Matthew Lai is one busy man. Following a degree in fashion design with the intention of moving into the ready-to-wear and streetwear industry, a chance opportunity arose to undertake an apprenticeship at a tailoring business. Immediately, he fell in love with the technical aspects of the craft and hasn't looked back since, going on to open his own business, Kay-Jen just under a year ago.
Running a one-man operation six days a week, Lai shares his approach to surviving as a young business in the industry, the difference between a fused and hand basted suit, and the appeal of the shirt-jacket.
So, Matthew, what would you say Kay-Jen stands for and where do you see its position in Singapore's tailoring scene?
I believe Kay-Jen's tailoring stands for minimal and simplistic designs with well-cut and made silhouettes. I see myself as a young tailor with an understanding of modern contemporary menswear style, details, and silhouettes. I'm here to mature together with the younger consumers.
Being one of the newer entrants, did you find there were many challenges you had to overcome while trying to find your feet?
Having worked at other established tailoring companies previously, I knew what I wanted to do. I was able to take with me the system that I had learnt, improve upon it, and apply it to my own business. It was exciting but at the same time nerve wrecking — Kay-Jen is located on the outskirts of town and I didn't know what sort of response that would garner. That, and given the fact that I myself am a relatively young tailor and business owner.
Since the start, one of the main challenges has been balancing two hats: Being a businessman and a craftsman at the same time. I have to ensure that I have sufficient orders to sustain the business but also still continue to deliver quality products.
When it comes to our suits, we baste and stitch everything by hand.
Let's talk about the products then. Tell me more about your fabrics and craft process.
I mostly use English or Italian fabrics, and most of these would tend to be eight to nine ounce summer fabrics in order to suit Singapore's climate. A jacket takes about eight weeks to complete, with a minimum of three visits. The first visit is the initial consult, followed by a first fitting and then after that, a 'forward fitting' — customers get to try on the completed chest canvas with the pockets already in. Lastly, final additions and tweaks are made before the jacket is complete and ready to wear.
For shirts, we have two options: Basic or higher quality. Both of which involve different materials and hence, varying processing times. The basic option only takes two to three weeks for completion and comprises details such as mother-of-pearl buttons, fused collars and cuffs, and a flat felt seam. The higher quality option in general takes about six weeks to be ready, but involves a higher level of craft and additional extras such as crow's foot stitching, hand-embroidered monogramming, finer side seams, and unfused collars and cuffs. When it comes to our suits, we baste and stitch everything by hand.
Could you briefly explain the difference between hand basting and fusing?
A full canvas suit is where the jacket structure is made by hand-stitching a canvas piece to the lapel, edge and pocket of the jacket. By doing so, the canvas is "floated" and hence it is able to drape and mould to the wearer's body nicely. This is known as hand basting.
For a fused suit, the jacket structure is made by gluing a syntactic interlining under high heat and pressure to the front piece of the jacket. Doing so speeds up the process of maing a suit significantly, but the drape of the jacket might look stiff. And, if it's not taken care of properly, you may see bubbles and wrinkles form over time.
Aside from the traditional business suits, I notice you're big on the shirt-jacket. Tell me more about them.
The shirt-jacket is basically a shirt cut in a heavier fabric like linen, cotton or wool but worn as a jacket. It's an ideal piece of clothing when travelling, because of the usefulness of the cargo pockets. It is also very easy to style. Pair it up with a dress shirt and tie for a smart-casual look or dress down by pairing it with a T-shirt and pair of chinos.
While the main core of my business is still tailored dress shirts and trousers and the occasional wedding and business suit, I've realised that the dress code for most occupations have become a lot more relaxed. That is why on top of my normal product range, I'm also now providing more alternatives such as the shirt-jacket, as well as cotton-flannel shirts, cotton chinos, sports jackets and blazers.
As a hypothetical, if you didn't have all these options available to you, and instead could only wear one suit for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I would have to go with the classic navy blue suit as I feel it's the easiest to dress up but yet, can be worn casually too. Pair it with a shirt, tie and oxford shoes for formal occasions, and a polo t-shirt and loafers or white sneakers on casual days.
Finally, what does 2016 have in store for Kay-Jen? Any big plans on the horizon?
Well, I'm still very much a one-man operation, so my main plan for the future would be to expand to a bigger shop with a more central CBD location. I would also like to build up a bigger team. The ultimate dream would be to house supplementary services such as a barber shop, a shoeshine station, as well as my own ready-to-wear collection all within the one space.
I've also recently introduced an "$880 fused suit" deal. After being in the business for a year, I realised that most of my customers are young working adults, or students about to enter the work force, and spending $1,400 on a full canvas suit is usually a little out of their budget. With this deal, the hope is that it will help to kick-start their sartorial interest.
For all interviews in the series Singaporean Tailors, please click here.