Tailor Thomas Wong honed his skill over 50 years, starting at age 16…
THE STRAITS TIMES . 25TH JUL 2016 | ANKITA VARMA
LIFE INTERVIEW WITH TAILOR THOMAS WONG:
TRUE MASTER OF THE CRAFT
Tailor Thomas Wong honed his skill over 50 years, starting at age 16 as an apprentice and now owns a well-regarded boutique
Master tailor Thomas Wong is carefully tracing a razor-sharp pair of scissors around some indigo suit fabric at his atelier on the third floor of a shophouse along Boat Quay.
The 69-year-old’s deft fingers barely rest in between all the snipping, marking and measuring required for a suit jacket to take shape.
Despite the constant clicking of the camera shutter and the prying eyes of this journalist, he continues his work with a singular focus – the sort of concentration that invariably sets apart masters from mere tailors.
Mr Wong’s well-regarded Shaw Centre boutique and brand, The Prestigious, has relaunched this month. It had closed in 2012 after a 13-year run.
The new 980 sq ft space at Boat Quay will serve as an atelier- cum-workshop to train a new generation of bespoke tailors – most of whom have graduated from his menswear course at Lasalle College of the Arts.
He has honed his skills over five decades in the trade, beginning at age 16 with an apprenticeship at a tailoring shop in High Street where his uncle worked.
I’ve always refused to be a follower. It takes time to do research and train yourself to think out of the box, but that is the only way for the craft to continue to grow and evolve. That is what I hope I’m doing when I teach the younger generation my techniques – I want them to learn from me, but also dare to change things to make them better.
MR THOMAS WONG, on the evolution of the tailoring trade
Mr Wong had then just graduated from Chung Cheng High School, where he was classmates with his future wife, Chee Moh Chin. After he was rejected by the police force, his first choice career option, he settled on a job at West End Tailors.
“At that time, tailors like my uncle were trained by the British, but they didn’t know how to impart their skills,” he recalls.
“They didn’t question why things were done a certain way or why one step had to be done before another. To learn from them, you had to observe and then just hope for the best.”
It is perhaps this lack of proper training in his formative years which prompted Mr Wong to give up his business four years ago to head the menswear programme at Lasalle College of the Arts.
Mr Lionel Roudaut, programme director of fashion and textile studies at Lasalle, recalls seeking out Mr Wong after a tailor at Peninsula Plaza recommended him.
“Back then, Thomas was president of the Singapore Master Tailor Association, which is why I thought he had been recommended to me. But when I met him, I realised he was a real goldmine for our students – a true master of the craft and someone with incredible knowledge when it comes to the precision of traditional tailoring techniques. ”
In turn, going into teaching led to Mr Wong’s decision to relaunch his business. He says: “People often lament that tailoring is a dying trade. But to be honest, I think more young people are looking for that personal bespoke touch which you can’t get from an off-the-rack suit. I think that for the younger generation of tailors, the sun is just rising. But there needs to be an opportunity for them to hone their skills and grow.”
For the two-term president of the Singapore Master Tailor Association, it is this gap that The Prestigious v2.0 is helping to fill.
The store is managed and run by two of his disciples, one of whom was Mr Wong’s Lasalle student. And each piece that leaves the boutique is completely made in-house – a rarity in this age of outsourcing.
With prices for a suit starting at $1,200 and going up to $50,000 for a top coat crafted with wool made with rare and fine Vicuna hair from the South American camelid, it costs a pretty penny to be clad in bespoke. But one glance at the polished shirts and jackets displayed in the tastefully inviting store makes it clear that you are getting your money’s worth.
The bales of fabric displayed on the dark wooden shelves are from top English and Italian brands such as Ermenegildo Zegna, Loro Piana and Holland & Sherry.
And there is nary a stitch out of place when it comes to the checkered slim-fit shirts or the suit jackets displayed on mannequins.
The message at the boutique is clear: The suits and shirts at The Prestigious help to make the man.
Fittingly for a purveyor of style, Mr Wong himself cuts a dashing figure in his electric blue jacket and fitted black pants. The look is completed with a maroon pocket square and striped cherry-red and purple socks.
It is this attention to detail that he wants to drum into his new generation of young charges.
“You cannot become a master tailor without mastering the basics,” he says, divulging that it takes 240 steps and more than 80 hours for him to complete a single suit jacket. “It is easy to cut corners but you’ll never perfect your craft that way. I don’t believe in shortcuts – only perfection.”