Reporting from: Hoi An, Vietnam
There are a few rules I try to live by. One of them is to be well-dressed and presentable, even if it’s gone out of fashion among Americans in favor of wearing pajamas on an airplane.
To me, there’s nothing quite like a great suit. It’s a capitalist staple; I don’t recall seeing many people in communist Russia suited up.
If it weren’t 100 degrees Fahrenheit with raging humidity here in Vietnam, I’d be going full-scale Barney Stinson and suiting up daily. Even when I go to meetings in the big city, many of the Vietnamese people in the office look at me as if I’m crazy for wearing a suit in this weather.
Whether you want to suit up daily, or just for a special occasion, the monkey suits they sell at the mall rarely fit most people. As a tall guy, I’ve never been able to get one that fits just right, and most people I know haven’t either.
Much like my approach to the offshore world, my approach to custom tailoring has been upgraded a little bit over the years.
When I first started the blog, my goal was to reach out to people and share interesting stuff I thought the average person would enjoy. I thought that people want more affordable suits, so I wanted to talk about a place that I think is ground zero for that, which is Hoi An, Vietnam, where I was. At the time I first started exploring getting suits custom made overseas, I had already had success in business in the US. Yet there was something exciting about going overseas to get a great deal and often better service and customization at the same time.
I had been doing custom tailoring in China since 2010, and custom shirts in the United States since 2006 in New York. I found both be kind of mediocre. The cheaper custom shirts I was getting were just okay—they were pretty good for a 22 or 23-year-old guy, who was wearing suits when no one else was.
Hoi An is still a great option if you are looking for custom suits as a Western traveler, but there is more to the story.
If you are going to do custom tailoring, you want to do it right. Different custom tailoring destinations offer different appeals depending on what you are willing to pay and what your needs are in terms of service, style, and options.
Here are some places to look at for the best value on custom suits and other custom clothing around the world:
Hoi An, Vietnam
Best for: Early-stage entrepreneurs who want an affordable custom suit in a place that is accessible and open to Westerners
Hoi An is no doubt a really cool place to go, about a 30-minute drive from Da Nang—which some people think is going to be the next Shenzhen—a big, up and coming nomad hub. It is certainly a very charming city to spend a weekend if you are in Ho Chi Minh with all the digital nomads and location independent entrepreneurs.
There are different levels of quality. There are places where you can get $80 per suit- I was paying double that amount and some of my friends 4x more. $250-300 for a suit? That’s pretty good.
Hoi An, Vietnam is quite possibly the cheapest place in the world for custom suits or any kind of custom clothing. Shorts, skirts, pants, blazers, even underwear — they do it all. Having had suits and shirts custom made in New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, and China (see more below) the quality here is pretty good. And the prices are much lower.
While a good custom-made suit in the U.S. could easily set you back $1,000, you can get one of decent quality in Hoi An for $100 or less.
The city is basically a charming collection of nothing but souvenir stalls, restaurants, and tailors. You could spend days shopping for the best deal. Fortunately, since hanging out with a bunch of tourists in overpriced tea rooms doesn’t suit me, I did much of the legwork for you.
Hoi An tailors offer everything from the most basic, cheaply made suit, to a veritable work of art. Much of what you’ll find here, however, is somewhat in the middle. Just like any other tourist spot, if you don’t watch out, every tailor here will tell you “good fabric” as you grab ahold of some low-grade cotton.
For low-quality cotton and marginal silk lining, you can pay as little as $45-50. The good news is, some of these cheap suits are actually out on display in some of the lower-priced stores. You likely won’t want one of these uncomfortable suits after you’ve felt it in your hand, but the option does exist.
For a better quality suit within a reasonable budget (by Hoi An standards), you can trade up to a higher quality material without breaking the bank. For close to $100 — sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less — you can get a custom suit with better material and decent silk lining. The cream of the crop suit can cost as much as $180-200 each; still an amazing bargain by Western standards. I’m talking tropical wool and cashmere blends that practically melt in your hands.
Hoi An is a city worth a tourist visit for a day or two, but for me, the real attraction is the cheap custom suits and custom clothing one can get here. Huge cost savings aside, I’ll take a little haggling with a Vietnamese tailor over dealing with some aloof girl at Nordstrom any day.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Best for: Nomads traveling around Asia and want a happy medium of quality and deals
Ho Chi Minh City is one of the top nomad destinations in Southeast Asia and is a larger city with less of the tourist crowds. My friend in Ho Chi Minh City offers custom suits that would make a Savile Row tailor jealous. In fact, his staff was trained by Savile Row tailors. I have personally had suits made for me in Ho Chi Minh and it comes highly recommended.
Whereas Hoi An might offer the more introductory offer and potential for deals, and Hong Kong (below) is a bit more traditional but still with excellent efficiency, Ho Chi Minh City is somewhere in the middle and is a great option for those who are spending time in this part of Asia and want to get some custom suits made without much hassle.
Best for: Someone who is looking for things done the best, plus with efficient deals
It is no great secret that Hong Kong is great for many things including custom clothing. Hong Kong is better than Singapore for this in my opinion. My personal tailor is actually from Pakistan and has a shop in Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon side. I go there all the time: I’ve had him ship stuff to me, I’ve had him make suits, make shirts.
