Bespoke services go virtual

Customers may not be able to meet face to face with service staff, but businesses are adapting quickly during the pandemic to keep that personal touch

How do you get your clothes tailored from home without ever stepping foot into a store for a fitting? Or customise an engagement ring without being present to do quality checks?

Social distancing and the circuit breaker have made life challenging for businesses that involve in-person consultations. But rather than throw in the towel, some have swiftly adapted to offer their services online.

Can the virtual consult work in a socially distanced world? The Straits Times checks in with three brands to find out.


Qipao measurements done over video call

To tailor a piece of clothing without a personal fitting can seem counter-intuitive.

Even self-taught tailor Josephine Ho, 49, had reservations about accepting such a job.

But the owner of qipao label Qiqing Qipao (facebook.com/pg/qiqing.qipao) was so stirred by a customer's disappointment at not being able to get her dress that she decided to give it a go.

Perth-based general practitioner Tammie Wong, 39, had contacted Ms Ho in January to custom-make a qipao, or cheongsam, for her wedding in late April.

Born to Malaysian parents, Dr Wong wanted a bridal qipao for her tea ceremony in Malaysia after a Western-style wedding in Australia.

She was after a modern interpretation - "not the traditional red qipao" - and found Ms Ho's label on Google.

Founded in 2016, Qiqing specialises in modern qipao with more relaxed fits, muted tones and everyday fabrics like tweed or linen-blends.

Dr Tammie Wong in her bespoke qipao which was made after two video calls with the tailor. PHOTO: ANTHEA KIRKMAN

They scheduled her first fitting for end-February. Dr Wong had planned to take a holiday here then and stay for a week while Ms Ho made the dress. But when the virus situation escalated in February, she decided with a heavy heart to cancel her trip.

Sensing her client's dismay, Ms Ho suggested they try a fitting online over a video phone call.

"I thought it was so brilliantly proactive of her," recalls Dr Wong in an e-mail interview with The Straits Times.

Ms Ho sent her pictures of bridal qipao she had done before. In return, the doctor sent photos of herself - from the front, sides and back - so Ho could assess her body structure.

They completed everything in just two video calls.

In the first, they discussed preferences and details like length, collar height, shoulder styles (sleeveless versus cut-in) and whether to go for a side slit or back slit.

Modern qipao favour the back slit, which looks more tapered and office-appropriate, says Ho.

She showed her client fabric options on camera, taking pains to describe them in detail so Dr Wong could understand what she was choosing.

In the second call, a week later, they took the bride-to-be's body measurements, with Ms Ho giving Dr Wong instructions on how to measure herself.

Each side was armed with a measuring tape, string, phone and assistants.

Ms Ho used tricks like having Dr Wong wear a necklace, to get the exact circumference of her neck for the qipao collar.

Throughout, Ms Wong found the designer's instructions "very clear and concise".

After three weeks of tailoring and trading WhatsApp messages, Ms Ho mailed the package at the end of March, praying nothing would happen to the dress en route. It was "too risky" to send the package back and forth, she says.

"This was the one and only piece."

When it arrived in early April, Dr Wong tried it on immediately. It was a perfect fit.

She had "complete confidence" in Ms Ho and the process, she says.

"One thing that impressed me was that if a measurement wasn't done right, Josephine would be able to tell immediately.

"She would say what she thought the measurement should be, and it would either be spot on or vary by 0.5cm when done correctly."

That skill comes with experience as a tailor, acknowledges Ms Ho. She also gives her customer credit for cooperation and choosing the right fabric - a type of brocade with a bit of stretch.

"I was overjoyed when she sent me the photo - it was really fitted," she adds.

"It was just a labour of love; and seeing that, you know the labour didn't go to waste."

Above all, Ms Ho, a mother of three boys, is grateful for the opportunity to "try new things" during this period of slow sales.

While she usually sees eight to 10 bespoke customers a month during peak periods, she stopped receiving new jobs from end-January this year.

"It's a breakthrough in my trade, realising that I don't have to meet customers to get a cheongsam done," adds the tailor who has a number of regulars from Australia.

"It helps a lot knowing I can do it online."

It may even help with business locally. Some regulars ordered qipao before the circuit breaker, but afraid to leave the house, put off their final fittings.

"I still have the dresses, almost completed, hanging in my showroom," she says with a laugh.

Virtual fittings will help minimise meet-ups even after her showroom in Upper Serangoon Road reopens.

"My confidence is built up already; the opportunity from Tammie gave me the confidence," says Ms Ho, adding that she and Dr Wong have become friends.

"You need to go through the whole process to realise that eh, it's not that tough after all."


Design an engagement ring from home 

Either B.P. de Silva Jewellers' creative director Shanya Amarasuriya or a diamond expert will guide a customer through a virtual jewellery design session. PHOTO: B.P. DE SILVA 

Wedding solemnisations and wedding ceremonies have gone online, and so too, has designing custom engagement rings.

You can craft your perfect piece sitting at home, over video call with a jewellery specialist from B.P. de Silva Jewellers (bpdesilvajewellers.com).

The home-grown luxury jeweller's virtual concierge service was launched last week - a first in its 148-year history.

Its atelier at Kung Chong Road had to close because of the circuit breaker.

The brand has been building up its digital presence and capabilities since the beginning of the year, says creative director and fifth-generation scion of the company, Ms Shanya Amarasuriya, 29.

"When Covid-19 happened, it became exceptionally clear that the best way we can remain connected with our clients is through the Web."

Whether it is an engagement ring, wedding band or personalised heirloom, the virtual concierge aims to recreate B.P. de Silva's signature bespoke journey.

