There are those who are obliged to wear tailoring, those who regard it as a pleasure and then there’s Alan See. For over a decade, the native Hongkonger (one half of acclaimed ‘international classic’ clothier The Armoury) has cut a dashing figure within the men’s clothing industry, traveling to Japan, Italy, Britain and many places besides in pursuit of fabric — what many obsessives regard as the very soul of sartorial clothing. Despite the tribulations of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, we dropped by Alan’s original shop (located in Hong Kong’s historic Pedder Building) for an after-hours yarn. What follows is a fascinating conversation about the parallels between textile and fashion designers, some fabric bolts from his personal collection and, of course, watches.
When you and Mark [Cho] first started in 2010, did you already have a sense of how pivotal textile development was going to be for the store?
Absolutely not. We had a very broad strokes idea of what our retail concept would be, and at the time, that was essentially the creation of a multi-brand shop with lots of artisans and interesting small makers we liked which the world hadn’t yet seen. Our range of products was actually quite wide — we had a lot of shoes, ties, and accessories — and it wasn’t directed towards suiting or jacketings. Fabric factored into the ready-to-wear but it hadn’t yet become the area of intensive focus that it is for us today.
You were also working with W.W. Chan in those days, right? As an agent, if I’m not mistaken?
Actually, that whole relationship preceded The Armoury. We essentially helped to set up their London trunk shows and connect them with potential customers. Then after we opened, we acted as a satellite. The whole idea was for them to operate out of our space, so they could more easily make their services available to the Central crowd. In those days, even 10 years ago, it made a lot of sense to have a presence on Hong Kong island — especially in the financial centre, given the big potential customer base there.
You reckoned they ought to have more visibility...
We were just so proud of them. If you’re talking about high-end ‘Made in Hong Kong’, W.W. Chan were (and arguably still are) the dominant force in the market. Over many decades, they developed a reputation as the best tailoring house in Hong Kong and we thought, justifiably, that their work would reach a broader more international audience from within the financial district.
Alan's Patek Philippe Calatrava ref. 2451 and Audemars Piguet Royal Oak ref. 4100
When new made-to-order and bespoke customers visit you, what are some general misconceptions they have about fabric?
It’s always tough for general consumers. In fact, by-and-large there’s no guide out there that effectively deals with what a man ought to do the first time he buys a personalised suit or looks at fabric — so much of it is just noise and misinformation.
[Laughs] Stop us if you’ve heard the one about higher super counts being symbolic of a superior quality…
You hear a lot of similar sales gimmicks in tailoring shops and unfortunately in Hong Kong, that’s an extremely popular one, the worship of ‘Super’ counts and fineness of fabric. More than anything, that’s because it’s so easy to comprehend: how do you explain in objective terms what makes a fabric better or worse? Whether it’s good or bad? For our part, we try to steer clear of those adjectives (and arbitrary numbers for that matter) and focus instead on ‘how’ the cloth you’re picking is suited to your use.
Makes sense. Are there certain golden rules you and the other Armourers use when trying to unpack the ‘how’?
We generally lead with a few simple common-sense questions. “What do you intend to use it for, work or play?” “What’s the weather like where you’re based?” That sort of thing. Obviously, the fact that we originate in Hong Kong means we’ve absorbed lots of lessons over the years about dressing for a hot and humid climate: to combat heat and humidity specifically, you always want something which possesses good breathability, woven using high-twist yarns. We don’t necessarily endorse the thin, super-fine materials that many tailors will sort of…
Right [laughs]. Because, again, more often than not, their popularity is predicated upon how easy they are to explain. A lot of clients immediately assume because something is soft to the touch that it’s also going to be light, comfortable and very easy to wear; whereas in our experience, we’ve found many heavier, coarser fabrics that are better-suited to high-heat situations. Especially if you’re in a ‘9 to 5’ environment and require something that is robust and hardwearing.
Alan showing us some of the fine fabrics they work with
Given that Hong Kong’s climate is summery most of the year, do you find that you look forward more to winter for the purposes of experimenting with cloth?
Personally, when I’m looking at a new fabric, one of the most important qualities is texture — with that comes depth and visually this is crucial. Granted, there has to be a certain amount of body in the fabric in order to achieve that, which often means a heavier cloth and consequently, more choices in winter.
