Along the way, I flew on some of the world’s best airlines and shared my thoughts on the ground and in the air. The cash cost for the airfare alone would have been well more than $17,000. Using miles and points, however, I knocked the cost down to around $500. Learn how to travel like I do with PointsAway: The Definitive Guide To Free Flights & Nights.
“You want a beer?” he asks, already on his way to fetch one. It’s about 10:15AM in Hong Kong when a cold can of Carlsberg is slipped into my hand; the man I’m speaking with begins to pull books of swatches down from the shelf.
To get here, I first took a shuttle from my hotel to the hotel, The Peninsula, globally renowned and famous for its fleet of Rolls Royces, all painted a certain deep shade of green named in honor of the hotel that operates them as transport for its guests.
I walked north up Nathan Road, perhaps the busiest of the tourist streets in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Kowloon. I passed thousands of mingling locals and tourists. I saw a boy no more than four years old drop his pants to pee on the side of a shop while the shop’s owner looked on, disinterested. I escaped from a dozen barking salesmen trying fervently to earn my business, employing variations on, “Hey, buddy,” intoned with varying levels of conspiracy. I took a right at an unremarkable yellow sign and made my way down a shabby hallway to a store not much bigger than my hotel room.
Every bit of the store’s walls not hidden by shelving is plastered with hundreds of pictures, nearly all autographed with a personal message, from a cavalcade of world leaders and celebrities. George, George W, and Jeb Bush are all here. So is Bill Clinton, and Hillary. Angela Merkel, Prince Charles, Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Venus Williams, Richard Gere: all here.
Some of the most immediately recognizable men appear in just an undershirt, carefully holding in place a pair of partially constructed pants. Others appear at events and banquets in full regalia. Nearly all of them appear with one of three men, all of Indian heritage, always with a grin and often with measuring tape in hand. Every autograph is addressed simply to Sam, followed by a note: “Thanks for the suit!”
Sam’s Through The Years
The website for Sam’s Tailor proudly touts:
“When it comes to the who’s who of globetrotters, one has to ask not, ‘Who has been to Sam’s?’ but rather ‘Who has not?’”
Doubtless, the pictures and autographs help to confirm this reputation. So does the commemorative stamp released in Hong Kong featuring the shop, celebrating its 50th year in the city. Sam’s was founded by Sam Melwani in 1957. After earning a reputation for quick, quality work, Sam’s became the exclusive uniform tailor for British troops stationed in Hong Kong. The shop remained Britain’s only uniform supplier in Hong Kong up until the territory’s handover to the Chinese in 1997.
In the decades between, Sam’s reputation grew. Diplomats stationed in Hong Kong would bring new connections and old friends to Sam’s. Executives carried word of Sam’s around the world; often, businessmen in town for just a few days would appear at the suggestion of a colleague half a world away who’d visited years before.
Today, Sam’s is no longer run by Sam, but by his sons, Sham and Manu Melwani. You don’t hear their names in the shop, because everyone simply calls them Sam. Most of my visit is spent speaking with Sam’s grandson, Roshan, now in his mid-30s and taking on an increasing role at the shop. One wonders if his name will be Sam in 10 or 20 years, as well.
The 30 Hour Suit
Sam’s is famous for being able to turn around a hand-tailored suit in 24 hours. I appear early Friday; because the shop is closed on Sunday, I’ll need my suit by close of business the next day, allowing about 30 hours in total.
Other tailors sell cheaper suits made in just as much time. Many of these were the ones whose touts approached me on the street during my expedition to Sam’s. Yet too often, these deals come with horror stories about poor fits, suits collapsing at the seams the first time they’re worn or dry cleaned or receiving a suit made of a far shabbier material than what was shown and promised upfront.
There are probably finer tailors in Hong Kong, or at least ones that can match Sam’s high level of quality at a lower cost, but I don’t have the time on the ground to explore or compare. Like the far more famous customers adorning the walls, I’m looking for a great suit, and I need it fast.
