The Trend & The Tailor

Women across Asia are eyeing fast fashion. Will this signal the demise of local tailors?

There’s a lady at a sewing machine across the border from Hong Kong, in the special economic zone of Shenzhen, China. By midday every day, she has 6 or 7 customers sitting at her cluttered desk that’s covered in magazines and drawings of clothing, tape measures and scissors. She is aware of the trends as her customer’s requests change, but what she may not realize is that another trend may be about to have a major impact on her business.

Seamstress Working Daguerreotype 1853 by Daguerre Posters

Fast fashion is spreading across Asia, as retailers set up shop to capture growth in the emerging middle class markets. Brands such as Zara, Mango, and H&M already have a large presence in Hong Kong and Gap is looking to join them within the next month – the scaffolding outside their Central store is already tempting the busy pedestrian walkway with their wholesome American images.

It’s good news for the companies involved, and bad news for local Asia brands such as Esprit, Uniqlo and Girodano. Esprit has seen its share price fall to 9 year lows due to a weak outlook as analysts’ lose confidence in the business’ ability to compete in the new market conditions. But what effect will the spread of fast fashion in Asia have on a more macro level?

If we look at more well developed markets as an indicator, then we can assume women will buy a lot more clothing than they used to. As closet space is more of an issue for most of Asian women’s closets than their western counterparts, it’s also safe to assume that they will be turning over goods at a higher rate.

Yes, it means they’ll be buying more, and throwing it away at the same rate.

Between 2001 and 2005 in Britain, fashion spending grew 21%, yet the individual cost per item in the same period decreased by 14%. This allowed women to effectively consume half of their body weight in clothing on a year on year basis.

In Asia, there isn’t a well developed culture of recycling clothing, and apart from a few notable exceptions, there isn’t a well developed charity infrastructure to distribute used clothing to those in need. Every day on Victoria harbour I watch large ships leave the docks filled with rubbish, on their way North to create landfill. It’s my guess that a lot of the fast fashion purchasing will eventually end up as part of that cycle – especially given the low quality of the goods. T-shirts become stretched, stained or grow holes. Shoes wear thin after only a few months of wear, and seams rip or tear, rendering the item unwearable. These factors have fed into the fast fashion counter campaigns in other regions of the world.

In Hong Kong, I don’t think the plethora of Indian tailors toting custom suits will be affected. They regularly receive orders from across the globe, and canvas hard for new sales from the tourist population. The market for an affordable custom made suit could be more readily analysed by global jobs figures and the performance of the financial markets than the fast fashion expansion.

I do fear for the future of the thriving tailoring marketplace geared toward women’s clothing. Across the border in Shenzhen, China, the tailors I frequent will custom make a dress for around US $15, around the same price as an item at a fast fashion retailer. I regularly trawl through the huge selection of fabric at the markets, choosing something to have made up based on photographs I provide, or a hand drawn image. The tailor I go to (Shop number 19, Western Style Clothing) has a good eye and the quality of the goods are satisfactory.

Like fast fashion goods, the quality isn’t exceptional, for that money one doesn’t gain access to an ‘atelier’ service, but unlike fast fashion, what one does end up with is a perfectly serviceable well-fitted item of clothing that lasts well, if you choose your fabric carefully. It’s also a totally affordable way to access what should otherwise be considered the luxury of having tailor-made clothing. I’m also quite certain that the more you frequent the tailor, the quality of the workmanship increases, which cannot be said for fast fashion.

There are hundreds of tailors across the border, and plenty more here in Hong Kong that deal with women’s clothing. When I go into Zara, or H&M, I think of them. As a result, I simply note down some of the features I like about an item rather than purchasing it, and continue on with design ideas in mind to take to ‘MY tailor’, who can sometimes make it up that day. Or I shop for patterns instead, some kind people even give them away for free!

It's easy to smile when a tailor makes you a lovely dress from a pattern you got for free!


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