Clothes Make the Man, Vietnamese Tailors Make the Clothes
“Twenty-seven and a half!” the woman called out and quickly slid the measuring tape down my body. “Right shoulder higher than left shoulder!”
I started twisting to look at my unequal shoulders in the mirror, but she quickly forced my body back, while methodically calling out numbers and body parts.
“Right thigh is wider than the left! But the left leg is longer!”
How is this possible? I walked into this highly respectable Vietnamese tailor shop as a normal, average man. I was now the hunchback of Hoi An. My reflection staring back at me seemed grotesquely twisted, every limb asymmetrical, my expression in the mirror bewildered. Julia’s reflection, sitting on a bench next to fabric samples was clearly laughing at me.
“Oh no,” the tailor thoughtfully said, looking me up and down, “Off the rack suits would never fit your body.”
I sighed and decided not to mention that for the last nine years I’ve been wearing off the rack suits every day to the office.
“Don’t worry!” the tailor said, seeing my face droop, “We can make you beautiful suits!”
Julia was giggling behind me until one of the ladies offered to measure her for a “beautiful dress”.
“I happen to be very symmetrical.” Julia insisted, “Completely proportional and I don’t even need a dress.”
It was time to decide on suit style. To speed up this process, I pulled up my iPhone and showed pictures of Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers in crisp slim-fitting suits to show the tailor exactly the kind of suit I wanted. I picked these pictures out ahead of time, before my disastrous measuring. Now, here I was, a ridiculously asymmetrical man demanding to look like handsome late-night show hosts.
“I understand I don’t look like this, but I would like my suits to look like this.” I said.
The tailor looked at me, looked at the picture of Jimmy Fallon, looked back at me and somehow managed to remain completely professional. She very politely nodded at the pictures, pointedly put my phone aside, and never referred to them again.
Next, I needed to pick fabric for my suits, an insurmountable task given how many fabric swatches lay on the table in front of me. Thankfully, the tailor was very helpful with picking out great patterns and matching lining fabric with outside wool fabric. By the time the style and the fabric of the suits were picked, I was feeling like an ugly duckling somewhere in the middle of the transformation. Deep inside, I could barely contain my excitement that I was finally going to wear custom, well-made suits every day at the office.
We were in Hoi An only for three days, but even just 24 hours was enough to get excellent custom-made suits made in this city. The town is known as the tailor capital of not only Vietnam but also of the Southeast Asia. The streets of Hoi An’s old town are lined with tailor shops and their exquisitely dressed in latest fashion mannequins. A tailor-made suit in Vietnam costs only as much as a regular off-the-rack suit in US, which is many times less than a comparable custom-made suit in a Western tailor shop, and so many tourists leave Vietnam with more clothes than they brought. The shops are open early and close late, with workers sawing clothes around the clock to satisfy the demand. Custom clothes require multiple fittings and I was scheduled to come in three more times to try on the suits and measure for adjustments.
It’s important to note that Hoi An is much more than just tailor shops. In fact, such frequent tailor visits really can cut into the sightseeing. The ancient town of Hoi An has rich history as it served as an intentional trading hub for centuries and its well-preserved architecture now showcases Chinese, Japanese, and European influences. The Old Town was spared of bombing during the Vietnam War and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. An evening in Hoi An is always a feast of color, with colorful lanterns decorating streets, fronts of the houses, restaurants, and even boats. In the time between suit measurements, we managed to explore the streets and alleys of Hoi An, merchant houses, and colorful congregation halls. The town is very pretty, especially in the evening, and touristy but “touristy” in a good way as you want to be a tourist in such a beautiful and romantic place.
That evening, we went back to the tailor shop and were greeted by the same ladies.
“We sent your measurements to the head tailor and he called us back because he thought we made a mistake!” one of the ladies cheerfully chattered while again measuring my thigh, “But no, that’s just how your body is!”
I heard Julia stifling a laugh behind me.
I decided to buy three shirts, three suits (each with two trousers, as pants tend to wear out quicker), one blazer and two dress trousers for casual Fridays, and four ties and pocket squares were thrown in for free. I am very traditional in my office fashion, always wearing blue or grey suits with white or light blue shirts. But Julia was having none of this, throwing swatches of purple and green fabric at me during my initial consultation. She was convinced that a purple suit with a pink shirt would be a proper attire within any courtroom. After somehow getting through to her that real courtrooms are not what’s depicted in “My Cousin Vinnie” and that I am not Joe Peschi (even though my body type is definitely closer to his than Jimmy Fallon’s), I finally picked out one dark blue suit, one lighter blue suit and a light grey suit. Julia looked disappointed, so I decided to compromise with her on my shirt color picks. I picked out a white and light blue shirt and Julia, after much deliberation, pointed at a light violet fabric. I also let her pick out two out of four of the ties, a decision which mattered much less than the rest, considering I already have all the ties I could ever need at home. She picked greenish and purplish ties and I decided on two blue ones. To give her credit, the violet shirt actually ended up going really well with the dark blue suit, but I still haven’t found the courage to try on those ties.
Back at the second consultation, less than 10 hours from when I picked out suit styles and fabrics, all three unfinished suits were ready for measuring. I tried all the jackets and pants and the ladies carefully drew out all alternations in chalk on the fabric. After an hour of putting on and taking off clothes, as I was carefully considering every stitch and every measurement, trying to make sure the suits didn’t pinch anywhere but also weren’t even slightly baggy, another man walked into the other changing room with a suit. He walked out a few minutes later with trousers clearly too bulky on the legs and a jacket bunching up a bit on the back. He glanced at the mirror, shrugged his shoulders, said, “Looks great!” and went back into the changing room to take it off, as his tailor tried to chase him down to make some corrections. My tailor watched him storming out of the shop, wistfully.
We came back the next morning for more fittings and chalk drawings and finally, the last time in the evening to find all three suits fitting my Joe Peschi body perfectly. The suits still had to be dry cleaned and packed and ladies promised me that they would be delivered to our Airbnb before noon of next day. Next day, the suits were in the lobby, carefully folded and wrapped for transportation, and I couldn’t wait to get home to try them on again.
I spent the next week lugging the bulky package of suits around airports and Airbnbs, the wire hangers painfully cutting into my hands every time they had to be picked up and carried around, until I finally brought them home. I found that the suits did get crumpled up a bit over the last week and took them to dry cleaning the same day.
Later that week at work, bleary-eyed and still exhausted from jet lag, I was trying to catch up with my workload after a two-week absence, when a new email arrived in my Inbox. “Announcement: Dress for Your Day dress code policy” email from COO explained that the company is delighted to roll out a new relaxed dress code policy. After 170 years of strictly formal business attire in my practice group, one of the first company announcements of 2020 was that casual attire, including jeans, was now acceptable office wear.
I closed the email and stared at the wall.
The next day, the halls were filled with people in jeans, sweaters, casual slacks and untucked shirts. I walked down the hall, staring dead ahead, in a beautifully tailored single-breasted dark blue suit, crisp white shirt and a blue tie.
“Victor,” an associate asked me a few days later, “Will you at least stop wearing ties to the office now?”
“No,” I said, “I certainly will not.”