Sharp suits, sleek hair, gleaming shoes. Set on the uppermost floor of a quaint shophouse in Joo Chiat, we find ourselves in a warm welcome from Cai and Ramon, founders of Hertslet & Co. Sunlight streams in and soaks the atelier in clarity and tranquility. The place is open and comfortably-decorated, but a quick glance around reveals the professionalism that both of them exude in abundance. Already, we’re impressed and eager for the interview.
Hi Ramon and Cai, thanks for doing this interview with Foxesden.
Can you tell us a bit more about your background and how you started Hertslet & Co.?
Cai: Since young, I have always been interested in dressing up, looking good and believed in portraying a good first impression as I was inspired by my dad, who always wore a crisp white shirt and tie to work every day without fail. Because of my slim, lanky frame, I had trouble finding clothes that could fit me well off the rack and I always had to get them altered, which led to me researching more about menswear. Subsequently, I started my own menswear blog, The Sartorial Dandy, with the aim of sharing basic style tips with men and did some freelance style consulting. I was introduced to Ramon by chance through a mutual friend at a fashion event and we immediately hit it off as he was the only other person I’ve met who was willing to have a lengthy discussion on buttonholes and lapels!
Ramon: I have always dared to be different and pursued the creative aspect in whatever I do. I worked at other bespoke stores and luxury menswear brands for a couple of years before deciding to fulfil my creative desires and take it to the next level by setting up Hertslet & Co. Yeah, that was how I first met Cai and as they say, the rest is history..
What is the vision or purpose behind Hertslet & Co.?
Cai: Fundamentally, our vision was and still is to educate men on the art and importance of dressing well and to make the world a better-dressed place, one suit at a time. Our motto has always been “cut from a different cloth” as we aspire to differentiate ourselves from the other tailors out there through our garments, our service, and most importantly, the relationships that we forge with our clients.
Ramon: More and more people nowadays are seeking things that can’t be bought with money, things that help them to stand out from the rest of the crowd. Hence, some of our linings and monograms are either limited editions or created exclusively for specific clients. We handsew all of these monograms and we’ve had requests ranging from Arabic names, Chinese characters, fortune cats, skulls, poems and even lyrics from a Snow Patrol song!
How has it evolved since inception?
Cai: As the brand started to grow bigger and bigger, it becomes increasingly important to juggle both the business and creative aspects, with the challenge being maintaining a good balance between both. Our fundamental vision and values behind the brand will always be the main driving force while growth in the business has enabled us to be able to do and achieve more for our clients in terms of our garments and service offerings.
Ramon: We value our clients and also the brotherhood that we have created and all of us are a part of. Coming to Hertslet & Co. is the beginning of a journey of friendship, not merely a one-off transaction. Ultimately, you have to trust each other.
Cai: Yeah, some of our regular clients trust us enough to proceed with their commissions even without coming down as we know their tastes and preferences well in terms of colors, fabrics and details. The trust is very mutual.
Can you tell us a bit more about your work and business?
Cai: Behind all the glamour, glitz and fancy outfits that you often see on social media and out on the streets, it is literally blood, sweat and tears! Hard work – both physically and mentally, as well as late nights. A lot of time and effort is spent on the creative process brainstorming about fit, silhouette, colours, fabrics, designs, details, harmony, etc. as each and every client is different and we don’t believe that one size fits all. Besides the creative process, there are also many logistical, operational and administrative issues to handle such as liaising with suppliers and tailors, placing and collecting orders, managing client relationships, generating social media content, etc.
Ramon: We try to host our Men of the Month event quarterly, where we invite our clients down for a gathering with bespoke cocktails and also take professional photoshoot portraits of them to be featured on our social media platforms. It’s a strong brotherhood because we all stand for the same things.
What is a common misconception most people have about tailoring or custom-made pieces?