I take a sip of the Carlsberg and Roshan opens several books of swatches. The store is still nearly empty, and certainly the least busy I’ll see it while in the city. It affords me the time to deliberate about what I’m looking for and to contemplate each question Roshan asks as he walks me through the process of constructing a suit from scratch. I’m not looking for something dark – I have serviceable black and olive-colored suits – so Roshan shows me some shades of grey and tan. He drapes the swatches over my arm so I can better see how the fabric will look not on its own but against the tone of my skin.
A tan shade stands out as the favorite. He snips a small piece of the swatch off and tapes it to a yellow sheet of paper. We move on to more questions, and he begins to take measurements.
Most of the questions are obvious: how many pockets, does this feel tight, what about the buttons? Some are less so if you haven’t had a suit made before. How large should the opening be at the bottom of each pant leg? Which subtle variation on a lapel is best styled to the fabric and frame of its wearer? These questions are ones I’d only answered subconsciously when shopping off the rack at home: they dictate fit and whether a suit catches my eye, but without much conscious thought being put into them.
Measurements finished, we get down to pricing. I make a half-hearted attempt to negotiate but have a hard time arguing with the price if the quality holds up to expectations. After all, this hand-made suit would come in below the price tag for a middling off-the-rack garment at home. “Let me make you another suit,” Roshan implores, willing to make a deal if I would buy in bulk. My budget won’t tolerate two on this trip, so I instead focus on accessorizing.
I love vests. I like a three-piece suit, and don’t care if other people think it’s too stuffy or old-fashioned. A vest is the first thing I tack on, choosing a rich brown liner that works just as well on the back of the vest as it does on the interior of the coat.
I ask about having some shirts made. Going with a teal the exact shade of my favorite team and a grey useful in many situations, I finally win some concessions, knocking about $10USD off the price of each shirt. Roshan asks me to choose from six different types of collars for the shirts, all distressingly similar to the untrained eye. As in several other cases, I ask him for his recommendation, allowing the pro to do his work with as little interference from me as possible.
After a half-hour of conversation, Roshan has what he needs. The yellow paper is now filled with notes and the one piece of fabric taped to it has been joined by several more, for the liner and shirt materials. He asks me to come back later that day, around 3PM, so they can do a first fitting.
It’s tough to believe that there can be anything ready to fit in only about four hours, but the yellow paper has already been handed to one of the shop’s workers, along with a detailed list of verbal instructions conveyed by my host as he seamlessly shifts from English to Cantonese and back. The messenger rushes the order to the shop’s production facility a few kilometers away, from which suits and orders are shuttled back and forth continuously throughout the day.
Roshan walks me out and asks what I have planned for the day, happy to provide recommendations for how I can best spend the next few hours. He offers to fetch me a cab, but I decide to explore the area for a while longer. With a handshake and a sincere thanks for my business, Roshan heads back into the store, where a number of other customers have arrived during our conversation. This is a brief moment repeated each time I leave the shop, leaving the kind of impression that explains how one suit merchant in a sea of many is now entering its third generation, more successful than ever before.
The First Fitting
Four hours and a misadventure to Victoria’s Peak later, I return to Sam’s, just a few minutes after the requested 3PM. The shop is now flooded with people: a dozen customers and at least as many staff now fill the same amount of space occupied comfortably that morning by perhaps four or five of us. Nevertheless, Roshan spots me, greets me by name and asks if I’d like a beer.
I sit and watch the chaos unfold around me: businessmen inspecting their new suits for any last-minute alterations are swarmed by tailors while messengers come and go with yellow papers and suits. Clerks sift through notebooks with receipts, plucking out customer orders. The phone rings intermittently. Roshan speaks casually to another customer, appearing oblivious to the hyperactivity surrounding him except for brief moments where he excuses himself to convey orders and requests in bursts of Cantonese to the flurrying staff.
I soon notice what appears to be the bare foundation of my suit hanging on a nearby wall. The basic outline is there: the pants have two legs but only a wide opening up top where the buttons and zipper will eventually be. The coat lacks a lapel and any distinguishing features, with just the body and one arm loosely sewn in place. I’m motioned over by one of the assistant tailors. He hands me the half-made garment and ushers me toward a door behind the counter. Not an English speaker, he signs and charades his way into explaining he’d like me to try it on and come back out for them to measure.
