JOURNAL
Eastern Promise
Words & photography: Lee Osborne @sartorialee
Bespoke tailor Robert Bailey fell in love with Asia the moment he laid eyes on her during his days helping to facilitate trunk shows in the Far East. He now divides his time between visiting clients there as well as his native UK. Lee Osborne caught up with him between fittings at our Regent Street showroom
Tell us how you came to be involved in the world of tailoring?
It’s been a part of my life since I can remember, since birth, I guess. My Father was head cutter at Gieves and Hawkes at the Camberley (Sandhurst Military College) branch. Before that he was at the Leicester branch of Hawkes (originally Flights) where he met my mother who was a finisher (kipper) there. So, I’ve been surrounded by bespoke tailoring since birth so although I was never pushed into tailoring, I guess I naturally gravitated towards it throughout my teenage years. So, in 1985 at the age of 16, and having just finished high school, I didn’t have the inclination to do Sixth Form College like a lot of my friends did, so I asked Dad if I could learn the trade with him as my tutor. I fell in love with bespoke tailoring from the moment I started and haven’t looked back since.

Did you study at University/College to be a tailor or enrol on an apprenticeship scheme? Whilst enrolled on my apprenticeship scheme with Gieves and Hawkes I attended the London College of Fashion in Curtain Road (near Liverpool Street) on a day release course for 3 years. But my honest feeling is that you learn ten times more being present in the workplace than you do attending college courses about tailoring. Having said that, the tailoring academy’s that are available these days are very good and more constructive towards preparing for the real thing.

How did your love affair with Asia commence?
It originated in my days of working at Davies and Son, they had just acquired Fallon and Harvey who had a contract with Beams International in Tokyo. Peter Harvey was approaching retirement age and wanted to travel less so I offered to help. From the first long-haul flight and arriving in a whole new culture, I totally fell in love with it. The people, the food, the way of life. After a while we were approached to give Seoul a try too. At that time Savile Row was unheard of in Korea and was a challenge, nowadays it’s not like that anymore. So, when Huntsman were looking for someone to set up and organise a whole Asia Trunk Show schedule, I jumped at the chance to increase my Asia experience and knowledge. But like most things in life, you can only take so much at work before it becomes over-bearing!

Where in the UK are you based? Do you have a studio at home?
So, during the first Covid lockdown of 2020 myself and my wife decided to convert our garage/auxiliary space to set up a workshop and cutting room at our house in Scotland with a long-term plan to eventually be based up there instead of commuting into London daily. As the lockdown went from being weeks to months etc and after a discussion with Huntsman about their long-term plans for the Asia trunk show, my wife and I decided that then was the perfect time to make the move permanent and begin my dream of doing it for myself and not for other less appreciative types who don’t know a needle from a nail! So, although being based in Scotland now for family reasons, we still use the finest Savile Row tailoring team, tailors I’ve known for many years and also some new younger tailors who produce such beautiful work. My need to be physically in London on a daily basis is no longer necessary, but I’m still around and about the West End regularly meeting clients and my tailoring team.
How often do you travel to Asia for trunk shows?
The schedule remains, as it always has, I try to visit each city four times a year if possible - obviously the travel restrictions have made this not always possible but things are improving on a weekly basis now so I can visit more than one city at a time without needing difficult pieces of travel documentation etc. Hopefully mainland China will reopen next year and I can return there once again.

Do you have a particular affinity for a specific Asian country? And if so why?
As Japan was my first love with Asia, I guess I’d have to say Tokyo as I have the longest association here but over the years each city I visit has become dear to me for different reasons. Thailand is where I met my wife and have great friends there, Hanoi is where we got engaged. Seoul is a very vibrant place to be and very modern. Singapore is always amazing weather-wise and again I have great friendships there. Hong Kong has a great attitude towards bespoke tailoring, and I have some clients and friends there that always make me feel welcome and I missed not going there for a long time. In China the people there have been amongst the most kind and helpful throughout the Covid situation. You truly see a different side to people at times of change and insecurity. I think because of how China has changed over the last 30 years or so, the people there understand so well everything that you go through to set up and start a new business. I’m in awe of the kindness I received from a lot of my Chinese friends.

Who would you say has been the biggest influence on your career so far?
I’d have to say without doubt my Father. He was tolerant of a lot of stroppy moments during the difficult early days of learning the trade, from the poor wages you get as a trainee to the long out-of-hours work you have to put in, in order to get things done on time. But he knew the ropes and I guess looking back he had a lot of faith in me and what I could achieve. Once I’d left Dad to move up to Savile Row I have to thank Michael Skinner from Dege and Skinner, he taught me a lot, both knowingly and sometimes without knowing it. His focus on perfecting the production was invaluable.

