Hong Kong broadcasts live in the fight for survival of the pandemic

Assistants using multiple live mobile phones are now as crucial to Roshan Melwani’s tailoring as the measuring tapes, needles and fabrics that have made his Hong Kong family business so famous.

The Melwani family has dressed everyone from US presidents to aristocrats and celebrities over the decades.

But the pandemic almost brought them down, and many of Hong Kong’s once-thriving tailoring businesses have not survived.

Few places have remained in international lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic for as long as Hong Kong, a self-imposed lockdown that the city’s government has only begun to lift in the past two months.

As a result, Melwani’s Sam’s Tailors store has relied on online sales for most of the past 2.5 years, long after rivals in Saville Row, Milan and New York reopened their doors.

“Understand that if I didn’t have 60 years of cash behind me, I wouldn’t be able to operate,” Melwani, a third-generation tailor, tells AFP as he begins a frenetic day of video calls with clients and live-streaming to show off new designs. “Before the pandemic I had a minimum of 20 people I would work with a day, sometimes 40 people, up to six days a week.”

Tim, a customer from the United States, is the type of customer that has helped keep Sam’s Tailor afloat.

During the pandemic, she ordered a whole new wardrobe and is now looking for something bolder.

With the help of assistants relaying a dizzying array of options via video call, Melwani directs Tim to a burgundy three-piece lined with pin-up girls.

“Yeah, let’s go,” Tim says over the phone as the attendants frantically jot down all the extra details in yellow notebooks.

Before the pandemic, Hong Kong tailors were a must-see for many tourists thanks to their reputation for quality and their ability to turn a tailored suit in as little as 24 hours.

The walls of Sam’s Tailors are adorned with photos of famous patrons, from Bill Clinton, George Bush and Boris Johnson to Bruno Mars, Russel Crowe and Meghan Markle.

The city’s tailoring scene traces its origins to Shanghai, which was known for its quality and craftsmanship in the early 20th century.

Many of these tailors moved to Hong Kong after the Chinese Communist Party won the civil war in 1949.

“People can get 10 suits in Hong Kong as often as they get a suit in Saville Row,” Andy Chan, president of the Hong Kong Tailors Association, told AFP. “That’s why everyone came to Hong Kong to get a custom-made suit.”

In recent years, Hong Kong’s garment industry has struggled against fast fashion and online sales. But the pandemic has been particularly brutal.

Hong Kong went from hosting 65 million people in 2018 to just 91,000 in 2021 at the height of the pandemic, when all overseas arrivals had to pay a hotel quarantine of up to three weeks.

“We estimate that in these four years (2018-2021), we had more than 40 percent of tailors that closed,” lamented Chan.

Hong Kong only scrapped mandatory hotel quarantine in September, long after rival hubs like Singapore had reopened to the world.

Even after that, the city was still restricting where tourists could go for the first three days after they arrived while they awaited test results, a measure that was lifted earlier this month.

Roshan Melwani says there are times he feels angry but tries not to stay.

“You think it doesn’t hurt my dad, all his years of saving money, all that cash gone?” he said “I don’t have time to feel hurt, I have to spend my time moving us forward.”

© 2022 AFP

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