Stitching together new initiatives to expand the family business

Joe's Tailoring eyes next stage of growth with bespoke products and a social media presence aimed at a younger clientele.

TUCKED away at the quieter end of Cecil Street, Joe's Tailoring has been a mainstay in Singapore's elite circles, counting ministers, banking CEOs and even two of the nation's top 10 richest men among its regular customers, says business owner Joseph Koh.

Prices for suits at this local bespoke tailoring house start at S$850, and can soar up to a whopping S$15,000 for a gold-weaved jacket, or better yet, a suit made from vicuña hair, or "the fibre of the gods", which is produced by a South American camelid related to the llama and is considered the finest natural fabric in the world.

Fresh slate of products

Yet, it is a fresh slate of products launched by the second generation of this family-owned business that looks set to help Joe's Tailoring scale up.

In recent years, Mr Koh, 59, has been grooming his three children, all in their 20s, to succeed him. Since 2015, they have introduced products such as bespoke jeans, shoes, and women's apparel.

With these new initiatives, Joe's Tailoring expects revenues to double to S$2 million in FY18/19. The family declined to disclose other financial details, but noted that the business has long been a profitable one.

There are plans for an overseas expansion within the next year, said Mr Koh, who added that boutiques in Melbourne or London could be a possibility.

Till then, though, his focus is firmly on preparing his children to eventually helm the company.

"I need to make sure that their foundation in the business is strong first. I need to make sure everything in Singapore is settled before I move forward," he said.

It was Mr Koh's older daughter Joanne, 28, who gave Joe's Tailoring access to vicuña hair, which is of finer grade than cashmere, by forging a partnership with Italian clothing company Loro Piana in 2016.

She finished her two-and-a-half- year apprenticeship at the prestigious tailoring street Savile Row in 2015, and now puts her skills to use in designing both men's and women's apparel.

Mr Koh's other two children, Joy, 26, and Justin, 25, are still learning their father's craft under his watchful tutelage, spending their off-days with him in his personal workshop at home.

At his children's behest, Mr Koh recently began to display his fabrics in generous metre-long rolls for clients to browse and feel on their skin, which he said has helped assure customers of their selections.

The trio also took their marketing efforts to social media with an Instagram account, which has garnered more than 9,000 followers since its launch in October 2017.

This newfound social media presence has been drawing in a type of business that Joe's Tailoring rarely saw before - walk-ins from Singapore's younger crowd.

On top of these projects, the three children manage day-to-day operations alongside Mr Koh's wife, Ng Wai Wan, 57. Mr Koh added that sales have increased by 20 per cent since the start of their involvement in 2015.

Clothing for all

Despite his bevy of high-profile clients and steady sales growth, Mr Koh maintained that Joe's Tailoring is open to all.

"My vision when I first started tailoring was that I would clothe anyone that came to me, from the driver to the CEO, and I still have that vision now," he said.

Joe's Tailoring opened in 1983 at the IBM Building on Anson Road, where Koh and his wife started operations with one worker in a 300 sq ft workshop.

"Many people questioned what a tailor was doing in a tech building. But it was actually a blessing, because all the managers and directors and businessmen working there started to come down to my shop when they found out I was there," said Mr Koh.

Today, his current store covers 2,100 square feet (sq ft), and has 18 on-site staff. His factory on Lower Delta Road, which he bought in 2007, spans 5,000 sq ft.

This makes Joe's Tailoring one of the larger bespoke tailoring operations in Singapore, placing it alongside famed tailoring houses such as CYC Tailoring, known for being the late Lee Kuan Yew's tailor of choice, and The Prestigious, which was founded by the former president of the Singapore Master Tailor's Association.

According to Vincent Lau, secretary-general of the Singapore Master Tailor's Association, a tailoring business needs significant size and scale to run its own factory.

"Many tailors in Singapore nowadays choose to outsource the making of their product to third-party factories," he said.

Personal involvement

On top of managing his 78-strong team, Mr Koh still personally does the cutting and measurements for many of his clients. At his factory, he and his team produce an average of 185 suits a month.

"Our customers grew with us over the years. As they got promoted and moved up, they kept coming back to us, and they brought their friends and colleagues. We have become friends with many of them. Now, most of their kids have grown up and they bring them to us," he said.

Another reason for his success is Mr Koh's insistence on using only high-quality natural fabrics. He and his wife phased out polyester and artificial textiles from their production in the late 1980s and started ordering large quantities of wool from Europe.

Mr Koh now sources all his fabrics from Europe, and suppliers include luxury fashion brands such as Ermenegildo Zegna.

Mr Koh believes, in the long run, the tailoring industry is a stable one. "Recession or no recession, people still need to wear clothes," he said.

The writer is a student at Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, NTU.