Ever tempted to emigrate to Asia? (I know I am)
In an ideal world I’d love that. But being in this trade has a lot of restrictions and although it’s tempting to live a life in Thailand, far away from the cold weather, that’s a long way off at the moment. Perhaps after retirement it may happen, but logistics dictate to me that things are as good as I can get it currently. But maybe one day if my sons should eventually take over the reins of the business, I could be very tempted to work something out with them to realise what is a dream currently.
How would you define your tailoring style? And in what ways has it evolved/changed over the years?
I’ve taken elements from each tailoring house I’ve learned at, Gieves military cut for the highest of armholes, Dege & Skinner for the waisted and skirts style as well as the travelling and production techniques ideally suited for trunk shows. Then Huntsman for the longer slimmer silhouette, incorporating a more waisted house style.

How many fittings are necessary for one of your bespoke suits?
The first appointment for a new client is obviously all about taking the measurements and styling etc and getting to understand the requirements of the person. 12-weeks later we would have a first fitting at a basted stage, no pockets in etc. Then 12-weeks after that we have the finished fitting where, if all is well, the client can take the garments home, or if alterations are required, we can plan around that for another visit or shipping options. If a client is in or coming to the U., then the gaps can be reduced considerably according to scheduling at each appointment. So, on a trunk show from start-to-finish, a first order can be six months or for a returning client can be as little as three months from start to finish.

How did you cope during the pandemic? Not being able to travel to Asia specifically...
That was a challenge of course, not just for me but for a lot of bespoke tailors. In November 2020 we were able to begin our Bangkok trunk shows thanks to my wife’s nationality and after a quarantine period in a hotel, we got off to a fantastic start that snowballed during our following visits, which literally kept us going until other cities opened up. My wife also was working locally so we relied on her income for a while which was priceless. The U.K. was no good for home trade as the lockdown restrictions made it difficult for people to consider seeing their tailor for unnecessary suit orders that nobody needed at that time.

Were any fittings held over zoom calls?
Absolutely not! The client deserves a much better service than that. For me it’s always hands-on only. You can’t get any kind of feel for the dimensions and comfort of a garment via a video call no matter what anyone says. To me that’s never an option. I don’t want someone wearing a Robert Bailey Bespoke suit or jacket that doesn’t represent the finest standards in bespoke tailoring, and that includes the fitting process.
Are your clients mainly Asian customers, or EXPATS/combination of both?
I’d say it’s probably 90% Asia clients in their hometown and then a 10% expat share of clients who might be the temporary for a few years or who have homes in more than one city. Places like Singapore and Hong Kong obviously have a higher rate of expats compared to other Asia countries due to the business climate.

How did COVID impact your business as a whole?
It brought things forward a couple of years I’d say with regards to starting up on my own. Things had got boring where I was and the notion of starting Robert Bailey Bespoke was beginning to become an option. But ideally, I wouldn’t have started with my own company in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. But sometimes things can happen for a great reason and you have to trust in yourself plus determination is essential.

Do you have garments made in Asia or do you prefer to produce them in London? If not, would you ever consider making in Asia?
Again, absolutely not. Everything I produce is made by my tailors who are in or around Savile Row and London. I’ve known some of them for 30 years. The garments you receive from me are the same standard of make if not better than that of some of the houses in The Row or surrounding areas. I do not use Asian workshops or foreign production companies. That’s not what I’m about. I stick vehemently to the traditional Savile Row garments model, the same way it’s been made for the past two-hundred years. I’m all about quality over quantity.

Any particular favourite HFW cloths ?
I’d have to begin with the Bamboo ranges , they’ve been very popular in the hotter climates, especially for the soft breathable feel of the cloth and the vibrancy of the designs. Then there’s the classic Alsport bunch, always timeless - and for the business suits I like the Blenheim bunch very much for the look and the finish of the cloth. It’s very beautiful.

Robert’s trunk show schedule for the remainder of 2022:

October 2022
  • Seoul
  • Tokyo
  • Nagoya
  • Hong Kong
November 2022
  • Beijing (TBC)
  • Shanghai (TBC)
  • Shenzhen (TBC)
  • Chengdu (TBC)
  • Taipei (TBC)
December 2022
  • Singapore
  • Bangkok