Ramon: There are so many. But a crucial one is that only Italian or English tailors are good. That’s a total misconception. We are Singaporean tailors and we’re good at what we do. We aren’t trying to mimic English or Italian tailors. We are proud of our local talents.
Cai: Another is that bespoke garments is crazy expensive and out of the average person’s budget. Yes, bespoke garments are naturally going to be more expensive than off the rack ones purely because the quality of fabrics and materials used, as well as the amount of time and craftsmanship that goes into producing them. And if you take proper care of your bespoke garments, they will certainly outlast off the rack ones and in the long run, you actually spend less replacing them every now and then.
People also think that it is quick and easy to produce bespoke garments. A truly bespoke piece requires multiple fittings to adjust for those small nuances to get a perfect fit, especially for certain body types, as well as the time and labour required for the great amount of handiwork that goes into it. Simply put, investing in a bespoke suit is not akin to ordering takeaway from a McDonalds drive-through.
What’s an important guideline you use when you’re tailoring something for your clients?
Ramon: During the first consultation, we sit down and have a chat with our clients for an hour about their lifestyle and preferences. Once we get a sensing of what they like and their “absolute no-no’s”, we can then make some recommendations based on our expertise.
Cai: Bespoke tailoring is very much a two-way process between the tailor and client so building a strong relationship between both parties right from the start is essential. Although the client is the one who is paying and ultimately has the final say, it is still our job as tailors and style consultants to guide them through the creative process, provide our expertise and advice, and ultimately create something that not only fits their lifestyles and personalities but also something that we proud to send out of the door as a Hertslet & Co. creation.
What kind of fabrics do you tend to use for your clients, or personally?
Cai: We are strong advocates of using only natural fibers such as cotton, wool and linen due to their ability to breathe and drape better and last longer compared to man-made, synthetic materials like polyester, especially in a hot and humid climate like ours. My personal favourite would have to be linen as its porous nature gives it the best breathability while still looking sharp and channeling a louche, not overly serious vibe.
Ramon: I personally like wool as it can either be light or heavy, depending on what you choose and is also wearable in this climate.
What’s in store for Hertslet & Co. in the future?
Cai: We are currently in the midst of designing a monthly capsule collection that will be made in very limited quantities. This is definitely going to be something interesting as the collection will feature some of our unique, trademark designs from our archives and the exclusivity factor is something that our clients greatly appreciate. Beyond that, we are looking to groom more young, aspiring tailors to come onboard and grow the business both locally and regionally as we feel that the menswear scene in SEA has a lot of potential to grow but is still relatively immature at the moment.
Ramon: We also tailor bespoke garments for women. For men, it’s about the lines. For women, it’s about the curves. Menswear is the frame while womenswear is the picture. Good frames and good pictures create good harmony. But ultimately, both men and women just want something fitting.
Cai: We also try to create for our female clients garments that channel a more powerful aura, drawing inspiration from Yves Saint Laurent’s smoking tuxedo for ladies.
Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Ramon: If you can complete something today, don’t wait till tomorrow. And stick to your guts. There are many things throughout the years that might sway you. But always follow through with what you want. Nothing will give you more satisfaction than that.
Cai: You really got to be passionate about what you do, or else you are not going to last long enough to see the fruits of your labour. This may sound cliché, but it is certainly easier said than done. Building a brand or a business is a marathon, not a sprint, just like how Rome wasn’t built in a day. Tailoring, like some other industries, isn’t exactly the most lucrative or glamorous, so you really got to love what you do. Not hating your work is not enough to cut it if you want to be truly successful. We started Hertslet & Co. in 2013 with less than a thousand dollars and without our own shopfront. We managed to get to where we are today not without our fair share of ups and downs so you need to be prepared to bite the bullet and know that things are not going to be smooth sailing all the time. But it is how you recover and bounce back from those adversities that you learn and grow more quickly.
Wow. So what was the first thing you bought with your $800?
Cai: A moveable mirror, files and measuring tapes. No mirror, no go. *laughs*