Sam’s Tailors: World’s most popular suitmakers

This is no rags to riches story. Roshan Melwani and his father Manu, the two men behind the iconic Sam's Tailors in Hong Kong, have given a new perspective to the riches via rags idea

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Hong Kong’s most famous tailor doesn’t exist. Or rather, Sam is very much a reality. But he’s three men rather than just one.

Nowadays Sam is best exemplified in the persona of Roshan Melwani — a 41-year-old city slicker, with his finger on fashion’s pulse and at his beck and call all the family talent for what the British call “bedside manner”: That is, a respectful, calming and knowledgeable mien that anyone visiting a tailor, be it for the first or the 21st time, knows without a shadow of a doubt is worth its weight in gold.

But the story begins more than half a century ago when the late Naraindas Melwani, Roshan’s grandfather, moved to what was then a British colony pulling itself up by its bootstraps in the wake of the second World War and under the shadow of communist China. Leaving Sindh for a better chance at life, Melwani found premises off Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, at the southern end of the Kowloon peninsular. As soon as he was old enough, his son, Manu, got involved in the business, and so a family dynasty was born.

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There was a strong military presence in the colony at the time, and Sam — a name that came easier to English tongues than Naraindas or Melwani — soon acquired a reputation for value-for-money, excellent workmanship and — should the need arise — speed.

Sam’s was the original home of the 24-hour suit, a favourite of cruise ship passengers who would dock one day and sail the next with a brand new outfit hanging smartly in their cabin. His business grew by the day, as soldiers and businessmen (Sam wasn’t tailoring for ladies very much at this stage) passed on their insider tips: If you want a good tailor, old chap, you could do a lot worse than go to Sam. Talk about typical British understatement.

The world is obsessed with 'slim fit'. Mass production is rolling out suits of thin, unnatural microfibre that get lighter every year and that will encase and shell you.

Sam’s premises then were a filing cabinet drawer of a shop with space barely enough to turn around, let alone swing a cat. Yet despite having prospered and flourished in subsequent years, Sam has only expanded modestly, adding extra fitting rooms and another consulting room two floors up. Everyone knows where to find him — at the back of the Burlington Arcade opposite Kowloon Park. High profile clients — and they are legion — can always be measured up in their hotel suites if they want to avoid the public gaze. And for everyone else, Sam’s is all about being small and intimate, with bolts of cloth lining the walls, a brace of changing rooms that might demand some minor acrobatics, but most of all — familiar faces. Probably there are some friends here too, but most important are Sam and his staff.

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Many others have made the journey from the subcontinent to Hong Kong and prospered through dint of hard work. Hari Harilela built up a vast real estate business which included the Holiday Inn Golden Mile, just down the road from Sam’s. Hormusjee Naorojee Mody — not only a successful business man but also a generous philanthropist — was knighted by the British. It’s not exactly a coincidence that the Holiday Inn looks out over Mody Road. But out of all of Hong Kong’s numerous success stories, nobody is quite as well-known as Sam. It’s less a case of ‘rags to riches’ than ‘riches via rags’. Always accessible, always amenable, Sam is a celebrity in his own right but one who would never brush off an anxious fan hopeful of an autograph.

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And on the subject of celebrities, there are times when it seems like Sam’s order book has got mixed up with Who’s Who. It’s not simply Hong Kong’s shovers and makers who head to Sam’s for their superior threads; it seems as if almost every celebrity who drops by Hong Kong has an appointment with Sam.

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Politicians who might argue with each other over just about everything else have set aside their differences to agree on one thing — when it comes to getting a suit in Hong Kong, Sam’s the man. Hence Sam (either senior or junior) is all too pleased to show off photos of himself brandishing a tape measure and a broad grin next to US presidents (Bill Clinton and George Bush senior), wannabe US presidents (Sarah Palin and Jeb Bush), Australian prime minister John Howard, Scotland’s ‘well-proportioned’ first minister Alex Salmond and Britain’s favourite loose cannon, Boris Johnson. Pop stars tend to turn up en masse, witness the likes of Coldplay, Tears For Fears and The Beach Boys, proving beyond all reasonable doubt that a diversity of musical styles doesn’t necessarily lead to a different taste in clothes. Craig David, Bruno Mars, Olivia Newton-John and Rod Stewart have also made star appearances on Sam’s stage, as has Luciano Pavarotti. Otherwise, check supermodels Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss, comedians Barry Humphries and Stephen Fry, golfers Justin Rose, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell, TV frontman Richard Quest, an occasional royal (Britain’s Prince Edward, doubtless on his father’s advice), and movie greats Sylvester Stallone and Sigourney Weaver. Sam’s even tailored James Bond — that is, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan.

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Rich or determined to become so, famous or simply aspiring to be so, everyone who comes to Sam’s with a well-worn aphorism in mind: Clothes maketh the man. And in Hong Kong, Sam maketh the clothes, for both men and women.

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“We still cater to ladies and gentlemen in a hurry — the quality 24-hour suit is still very much a reality,” says Roshan.