I step through the door into a closet with European princesses and Venus Williams on the wall, all joined by one of the Melwanis.
Books of swatches and bolts of material are piled high. There’s room in here for one chair and just enough space to put a pair of pants on while standing. The pants are harder to judge in their rough form, but it’s somewhat incredible how well the coat seems to fit in its half-made state.
I stumble out, cinching my pants together the way Jeb Bush does in his signed picture on the wall in order to keep them from falling off in front of the two dozen people crammed into the store. The tailor and another shuffle over and work their way up from the bottom, with pieces of chalk and some pins to hold things together. They murmur and fuss through their work and an arm drapes onto my shoulder.
“Isn’t it amazing?” Roshan asks. “This suit will look perfect on you. I have given them your measurements from this morning and they have followed them precisely. Already, in just these few hours, they have come so far.” I can’t help but agree. He takes a photo and asks for my Instagram account before I’m ushered back into the closet to change.
Roshan again walks me out, gives me some suggestions for where to see next, and this time requests I come back at 4PM the next day. “It will be important that you arrive on time, so that we will still have the opportunity to make any final adjustments if necessary before you leave.” Handshake. Thanks. Back to the shop for him, back to the streets for me.
Back So Soon
I’m a little early the next day. Somehow, even more people are packed in the store than before. This time, there’s a video crew on hand. All from Los Angeles, it quickly becomes clear they’re the entourage of one short guy about my age, trying on suits in bright blues and oranges. As best as I can infer from their conversation, he’s probably a techno DJ of some renown and the suits will be worn on an upcoming tour. When I ask the camera guy why they’re filming, I get a shifty-eyed response about how they’re just a group of friends who like to film each other on vacation. I don’t normally need a Canon Eos 5D with a stabilizer and bag of lenses when I’m just hanging out with friends, but I’m not going to be the guy who pushes the issue when they’re trying to lay low.
Soon enough, Roshan finds me again. It takes a few minutes for my suit to show up, but sure enough, less than 36 hours after walking in the store for the first time, there’s a three piece suit and two shirts to match ready to go. They shuffle me back into the closet again to try it on. It’s a perfect fit, coming off the notes taken and pins placed during my fitting the day prior. Only one issue: there’s no lapel pinhole as I’d wanted. I tell them, and am assured it’s nothing to worry about. “Come back at 6,” I’m told. A two hour expedition to the Chi Lin Nunnery and I’m back, and so is the suit. It had been quickly shuttled to and from the workshop while I was gone.
The store is somewhat less busy by this point, but any hopes of closing soon seem futile. Today, not just Roshan but Sham is there, being called Sam by customers who are as interested in asking him questions as they are in buying suits. He speaks four languages, he tells them. He says business is good, but can always be better. One jokes to Roshan about this. Roshan answers, “We can always do more, he thinks.” They pack up my suit and shirts quickly and have me sign off. I ask if it would be possible to order more suits or shirts remotely in the future if I want. I’m assured that all of my measurements are now on file, and all I need to do is email them when I want to place an order.
Another offer to walk me out, another handshake, another suggestion: “At the Ritz-Carlton is the highest bar in the world. Go find some dinner and then get a drink there later.” The bar is on the 118th floor, as it turns out, with a view not dissimilar from that on Victoria’s Peak, until you remind yourself you’re in a freestanding building built roughly at sea level and not on the side of a mountain.
I thank Roshan and head to my hotel to drop off my new quarry. I’m left wondering how many dozens – hundreds? – of suits they’d made that day. I pass more of the suit salesmen on the street again. Some are about to lay into me when they see they’ve already lost as I’m carrying the bag with Sam’s name on it. A few others still blindly try their luck, to no avail.
They may sell suits, but on Nathan Road there’s only one frenetic little shop where you’ll receive just as much attention as heads of state and where a remarkable product can be created by hand at breathtaking speed. There may be other shops, but on Nathan Road there’s only one institution. Because, after all, the question in Hong Kong isn’t, “Who has been to Sam’s?” but rather, “Who has not?”