"By-and-large there’s no guide out there that effectively deals with what a man ought to do the first time he buys a personalised suit..."
So what sort of cold weather fabric do you think provides the best balance between weight, texture and colour?
For formal occasions — such as work and what have you — that’ll be flannels. Nowadays, there’s definitely a wide variety but the really satisfying kind (i.e. visually dense and textured) is something that you see a lot less of. The flannel that most modern mills have access to tends to be a bit looser: soft, to be sure, but without the right amount of body. Historically, the best flannels were always spun quite densely, possessing enough heft for tailors to work with — for them to cut, shape and iron — whilst maintaining a beautiful milled appearance. That latter quality is important to nailing the warm ‘cosy’ look that so many of us associate with flannel. Then for more casual situations, I find tweed to be extremely beautiful. Every maker seems to have their own special combination of colours.
That unmistakable, variegated flecking…
Yeah. I actually brought something like a summer version of that along today [holds up a large, heavily speckled bolt of beige fabric]. This is a mixture of silk, wool and cashmere, with a certain amount of flecking to it. Strictly speaking, it’s not tweed but there are some definite parallels: you’ve got pink highlights woven through a neutral base; and it’s a really versatile option as a jacket. You won’t find this sort of ‘summer Donegal’ in too many places: most tailors wouldn’t go for something that has so many persistent reddish highlights throughout, but I find that’s precisely what makes this cloth so special.
Alan in a quiet corner of The Armoury, Hong Kong
Overall, the effect is quite subtle though. Not the sort of detail that screams out at passers-by.
Exactly, I think a lot of this cloth’s charm is primarily for the wearer themselves. You’re always the first and last person to see a fabric up-close, and that’s why it’s so important. Whilst going through swatches for coats, suits, whatever, that you pick something which makes you feel happy and helps to instil confidence. That’s arguably the most important aspect of clothing in general.
Twice a year, you and the Armoury team attend Milan Unica: arguably the most important high-end textiles trade show in the world. Who’s showing the coolest stuff there?
So within Milan Unica there’s always this subsection called ‘Ideabiella’, which is actually where we spend most of our time. It’s the part of the show that’s exclusively focused on menswear, mostly Italian mills, along with a couple of well-known English ones. In terms of who produces the ‘coolest’ stuff, that’s difficult to say since it’s often down to individual designers (who sometimes have a tendency to hop around). I’ll give you a funny example: in the past we really liked Carlo Barbera, because they had the same sort of essence that Drake’s did when we first started working with them. In other words: Italian yet with a lot of English sensibilities.
"For more casual situations, I find tweed to be extremely beautiful. Every maker seems to have their own special combination of colours..."
A unique cultural perspective, to say the least...
Right, and that’s very ‘us’ in a way too, you know? We have so much Anglo inspiration, especially in Hong Kong, even though we largely work with Italian tailors. Anyway, the reason I mention that is because though we liked Carlo Barbera in the beginning, there came a year when I distinctly remember thinking “wow, the collection wasn’t as interesting this time round”. Turns out that the original designer — the one whose work we liked so much — had left for another mill, and that he’d evolved the work being done at his new company into something much more to our liking. So that notion of who’s ultimately responsible for creativity is an important one.
Alan showing us around the rest of The Armoury, Hong Kong
I suppose another analogy could be of ‘the chef versus the restaurant’...
Or a fashion house and its creative director, I think there’s an equivalent example in most industries.
Alright. At a clip then, if you had to name several mills worth visiting at Milan Unica more often than not [laughs].
To an extent, it’s the ones who’ve organically built a reputation for certain products over time. Ormezzano, they’re best known for producing incredibly beautiful linens. Solbiati, they were acquired by Loro Piana in recent years, but still feel very true to their roots. This season they came up with some amazing solaro and hopsack linens that are big on heft and visual interest. A lot of the colours feel very Loro Piana-inspired, albeit distilled into the medium of linen, which is very distinctive.
Online, you’re renowned for having quite an elegant, easy-going personal style — how does fabric play into that?