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“When a customer comes in, I have a lot of questions for them: Do you wear a suit to work every day; if not, how often do you wear a suit, what colours do you already have, and are you targeting anything in particular?

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“Then I hone in on the fabrics that I think are best based on those answers. Then I take the client through every design attribute, including linings and buttons. They return at their next available convenient time to try, and shortly after their suit — and of course we also make shirts and other garments — is ready and perfect.”

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Naturally, Roshan doesn’t work in isolation, and the power behind the throne is made up of five dozen tailors, both male and female, some of whom have notched up 50 years with the company. All of them deliver old-fashioned craftsmanship, in just about every style imaginable. Roshan adds: “Of course we adapt to current fashions, but we don’t change our core product. There is no way we could automate any part of their work and still guarantee such consistent standards of high quality.”

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Sam’s golden rules are headed by the need to always listen to what the customer wants. This is followed up by a series of questions. “In this way, I get inside somebody’s head. Then I provide advice about the style that helps the customer look great in a suit: The fabrics, the lining, the shirt and everything else. All of this makes our product very, very personal.”

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The sheer skill involved in making a suit fit like a glove is imbued with heritage and is not likely to change greatly, no matter what new technology is introduced in mass production factories. Roshan says: “The world is obsessed with ‘slim fit’. Mass production is rolling out suits of thin, unnatural microfibre fabrics that get lighter every year and that will encase and shell you. However, our customers go for better quality, more woolly and substantial fabrics that are more comfortable to wear, and which look smart and casual.”

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Not that Sam’s, and in particular Roshan, is averse to putting modern technology to good use. “We do a fantastic job promoting our business via social media marketing, principally Facebook and Instagram,” says Roshan. “Instagram is the place to showcase our work”, says Roshan.

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IG Samstailor showcases more than 5,000 images of customers wearing that unique look of someone who has just slipped on a new item of clothing for the first time and is revelling in it. “It is a superb promotion for us, and many people find
out about us on TripAdvisor,” adds Roshan.

“Facebook Business Messenger is especially good too, like when it comes to automatically booking measuring sessions for customers. It’s amazing how much free stuff is out there on the Internet that can help me build my business and
stay relevant.”

Potential customers in India and elsewhere in the world who have no immediate plans to visit Hong Kong can take advantage of the Internet to order from Sam’s. The company website — samstailor.com — provides step-by-step measuring instructions. And prices are more than reasonable, with shirts priced at HK$500, a two-piece-suit costs HK$2,800, while a three-piece suit is HK$4,100.

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While Roshan might be the junior, hipper member of the double act that is Sam’s Tailor, his father Manu is the solid rock on whom the business is founded. A professional from top to toe, he is also celebrated for his razor-sharp mind and a memory that would make Google glow with pride. Customers walking into his shop unannounced after a gap of several years are greeted by name, and if pressed on the matter, details of their last order. “Ah yes, Mr _____, I remember I made you a ____.” He then proceeds to the second
phase of his party trick, mentioning a mutual friend who dropped by recently to order some new duds. In short, he’s a phenomenon.

At the ripe old age of 70, many other men might have retired. Indeed, Manu says he has retired, but that doesn’t prevent him from coming to the shop every day, and continuing to operate in pretty much the same way he has done all his working life. “I don’t play such a great part in the business as I used to, Roshan is very much at the helm nowadays,” he says.

“But we all live here in the same block on Nathan Road, and I wake up in the morning and walking downstairs and into our shop is the natural thing to do. Besides, who would look out for all our old customers if I were not here?”

As Manu speaks, the door opens to admit an entire family — parents keen on choosing shirt material, pre-teen daughters gazing in wonder around the shop, grandparents waiting contentedly in the background. Two English businessmen dash in to pick up suits, an American is measured up in one corner, and a blonde European uses her smartphone to snap a photo of her order docket.

“This is how it is every day — people from all over the world, old customers and new, all different nationalities: we thrive on it,” says Roshan. It’s been remarked more than once that having started out as a simple tailoring business, Sam’s has evolved into a brand, as much a part of Hong Kong as Victoria Peak or Victoria Park or Victoria Harbour.

The Indian community in Hong Kong is very much a minority, but it’s a highly motivated and respected section of the population. And Sam’s has certainly garnered a reputation for itself over the years.

“Sam’s is certainly one of our most reputable tailors — there are several in Hong Kong who are well-known for the quality of service and professionalism, but the Melwanis have taken the lead,” says Rajesh Sadhwani, who runs Royal Enterprises,
the city’s preeminent jeweller and a leading light in the Indian community.

“That so many royalty and celebrities patronise Sam’s is down to their professionalism and hard work, and everyone in the community, and Hong Kong as a whole, admires them for it.”

Throughout Hong Kong, and in many parts of the world, it’s generally agreed that Sam’s is 21st-century tailoring, backed up by years of solid experience and craftsmanship. And there’s a certain amount of cachet
derived from getting your suit made at Sam’s.

Roshan has the last word. “I’d agree with all that, except to say that we are 22nd-century; I keep all my clients ahead of the curve.”

Pictures by Gareth Jones

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