(This article, about an Indian tailor in Hong Kong who has dressed up virtually every celebrity on Planet Earth, was published in DNA edition dated July 1, 2007.)
On the walls of Manu Melwani’s unpretentious little shop in Hong Kong’s buzzing Kowloon district are photographs of him with assorted presidents, prime ministers, princes and prima donnas.
In one of them, former US president Bill Clinton has his arm draped on Melwani’s shoulder; famed tenor Luciano Pavarotti and Pierce ‘James Bond’ Brosnan too can be seen with Melwani in similar poses of easy camaraderie. Elsewhere, he’s getting the vital statistics measure of tennis stars Anna Kournikova and Serena Williams and pop star Kylie Minogue.
What is it about Manu Melwani that gives him a licence to wrap his measuring tape around some of the most famous bodies on earth?
Quiet simply, Melwani is Hong Kong’s uncrowned king of custom-made suits and dresses that can be stitched up in 24 hours or less. And for celebrities and commoners alike, a visit to Hong Kong doesn’t seem complete if they don’t carry back a bespoke business suit or a custom-designed cheongsam from Sam’s Tailor, as Melwani’s shop is called.
Sam’s Tailor was started up in 1957 in Hong Kong by Melwani’s father Narindas, who had left Bombay for the British colony in search of fortune. “The name ‘Sam’ comes from my brother’s name ‘Sham,” Melwani told DNA recently: evidently the elder Melwani coined the anglicised named as a concession to his (largely) British clients. But today, given the enormous success of the Sam brand in Hong Kong, that’s the name by which Melwani is better known.
How did Sam become a global brand? “When we started, we listened to our clients to understand what they wanted,” says Melwani. “You must ask yourself if you’re being honest about meeting the client’s need. That’s how reputations are built. Even if I take just one dollar from a client, I must give him value.”
Melwani trained in Savile Row in London’s Mayfair, the home of bespoke tailoring, and took over the family business in 1992 when his father passed away. Today, his clients come from across the world, and include almost all of the royal families of Europe, presidents and prime ministers, and showbiz artists.
What makes his rich-and-famous clients pass up established tailoring centres like Savile Row and come to Sam’s Tailor? “It’s part of the Hong Kong experience,” says Melwani. “When they come to Hong Kong – even if it’s for just 24 hours or 48 hours – they want to take back something that’s distinctive.”
Television presenter Michael Palin had one such distinctive experience on the Hong Kong leg of his BBC television series Around the World in Eighty Days. When Palin was at the famed bird market, a sharp-beaked cockatoo ripped his pants in the knees! Since Palin had to attend a party being hosted in his honour, he needed to get a suit stitched within 24 hours! Sartorial disaster loomed, but Melwani, the knight in a business suit, came to Palin’s rescue by having a custom-designed suit delivered in double-quick time!
Quick as that was, Melwani has done better. At a pinch, he says, a suit can be stitched in just two hours. “We occasionally do such two-hour suits for a charity effort: we auction the rights to a custom-designed suit during a charity ball, and get the measure of the highest bidder. By the time dinner is over, in just two hours or so, the suit is ready.” It takes 28 workers to make a two-hour suit, he adds.
Today, ‘Sam’ Melwani has 55 Chinese tailors working under him: 12 of them are Shanghainese and the rest from Hong Kong. “Shanghai tailoring is done very neatly, with stitches that are a lot closer. There is great attention to detail, and the work is a bit slower. On the other hand, the Cantonese style is faster,” says Melwani. The price for a suit, depending on the choice of material and design, ranges between HK$5,000 and HK$25,000 (about Rs 30,000 to Rs 1.5 lakh).
Today, Melwani’s son Roshan is beginning to get involved in the business, and caters to the changing fashion needs of a younger generation. Even so, Melwani, who has a punishing work ethic, is still active around the shop. For the entire duration of a recent interaction with this DNA correspondent, Melwani’s eyes kept darting around the shop to check if his employees were giving walk-in customers the same quality service that VIPs get from him.
“I treat every customer who walks into the shop like a celebrity,” says Melwani. “It doesn’t matter who’s who. The only thing that matters is that they walk away satisfied.”
For all of Melwani’s claims that he doesn’t discriminate between his customers, it’s evident that some of his clients treat him a whole lot different from others. Just last fortnight, Crown Prince Philippe of Belgium, for whom Melwani has been making clothes for the past 10 years, was in Hong Kong, and he used the royal visit to confer a knighthood on Melwani! “It’s the biggest honour I’ve ever received,” says Melwani.
It’s also an honour that’s ‘well-suited’ for a man who’s got the measure of the world’s top celebrities.