I think the most immediate and visible influence is on texture. I don’t own too many bright pink or electric blue suits, in general I’d regard my wardrobe as being rather subdued. So, I guess as a result, whenever I’m picking cloth, it all comes down to the quotient of texture it has. The colours are already set for me. I’m comfortable in navy jackets, grey suits and neutral shades of tan and brown. Working with such a palette frees you up to concentrate on other areas that you can have plenty of fun with. Even if we’re just talking about plain old navy, within that there’s tweed, flannel, linen and all kinds of textures which vary significantly in terms of how they come across in various visual mediums.
Sort of like this charcoal bolt you’ve brought for us to look at...
Absolutely [picks up another roll of fabric]. So, this grey is actually several pieces which are left over from the fabric used to make one of my all-time favourite suits: it’s a vintage Wodehouse made on really old looms. In the mid-20th century, the threads used for tailored clothing were a lot thicker, so when they were spun into yarns the overall effect was of cloth that exhibited much more texture than we’d normally see produced today.
A quiet corner of accessories in The Armoury, Hong Kong
Do you find that these kinds of vintage Sportex are gaining in popularity, as interest in craft menswear has surged over the past few years?
I’d say that they’re still a rarity. The roughness and weight of vintage cloth makes it difficult to pitch to suit wearers, even in a relatively dressy market like Hong Kong. People also don’t have lots of opportunities to familiarise themselves since it’s not readily available. In the last couple of years, Dormeuil have re-released a ‘vintage’ Sportex line which is an emulation of this. But I’m not sure how popular that is given the expense and, again, because it can be an odd cloth to explain.
How have your tastes changed since the shop’s early days?
Fundamentally, my preferences are still the same, although now I have a pretty sizable wardrobe [laughs]. Since I’ve collected a good range of essential pieces over the years (flannels, worsteds et cetera) it’s more about which style I haven’t got.
So a process of elimination...
At the risk of fishing, have you ever had any commissions made up which proved less than wearable?
Oof. I remember when we first opened — year one, year two — I picked a bunch from a Holland & Sherry Crispaire book, the colour of which was something resembling aubergine. I took a look and thought “oh this seems deep enough to be made into a suit” and so…
Yeah. I had it made up as a 2-piece. And, just to be clear, on the swatch it looked like richly-hued dark purple, but when it was made into a full suit, the effect was blown up tenfold.
An important lesson of how scale affects colour.
Say for instance you’re looking at a bright blue swatch: regardless of how bright and blue it looks, the effect is going to be ten times starker when you blow the fabric up into a full-size garment. Needless to say, a memorable learning experience.
Are there photos of this anywhere?
No [laughs]. Thank God!
Alan showing us how playing with textures inside one colour can take an outfit to the next level
You’ve a well-established reputation for dissecting, in great detail, the various fabrics which end up in the shop. Have you ever been in a situation where you look at something under the loupe and think “this is good, but it could be so much better”?
Yes and no. I think my first articulated sense of a fabric comes from feeling it, for body and texture. That’s a big part of what we’re constantly doing at Milan Unica: we’re thumbing through literally hundreds of navy swatches, and often you’ll be thinking “hmm this is missing something”. Our new ‘Decade Twill’ project was a direct result of that: we used the lessons we had previously learned in order to achieve something that we’d always wanted to do.
In what sense?
We’d never been able to find a soft-feeling, yet densely woven fabric that satisfied our very specific weight requirements. It needed to be heavy enough for tailors to cut and shape, but at the same time, appear as a simple twill. The sort of thing that the average person would look at and think “oh, a navy suit”.
But if they looked closer…
They’d find that it’s actually a 4-ply Super 160, which is extremely fine. We’re working with the same mill that makes Golden Bale in order to produce it, but in this case, because the fabric is 4-ply, what started off as really delicate yarns are actually woven into a twill that is dense and visibly full-bodied. It’s kinda like an old Brooks Brothers cotton oxford: simultaneously soft and dense but also woollen [laughs].
"Even if we’re just talking about plain old navy, within that there’s tweed, flannel, linen and all kinds of textures which vary significantly in terms of how they come across in various visual mediums..."
Talk us through what you’re wearing today. Navy with blue and white is a classic sartorial trio, what are some of the other elements of visual interests you’ve added?
