A tailor to movers and shakers

Mr Joseph Koh of Joe's Tailoring has been dressing high-profile clients for 34 years

Up on a back wall of local bespoke tailoring house Joe's Tailoring is a lone, framed picture of American singer Peter Cetera, of Chicago fame.

On it, in Cetera's own scrawl are the words, "To everyone at Joe's, the best in the world! Singapore 2013."

Just last week, Mr Joseph Koh, 58, owner and namesake of the business, got a new autographed photo to add to his collection. Yet to be framed, the 2017 edition was given to him by Cetera, who performed here last Friday and made a mandatory pitstop at Mr Koh's store for some new suits.

"To Joe's, still the best" Cetera writes to his friend, whom he has been visiting since 2013.

The 72-year-old signs off: "Your #1 fan."

For 34 years, Joe's Tailoring has stayed a well-kept secret as Mr Koh has never believed in advertising.

But for those in the know - think movers and shakers, in Singapore and abroad - Joe's Tailoring feels like home.

READ MORE: How Singapore’s bespoke tailors are future-proofing their trade

His shop was situated at Golden Shoe Complex in Market Street for 17 years before moving across the street to GSH Plaza in Cecil Street in June.

The new premises are barely three months old, but already amid the warm brown interiors are pictures of Mr Koh and his team; their arms around some of their long-time customers - the likes of lawyers, bankers, ambassadors, political advisers and entertainers.

Not forgetting, of course, the smiling snaps of dapper men at their weddings - photos sent in by grateful customers whom Mr Koh has suited up over the years.

"Xie Xie Ni" says one, interestingly sent in by a Caucasian client.

In the two hours that The Straits Times spends at the shop on a Tuesday afternoon, multiple customers pop in for fittings while others try on pairs of bespoke shoes that are on display, a partnership that Mr Koh started with British bespoke shoemaker, Joseph Cheaney and Sons in 2015.

Starting at $850 for a suit - with a price tag that can go up to tens of thousands if made with rare and fine Vicuna hair from the South American camelid - it is undeniable that it costs a pretty penny to be clad in made-to-measure.

"In many ways, we are very blessed," says Mr Koh, who has never done an interview in all his years of business. "The developer of this building is an old customer at the store and when he heard that Golden Shoe was going to be affected by redevelopment, he offered me a great space in his building."

Similarly, the design of his new 2,100 sq ft boutique was done by an old friend and client, Mr Chan Sui Him, who is a senior director at local architecture firm DP Architects and a past president of the Board of Architects, Singapore.

Quality surveyor Koh Kwi Leong, another old friend and client, helped guide their move.

Despite the pedigree of his clientele, Mr Joseph Koh says the crux of his work has always been about building relationships with his customers - be it a prince from Denmark or quite literally, an average Joe.

"When I started my store back in 1983 at the IBM building in Anson Road as a 24-year-old, it was such a small operation that suppliers did not even want to sell me fabrics," he recalls, saying he was encouraged by an older sister to learn the trade.

She advised him to take up drafting, given how gifted he was in art.

"My wife and I would work until 2am every day to keep the business going - this was and still is a very difficult and time-consuming trade to be in."

And though he started the business with a mere $1,500 of savings back in 1983, his location at the base of American tech giant IBM's headquarters proved to be a boon, as international executives would constantly visit the building for meetings.

Soon enough, Joe's Tailoring was dressing all of the company's top directors, and suppliers were tripping over themselves to offer him the best fabrics from mills in the United Kingdom and Italy.

On his part, Mr Koh kept his head down, stayed humble and just kept cutting and fitting. It is no surprise that many of those early IBM managers and directors continue to be his customers today. Many of his staff are still with him, three decades on.

By the mid-1990s, demand at the store warranted the purchase of large quantities of Zegna fabrics for suit orders - so much so that the brand took notice and contacted him. Mr Koh became the first Singaporean to be invited by Italian luxury fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna to its factory in Piedmont, Italy.

"While I was there, I was so inspired by what Zegna had been able to create. Despite being a family business, they had more than 2,000 staff and a successful factory operation - it was really very amazing," he says.

Bringing that vision and inspiration back to Singapore, Mr Koh worked hard until he saved enough to invest in a small one-unit factory space in Lower Delta Road in 2007, employing 10 staff members who would help stitch suits that he would cut and fit.

So successful was his model that today, his factory has expanded to more than 5,000 sq ft in floor space and employs 60 people, ensuring all his suits are 100 per cent handmade in Singapore. Mr Koh says that he and his team cut about 50 suits a month, on top of the orders from female clients for cheongsam and dresses. His wife, Ms Ng Wai Wan, 56, oversees the factory and workshop in the store.

"For me, running this business is about having pride in being a Singaporean brand and providing that special touch for my customers. They trust us with their clothes and it is important that we give them pieces that are comfortable and fit like a second skin, whether they are tall or short or have sloping shoulders. That, to me, is what bespoke is all about," he says.

His passion is evidently contagious, as all three of his children seem to be keen to be in the family business. While most of today's millennials would quake at the thought of a trade-based job that involves long hours of working with their hands, Mr Koh's two older children - Joy, 25, and Joanne, 27 - have already come on board. His son, Justin, 24, is two weeks away from completing his national service but, according to his parents, is "itching to join the business" to helm the bespoke shoe partnership - a personal passion for him.

Joy, who spent the last two years after graduating from the University of Melbourne working with the planners and architects to design the new store, is now learning how to cut patterns from her dad.

Joanne, the self-confessed "creative" of the lot, went to London College of Fashion to study tailoring after finishing her diploma in biomedical sciences and worked as an apprentice on London's famed bespoke tailoring street, Savile Row, for 21/2 years before coming home to work with her father in 2015.

"It's no doubt a very difficult trade to be part of - in bespoke there are no shortcuts and you have to learn the craft from scratch. There were points when I was sewing an entire suit by hand that my fingers would begin to bleed," she recalls.

Still, she is passionate about the trade and "getting a chance to work with such great clients and my family at the same time is a real privilege", she adds.

It helps of course that her father is open to their many suggestions - from the chic layout and modern fixtures used in the new store, to the fabrics that are now being brought in. Starting an Instagram account is also being floated, say both daughters.

The children also seem to know what will work for the business.

Their bespoke shoes partnership - previously just a service that was offered to customers who inquired about how to go about making custom shoes - now has its own prominent display, complete with options for socks.

Bringing the shoes to the fore - a suggestion from Justin - proved to be a game changer and they have already sold 15 pairs in the last month.

Joanne has also encouraged her father to explore new fabrics, including tweed, which they get from the same mill that makes fabrics for Chanel; and denim, which has been selling well since they introduced it in June last year.

Mr Koh says: "Having my children be so excited to be part of the business has been very touching. I always used to discourage them to join because I know how painstaking this trade can be but, today, they are learning the skills and even have their own clients.

It makes me so happy to hear them say that they are proud to be tailors."

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