Hong Kong is when you want it done properly but you still want the Asian efficiency, Asian deals. For me, I don’t really wanna go to Italy and have a suit made. I don’t want to pay $5,000 for a made-to-measure suit.
I can go to Hong Kong, get a suit for around $700- Hong Kong quality made for a guy with an expensive office. For example, I just wore a new suit for my birthday—the color looked beautiful, it fits well and you can go out to a club and not feel uncomfortable.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Best for: Another option for high-quality Asian tailoring and service
I am a huge fan of Kuala Lumpur (I rate it the most livable city in Southeast Asia) and have done a few custom shirts here. I have gone to Lord’s Tailor, where the elite in Malaysia go, and that’s about $125 for a shirt. At Fox Tailor at Suria Mall in Petronas Tower, I paid around $75-80 for a shirt—which wasn’t as good quality, so I would advise going with the first option.
I have also gotten shirts done in nearby Singapore, but I wasn’t as impressed. Kuala Lumpur is better for tailoring. I enjoy being out of the spotlight with tailors—for example, some tailors will boast that “Bill Clinton came there”—but I’m not looking for that.
A funny analogy is like a restaurant where the menu is in English, Russian, Swahili and Chinese, but the food is terrible. I think it’s best to find your own guy, someone who understands your style. If I were seeking offshore advice, I’d pick an offshore guy and always work with him—it’s the same thing when it comes to custom suits.
Best for: Nomads who are looking for a good option and are not based in Asia
Bogota is also another great option if you are in the Americas or want to try getting custom clothing done in a different part of the world that might offer different styles and choices. Here in Bogota, I just ordered a lovely wool-cashmere blend pea coat.
There were two options: The lesser quality wool, you could feel was a little cheaper, they wanted 1.625 mm pesos, which is around $550. I’m paying 2.07mm pesos for the higher quality one. ($690). I worked with a really professional tailor named Simon who knew what he was doing and delivered a great product.
How to find the best custom suits for the best prices
These are the places I’ve done tailoring. The US is where I was getting them many many years ago. They would telemarket me: When do you want more shirts?! I was paying about $65 a shirt there—$300 and you got 5, or something like that. It was exciting, however, to finally had something that fit properly and had custom features or monograms.
When I was in Hoi An, in my search for the perfect suit, I got off of the tourist track and walked a few minutes outside of the main tourist district to find a great tailor. Personally, I enjoy negotiating for purchases, and this shop didn’t disappoint. In general, I’ve found the Vietnamese culture very open to bargaining — on par with China, and much unlike places like Turkey where I’ve been thrown out of stores for even trying to bargain.
After an easy negotiation process, I was able to get out with two custom suits and two monogrammed custom shirts for 3.6 million Vietnamese dong (US$169). They even took my credit card without an up-charge, unlike many other establishments here.
It only took one day to make my custom suits. I’m not saying this is Savile Row craftsmanship, or that the tailors are painstakingly reviewing every stitch for perfection. But overall, the suits look good, roughly on par for what I’d get in the US for $400-500, but then have to take to the tailor. And, if you’re like me and already own quite a few suits, it’s nice to have a wide selection of colors and fabrics.
Wherever you go, get to know the culture and service style of the place in order to have the most success in negotiating prices. Obviously, repeat business and a willingness to make a good deal can go a long way.
What about getting custom suits in Europe?
In my opinion, Europe is not the best place to get suits. Everyone says to go to London, but personally, I wouldn’t. I find it overpriced and I avoid all the stores in the mall (the Ferragamo Store, the Zegna store). It takes 18 weeks, it’s expensive, slow, and imperious.
With Hong Kong, you still get great value but, I’m at the point now where I want to look amazing and I want the best, and I think you can get the best in Hong Kong without a lot of the drawbacks.
In my view, I don’t think it’s worth three times the price in London, and working with tailors there can often be quite a hassle. For example, I had a trench coat made in Hong Kong—a Burberry-style, without the pattern, which cost $600.
You can pay close to $2000 for the same trench coat from Burberry, but this was custom—so you don’t have to do any alterations, it looks perfect on you, and you can specify what you want. You can also get it monogrammed. Custom suits in London might start around $800 and go up to about $5,000 depending on the fabric and craftsmanship.
These days, I pay about $130 for a nice shirt, with whatever customizations you want. It’s around $600 for a coat, and suits are around $700. Now, you could go to Hoi An and get seven suits for $1000 if you wanted to, but I’m kind of getting away from that. It’s an option, however, for people who want the larger quantity for the money.
I think that now that I have a couple of homes, I can hang stuff in different homes. I am going to stock up on some new clothing, put the sweaters in the cold place, and the shorts in the warm place.
Often, however, I think that less is more in these cases. For me, that’s why Hong Kong is the best value. It’s really high quality and you are going to look great. As is no surprise, the US is no great deal, and neither are all these new places popping up online. It’s not custom—you need to be there, you need to go there to get a true custom suit.
What’s ultimately key for custom suits is finding a place with great service that you feel comfortable with and can find what you are looking for based on your needs.
Dressing for success and using a mindset of value over simply ‘cheap’ will take you a long way. It can make the difference on a practical level for meeting clients, closing deals, or looking professional – and can also propel your nomad lifestyle to a greater level overall.