So straight up, I think this Drake’s grenadine lends quite a bit of visible depth while the Herringbone itself [points to jacket lapels] is a very bodied, substantial-looking cloth. This particular fabric is from VBC’s ‘Five Stars’ collection. I’ve been a big fan since it was released: it’s woven for a completely matte appearance, reminiscent of the stuff you’ll see from the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood. The fabric isn’t light by any means (weighing approximately 300g) but from a technical standpoint, that means the tailors we work with can put a lot of shape into it. It’s also marketed as a ‘four seasons’ cloth, which technically means that it’s dry enough to wear in the summer: especially if you’re adept at navigating Hong Kong’s largely interconnected, super-cooled commercial buildings.
What’s especially interesting is how, notwithstanding the tie, most of your outfit’s personality comes from interaction between the various layers of material.
That goes back to my point about texture, it’s a great way to enhance your style without necessarily being showy. In most cases we find that people perceive colour first: so if you work in an industry with a traditionally conservative dress code (e.g. banking), you can probably get away with adding more texture to your outfit as opposed to...
...Donning an angry lilac sportcoat.
Of all the pieces you’ve commissioned, is there anything you adore purely for the fabric?
There’s a brown silk jacket that I had made, in part to emulate a similar one I saw Takahiro [Osaki of Liverano & Liverano] wearing, the material was just outstanding.
Ah yes, I think I know the one.
I distinctly remember the first time I saw it six years ago, the fabric was completely raw. There was just so much going on texturally and you rarely see summer jacketing with such an abundance of personality. There was an almost milled quality to the silk, but every time you held the jacket up against a window or sunshine...
...The light went straight through. Like hopsack?
Yeah. That’s such a consummate example of a fabric lifting the desirability of the entire piece, and the colour itself was extremely beautiful. Then when I saw Taka four years later, wearing the exact same jacket, it looked noticeably different. I remember thinking “This can’t be the same colour. It was so much darker before”. Only for Taka to flip the collar up so I could see the contrast first hand with the parts of the jacket which had faded. In a lot of ways, that cloth was like denim: it lost some of its original colour but gained a whole bunch of personality.
Precisely. Over time, it had evolved, to the point that it was impossible to just go out and buy something identical.
Alan's Patek Philippe Calatrava ref. 2451
“If you want something done right”...
That’s basically what ended up happening. I convinced Michael Hill [of Drake’s] to take some of the tussah silk he’d been using to make ties and re-develop it as a jacketing fabric. Funnily enough, it was actually woven on the same looms Drake’s uses to make neckwear, which are half to a quarter the width of a full-size loom. Despite that, we ended up with enough for a jacket and the final product (made by Orazio Luciano) is something I still wear constantly. Like a pair of old jeans.
Just tangentially — since we’re all here — I feel like it’d be a disservice to ignore these watches that you brought with you.
Absolutely. So these days, I regularly wear a Royal Oak (ref. 4100) and a Calatrava (ref. 2451).
Can’t help but notice you’ve selected older references for both pieces...
I guess what it comes down to is I just don’t have an aversion to buying pieces that aren’t in mint condition, I definitely appreciate when something has a bit of age to it. It’s always nice to see how condition helps to tell a timepiece’s ‘story’. Besides, a slightly worn-in aesthetic is actually quite lovely.
Alan's Audemars Piguet Royal Oak ref. 4100
There’s no need for pieces to be in a condition that is quote unquote “exceptionally rare”?
I’ve generally focused on time-only executions and haven’t yet had the capacity to get into the crazier stuff like chronographs or even annual calendars. Even within the ‘time-only’ category there are so many interesting variations to something so seemingly simple. Akin to my wardrobe, the devil is in the details. Plus this way, I only have to explain my watch to the people who care enough and know to look a bit deeper.
"It’s always nice to see how condition helps to tell a timepiece’s ‘story’. Besides, a slightly worn-in aesthetic is actually quite lovely..."
Does your deep affinity for classic clothing lend itself to a certain kind of watch collecting? Vintage time-only pieces in precious metal...I’m getting a certain kind of mentality.
There’s definitely a sort of kinship between these two kinds of objects which, when seen from afar, don’t really vie for attention. Then you get up-close, the details are slowly revealed little by little and that’s when the revelations come out. The beautifully substantial 4-ply; the double-signed dial: each is its own unique story waiting to be told.
Thank you to Alan See for generously sharing his time and thoughts on fabric. Check out The Armoury's website here.