Chinese markets offer fully bespoke suits at a fraction of the price of Savile Row. But do they measure up?

Frederika Whitehead
Four suits in four days is a tall order. City A.M. Bespoke sent Frederika Whitehead to Beijing for a whistle-stop tour of the Chinese tailoring markets to put their suitmakers to the test.

I must have had a dozen suits made on trips to China over the years. They haven’t all turned out well. Some have been breathtakingly good, while others have been distinctly so-so. More than one has been so bad I’ve had to bury it in the back of my wardrobe and pretend it never happened.

Alberto Michieli, chef-manager of the Ritz Beijing’s Cepe restaurant, is a man after my own heart. Michieli is almost as famous in Beijing as a fashionista as he is a chef. Chinese fashion magazines run features about his extravagant taste and his obsession with quality tailoring.

“This suit is Italian and it cost me €4,500,” he says, running his hand down the front of his grey silk pinstripe suit. “But I’d be crazy to pay that for every one. I’m a chef, I can’t wear my best suits in the kitchen.”

And if you want a quality suit that doesn’t cost €4,500, Beijing might just be the best place in the world to come. “When I first arrived in China I went crazy, getting one or two suits made a month,” says Michieli.

I have come to China to buy myself an entire new work wardrobe. I’m hoping that for the price of a single Savile Row suit (approximately £2,500), I will be able buy four tailor-made suits in China – and pay for the flight and hotel. And I don’t mean just any hotel: at least one night I will be staying at the Ritz.

Beijing has two large fabric markets. The silk market by Yong’anli subway station, and Yashow by Tuanjiehu. I went to both.

Ming Ren Yi Ya Ace Tailors in the silk market has a range of suits that would be perfect for the Square Mile. A lady beckons me in, introducing herself as Monica. When she learns I’m from London she tells me about a previous customer. “The man from the British government,” she says, “He came for the Olympics and he had many suits

made – big white hair,” she says, miming a huge mop. Then she roots out a photograph of Boris Johnson hugging the tailor. She says he ordered ten suits. I order just the one, in grey cashmere. Then I head over to Yashow, where I order two more from a tailor called Tony and the fourth from a woman over the street.

There are, of course, down sides to getting a suit made abroad. Vital instructions can get lost in translation. After bitter experience I have learned to write down everything I say to the tailor so we both have a copy. I also hand over pages torn out of a magazine. Handing over an existing suit and asking them to make copies is even safer.

I had to go back for a fitting two days later, and the suit was ready to be collected on the third day. I did the obligatory bit of sight seeing but I spent the most of the time wondering how my garment would turn out. A good suit jacket, after all, is a feat of engineering. You want it to skim your body, perfectly smoothing out all lumps and bumps, but you still need to be able to make the full range of motions. When you move your arms the jacket shouldn’t become taught across the chest, and it should never gape. A good tailor understands human anatomy. He or she will account for every possible muscle movement. When they do, the result is beautiful.

The moment you know whether your suit is going to be any good is when the tailor starts to measure you. If they fling a tape measure around you in a really haphazard way, and scrawl down a few numbers without asking you any questions, you should start to worry. If they act as if they are engaging in a piece of precision engineering, asking dozens of questions about button holes and zips and collars and cuffs, then you are probably going to be OK. Boris Johnson’s tailor in the silk market by Yong’anli subway station was a little awkward when he measured me, and this had an unfortunate effect on the cut of the suit, which gaped unforgivably across the chest. The other two suits from the tailor in the market were passable but not great.

The huge growth in tourists coming to China for tailoring means there are now a lot of vendors at both of the fabric markets who aren’t expecting repeat custom, so their work can be slapdash. I’m despondent as I make my way to the final stop, wondering if China isn’t the place to go for tailoring anymore. I had ordered a tweed jacket, a copy of a Ralph Lauren design. It fits so well I never want to take it off. I shudder to think how much a piece like this would set you back on Savile Row.

So: can you get four tailored suits, a return flight and a night in the Ritz for the same price as a Savile Row suit? Yes and no. The flights and visa came to a very respectable £505, a 50 per cent share of the night at the Ritz was £500, while the suits themselves only came to £360: a total of £1,365, or roughly half the cost of a single Savile Row creation. Even bearing in mind three of my Chinese suits will be consigned to the depths of my wardrobe, that’s not bad going.