By Donny Kwok
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Bill Clinton did it. So did Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. For many tourists, even if they are not former U.S. presidents, a trip to Hong Kong isn't over till they pick up a made-to-measure outfit from one of its family-run tailor shops.
As consumers worldwide seek out custom-made clothing to set them apart from the ready-to-wear crowd, the Hong Kong bespoke industry's reputation for quality and speedy delivery ought to have helped the former British colony build on its advantage.
Instead, the local tailoring business is in danger of dying out after decades of underinvestment in the face of competition from low-cost centres such as mainland China. Nor has it matched the premium branding enjoyed by London's Savile Row and Milan.
Hong Kong's ageing army of tailors may be its last: years of training for demanding and painstaking work that yields low wages deters young people from entering the industry.
At 65, Cheung Wan-sun is among the younger master tailors at Bonham Strand, a bespoke tailoring firm in the Central business district.
"There will be no one to take over the business when we're all retired," said Cheung, one of eight tailors at the firm. "It's not easy to make a living as a tailor."
The profession doesn't pay too well, with tailors taking home around HK$10,000 ($1,290) a month, half the median wage.
While the government pledged HK$500 million ($64.5 million) in its budget on Wednesday to help the city's fashion industry, including promoting local designers and brands, master tailors have been left to fend for themselves.
"It doesn't provide any help to the tailoring industry," said Yally Yan, 24, an apprentice at Bonham Strand.
"To revive the industry, we have to do it ourselves."
Some tailors have thrived through canny marketing of their sales to celebrities or whistle-stop world tours with marathon measuring sessions in hotel suites.
Anthony Asaf, of Empire Tailors, whose clients include judges and senior executives, sells more suits during his infrequent U.S. trips than from his main outlet in Hong Kong.
"As far as overseas business goes, we do as much as we can, not more, because there aren't many young people doing the cutting, stitching end of the process," said Mark, Asaf's 26-year-old son.
Demand is still robust. It's just that most orders are from overseas and busy executives place orders by phone or online.
A decade ago, new suits were delivered in three weeks. Now, skilled tailors are in short supply and it takes up to 12 weeks.
Tailored suits start at around $600 in Hong Kong, less than half the price for an entry-level outfit in Savile Row or Milan. Both European centres have successfully revived once-declining sectors by focusing on high-end consumers, brand building and ploughing revenue back into training programmes.
Hong Kong's government-funded Clothing Industry Training Authority offers a part-time foundation course in men's suit tailoring that costs HK$14,000 ($1,805), about two months' wages for an apprentice tailor.
Regular customers say the shortage of gifted tailors could be just what Hong Kong needs to pump new life into the industry, pushing up prices and drawing a new generation to the trade.
"The pricing for premium tailors will go up," said Sebastian Svensson, managing director of Lifestyleasia.com, as he gets a suit fitted in the shopping district of Tsimshatsui East.
"Hopefully, supply and demand will adjust that moving forward."
($1 = HK$7.8)
(Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Tony Tharakan)