moving with you in ways that off-the-rack, mass-produced clothing cannot.
How to Find Your Tailor
With a tailor shop on literally every corner — there are more tailor shops per street in the river district and the Nana neighborhood than there are Starbucks in New York — choosing one can be daunting.
While walking the streets, you may see any number of tailor shops advertising “suits and dresses in just eight hours!” (though twenty-four hours is more common). Rates quoted can be as low as two suits, two shirts, and two ties for $80.00 USD.
Don’t fall for this. If you go inside, you’ll be shown fabrics and you’ll be measured — but you’ll soon discover that $40.00 suits can only be made from a limited set of unpleasant fabrics. “You do not want the fine yellow polyester suit with mint pinstripe? Well, we have more expensive fabric here…”
Worse, the clothes ordered in shops like these are assembled, Frankenstein-style, by quick, clever Chinese laborers who grab mass-produced elements — sleeves here, suit shells here — and stitch them together. These fabricated suits will never fit or last like a suit made just for you.
So: avoid deeply discounted shops and anyone employing a man to sit outside and shout, “Hey, I make a suit for you!” Instead, to find a legitimate tailor, look for bright, busy shops with a broad range of fabrics on display.
What will the Experience be Like?
Once inside, you’ll probably be welcomed with an offer of a cool drink: bottled water or juice. After you get settled, an employee will ask what you’re looking for. As he learns about your preferences, he may show you a range of fabric options and explain how fabric choices impact price — but you should never feel pressure to purchase anything.
Once you decide to have a suit or dress made, you’ll pick your fabrics. I prefer to take my own fashion consultant (Clyde’s sister!) with me —- but if you don’t have one of your own, the staff is usually pretty good at helping you understand what works, what doesn’t work, and why.
With fabrics selected, the staff will take and record your measurements. These will be entered into a log book, along with swatches of the fabrics you picked out.
In twenty-four to forty-eight hours, you’ll be asked to return to the store for an initial fitting. What you see during this visit will be more like a shell than a finished piece. Don’t panic! The tailor is just making sure the foundation is right before building the entire masterpiece.
Two or three days later, you’ll return for a second fitting. These items will look very much like finished items, but may still need some tweaking (a bit more space here, a shorter hem there.)
Finally, about one day later, your finished pieces will be delivered to your hotel … and will fit you perfectly.
What will Tailored Clothes Cost?
Here’s what to expect around pricing as of January 2016, when this post was written.
Your grandfather remembers buying the best wool suit of his life in Bangkok for just $25 USD. You might have gotten those prices when Bangkok was a quiet little town with canals instead of roads, but these expectations are unreasonable today.
A well-made men’s dress shirt can be purchased for between $35.00 and $65.00, depending on the fabric you choose. That won’t compete with a $13.00 men’s dress shirt from Walmart. But it does complete quite well with off-the-rack Kenneth Cole (about $35 USD), Calvin Klein ($60 USD), Prada ($224 USD), or Ralph Lauren ($300 US) from Amazon.com.
In my experience, unless you are an annoying little mongoose of a male model with a 24-inch waist and rock-hard abs, a tailor-made shirt will look and fit better than even the most high-end off-the-rack shirts. (It will, with proper care, last longer, too.) So, for about what most of us would spend for an off-the-rack shirt, you can have a shirt made just for you.
In Bangkok, excellent tailor-made suits from high-end wool will run about $250-$300 USD each; wool blended with other fabrics (sometimes better for every-day wear) will run about $199 USD.
Can you buy cheaper suits? Of course you can. At Walmart, you can buy a suit coat for $25 USD and the matching slacks for $20 USD — an entire suit for less than $50 USD. Amazon.com sells off-the-rack Louis Raphael for $85 USD and Bill Blass or DKNY for around $200 USD.
But for those of us who would be buying our suits in the moderate price range — avoiding the extremes of the Walmart suit separates at $50 USD and the Ralph Lauren Purple Label Cashmere at $3,700 — we can easily get custom-fitted, tailor-made works of art for just a bit more than what we’d pay for off-the-rack sameness. Unless budget constraints are severe, I’d rather spend $200 USD on a suit made just for me vs. $150 USD on a generic clearance item from Jos. A. Bank.
Is There Anything Spooky about the Situation?
In the past, friends have worried about language barriers in Thailand. Don’t be concerned. These tailors work with people all over the world. While you’re there, you’ll hear their employees switch effortlessly from English to German to Korean to Hindi to Chinese to Thai and back again. Frankly, their ease with language is a little humbling.
I think the biggest psychological obstacle for most people is the harsh reality of being measured for a suit. Especially if you’re uncomfortable with some aspect of your body, you may be hesitant to have that aspect spotlighted by objective measurements.
I don’t particularly love my 38-inch waistline, so, during fittings, I tend to suck in my gut. But that works against me. When I get my suit, do I really want it to fit only when I have my gut sucked in?
So, now, I relax and let it all hang out. And here’s the good news: no matter what your body type, you are going to look slimmer and sexier in clothes made just for you.
If, like me, you’re a little overweight, you’re probably used to buying clothes that are a little baggy, thinking this helps conceal your tummy. If that’s the case, you may, at first, think the tailor-made clothes are a bit too fitted — and they are, because they actually fit you! Don’t worry. Just relax, be honest about what’s comfortable, and trust the tailor.
I will mention this: Asian men tend to wear shirts a bit tighter across the belly than Americans do, and they also like their suit pant inseams to, um, ride a little higher than most Americans would. Knowing this, I make a point to have these areas adjusted to my tastes.
Nothing — nothing — looks as good on you or makes you feel more confident and attractive than tailor-made clothes.
I’ve been wearing my new suits and shirts to work this week, and I’m getting non-stop compliments from friends, colleagues, and even kitchen staff. And I have to admit that, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I have what, for me, is an unusual experience: I really like what I see.
So get yourself to Thailand and visit a tailor! I can recommend these:
Empire Tailors. This was our first time to use Empire Tailors, and I couldn’t be happier. Their bright, sunny shop is staffed with friendly, professional staff who absolutely will not pressure you into anything at all — but they will give you good advice and excellent customer service. Compared to other tailors we’ve used, the clothes from Empire are a bit more expensive, but the higher quality is also obvious. Owner Sunny personally inspects the finer details of every product — and his obsession with quality shows. (Near Nana Station near the Nana Post Office)
Saville Row Tailors. We’ve gone to Saville Row Tailors three times, taking friends and family to the tiny location behind the Rose Hotel (near the Patpong — tell the taxi driver to take you to Le Meridian Bangkok, then walk behind that building). Shirts from here are excellent, suits are good, and ladies’ dresses are flattering (though the patterns are limited). Prices are a bit lower than Empire, on the whole. One interesting thing: Saville Row makes regular trips to the USA, so, if you live in a major city, it’s possible to have them visit your home — though we found their “on the road” prices (which have to include travel expenses and shipping) higher than we wanted to pay.
Tom’s Fashion. Our family went to Tom’s Fashion for years, mostly because the shop was a favorite with the guides we worked with in our earliest trips to Bangkok. Our experiences here were good enough to bring us back several times, but on our last two visits, we felt we saw a drop in quality in the shirts (which never seemed quite right at the neck) and the suits (hems in the pant legs came loose far too often). Still, I hear others continue to have good results — and the price is right, especially if you negotiate well.