OK Tailor Shop
Posted: Tuesday, February 28th 2012
Made To Measure
By HARLEY RICHARD
Advocate business editor
Seated across from an official with the Canadian embassy in Hong Kong, Kwan Tong knew his application for immigration could go either way.
Speaking through an interpreter, the bureaucrat quizzed Tong about his desire to make Canada his home, the contributions he expected to make here, and why he wanted to work as a cook — despite having spent the previous decade as a tailor.
Tong didn’t confess that he had simply taken a cooking course to improve his chances of admission.
“At that time, tailoring was not that popular,” the owner of Red Deer’s OK Tailor Shop explained three decades later. “Cooks were in high demand.”
Was the official fooled?
“He looked at me with a little bit of a smile, and he just folded his hands,” recalled Tong.
“He said, ‘OK, the interview is done. I will let you know if we accept or not accept.’”
About a week later, the much-anticipated letter arrived and Tong and his wife Yuk were on their way to Red Deer. He went to work at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, where owner John Konopaki made a wry observation about his new hire’s tailoring skills.
“The chicken doesn’t need any clothing,” Tong remembers his boss telling him.
But within six weeks the young immigrant had gravitated back to his true calling, obtaining employment at Julius Tailor Shop. He believes owner Julius Osz, also a newcomer to Canada, wanted to assist his young counterpart.
Osz helped Tong learn English and encouraged him to take classes.
“I still really appreciate him, because he helped me out.”
The relationship came to an abrupt end in 1987, however, when Tong commented casually that he’d like to open his own tailor shop some day.
“He was very mad,” Tong recalled of Osz’s reaction.
In fact, Osz ordered his employee to leave and not come back.
The two men eventually reconciled, but not before Tong — who had a young family and few resources — managed to secure a modest downtown space and start his own business.
“I had no choice.”
He expanded his premises twice before buying Velvet Vest Tuxedo Rentals in 2000. He combined that store with his tailoring business.
“The first three years it was very good,” said Tong.
Then, in 2007, growing competition in the formal wear rental market and scarce labour convinced him to close Velvet Vest and focus again on tailoring.
Tong’s entrepreneurial bent has also pulled him in other directions. He pondered getting into clothing manufacturing and even struck a deal to produce fire retardant coveralls for the oilpatch — a venture that ended before it began with an unexpected downturn in the energy sector.
Tong also got into made-to-measure clothing about 15 years ago, initially crafting the garments himself and then outsourcing the work to a partner in Hong Kong. After travelling to the Asian factory to ensure the first orders were completed to his high standards, he noticed that the quality began to slip and he ended the venture.
About three years ago, Tong started offering custom-made clothing again. This time, he chose a trusted friend in Hong Kong’s clothing industry to work with — sending him detailed measurements and photos of each customers.
“So far, it’s doing pretty good,” said Tong, noting that a high-end suit off the rack costs about the same as one that’s made to measure.
A few years ago, Tong nearly ended up in Calgary after Harry Rosen Inc. contacted him unexpectedly. The men’s wear company wanted a skilled tailor to lead its Calgary operations, and arranged for Tong to travel to Vancouver to demonstrate his skills.
Soon after, Harry Rosen’s western division manager hand-delivered an offer to Tong.
“It ended up I turned them down,” he said.
Tong regularly reads fashion magazines like GQ to stay on top of clothing trends. Some customers embrace his suggestions; others insist on marching to their own beat.
“For example, some guys, they like to wear dress pants with cowboy boots. What can you say?”
At 57, Tong would like to slow down and perhaps bring a successor into his business. He has no regrets about his more than 40 years in the trade, especially the last 31.
“Canada is my savior.”