The service is also available for its ready-to-wear collections and customisation of existing designs.

Clients are first asked to complete an online questionnaire on their needs and preferences like budget and desired gemstones.

Then over a first video call with a jewellery expert - either Ms Shanya or the brand's diamond specialist - they discuss designs and pore over the gemstone library.

"Our clients usually want to know more about the design styles we are known for, such as Art Deco designs; or ask us about some of the rarest gemstones like Padparadscha Sapphires and Paraiba Tourmalines," says Ms Shanya.

"The initial appointment is really a sharing of stories and ideas; honouring our clients' stories is incredibly important. Eventually, as we go through the journey, they get a clearer picture of their dream jewels."

Webcam quality can be iffy, so the brand filmed videos of its gemstones to be shown over screen sharing. It also prepared detailed guides with insights on its gemstones and signature designs to help customers make informed decisions.

Customers can refer to sizing guides for rings and other types of jewellery.

The brand offers a complimentary one-time resizing for engagement rings, but "really, anyone can follow the instructions from home", says Ms Shanya.

Designs are refined over two or three more consultations, before B.P. de Silva's master craftsmen take over. The full bespoke journey takes about eight to 10 weeks after confirmation of the design.

So is there any part of the in-person experience that is missing?

"Unfortunately, I can't serve my customers tea personally," she says, referring to the Ceylon tea served at each appointment - a tradition for the brand since 1872.

The B.P. de Silva Group also owns The 1872 Clipper Tea Co, which harvests tea from the family plantations in Sri Lanka.

"We believe trying on our jewellery over tea is quite a defining factor of the B.P. de Silva experience. But we're more than happy to serve our customers their brew of choice when they collect their piece at our atelier," she adds.

She acknowledges that it is a pricey investment to be making over video call, but is confident of the brand's quality in proffering "only fine and rare jewels".

Appointment requests for the virtual concierge have already come in, with the first scheduled to take place next week.

While she believes the virtual service is here to stay, she looks forward to the day the atelier can welcome customers in person once more.

"Seeing gemstones come alive in natural light, and in person - there's no magic like that," she says.

"There's also nothing quite like seeing our clients' eyes light up when they see our gems."


Making scents with an online perfume workshop

For Maison 21G's online perfume workshop, customers will be loaned a set of scents and concentrates to mix and match, with a scent designer guiding them through video call. PHOTO: MAISON 21G

Sniff and concoct your own dream perfume - without ever leaving the house.

That is what perfume atelier Maison 21G (maison21g.com) is promising with its new virtual services.

Maison 21G has a physical shop in Duxton Road where it retails perfumes and also conducts scentdesigning workshops.

Following the circuit breaker closure, the perfumery has moved its retail arm and workshops online.

Business was good up until Covid-19 hit, says its French founder Johanna Monange, 45.

Then, the atelier conducted 80 to 100 workshops a month,

Most attendees were pairs such as couples, friends or mother-daughter duos.

She noticed demand for home visits increasing in the lead-up to April, from customers "stressed about safe distancing".

Maison 21G offers an existing Private Home Atelier service at $200 a person, which conducts the workshop in one's home. This is available in Singapore and Australia, where Ms Monange has another boutique.

During a session, a scent designer will bring two "malettes" (French for "suitcase") of scents and concentrates - a portable version of the store's full collection - for customers to mix and match scents they like.

Once the customer is satisfied, the designer will create the desired perfumes on the spot. Ms Monange can be hired to conduct the workshop for an additional $1,000.

In end-April, she received a booking in Australia for a Private Home Atelier for 10 people.

"It was in the middle of Covid-19. I said it was impossible; we could go to jail," she recalls.

To improvise, her manager in Australia suggested they do a virtual atelier. He sent the malettes to the customer's home and had Ms Monange call in and guide them over video. After the two-hour session, he went to retrieve the malettes.

The virtual atelier was a success.

Encouraged, Ms Monange launched the virtual service in Singapore two weeks later. She has been conducting two online workshops a week since launching.

Via video call, a scent designer guides you through the process of sniffing, eliminating and choosing scents - before you mix your final concoction into the perfume bottles of alcohol provided.

Each kit also comes with scales and droppers delivered to your doorstep. After every session, the malettes are brought back to be sanitised and refilled for the next visit.

"The good thing is that you're dealing with alcohol in perfume, so it's actually very safe," she says.

She already has plans to develop a Discovery Box of mini scents, pre-diluted with alcohol, so customers can mix them on their own at home without her having to loan out full-sized malettes.

Once recipes are confirmed, the physical atelier will create the actual perfume in-store.

Slated to launch next month, the Discovery Box will be supplemented with pre-filmed video tutorials on ingredients, template recipes and formula make-up.

People want more transparency in their ingredients these days, Ms Monange says, especially when buying perfumes online.

"And because of Covid-19, people are much more afraid of what they consume or put on their skin."

This, and the virtual atelier, could be one way to reshape perfume consumption in a socially distanced future, she predicts, admitting she was "amazed at how much business you can get online".

Trained in Grasse, France as a nose, the former fragrance creative director at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) oversaw all perfume development for L'Oreal for eight years. She opened her perfumery to get closer to the consumer.

"The perfume industry has become very mass market - we lost the experience and the intimate relationship with the customer," she says.

Believing people will prefer intimate workshops over shopping for perfume in crowded places, Ms Monange is optimistic about continuing both online and physical arms in the future.

"For some people, the online atelier is convenient and we'll continue to provide it. However, I hope we can resume the real workshops with people.

"The beauty of the business is to share things, and share the experience."