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Be it for business, pleasure or espionage, to cut a dash at a presentation, to draw the eye of a stunning maiden at a bar or to take out that crafty villain on M’s orders, any man playing his A-game needs to deploy his A-game garment – the suit.
Just as a knight’s armor was hand-made, for the 21st-century gent seeking to look as sharp as a stiletto, tailor-made is the only option.
But is is possible to acquire such threads affordably?
In the post-war period, East Asia annihilated Western manufacturing based on competitive pricing, speed of execution and rising quality. While London and Naples remain the global epi-centers of elite tailoring, Asia has also grown a reputation for competitiveness in the field.
However, rising GDPs in Hong Kong and Singapore have raised the prices of tailoring there, leaving Bangkok as the region’s top spot for fast, economical, quality suits.
Among the Thai capital’s crowded and varied tailoring scene is an establishment that has been dressing men-about-town for more than half a century: Raja’s Fashions.
Meet the Gulatis
The institution is owned and managed by the Gulatis, a family of Sikhs.
“Basically, this is a three-generation business started 56 years ago by Raja Gulati,” Managing Director Bobby Gulati, 54, Raja’s son, who now runs the business, told Asia Times. “I have been in the business 35 years. My son Dane, 26, who went to school in Miami, joined five years ago.”
The classic men’s suit, pioneered by London tailors, was originally based upon military uniforms. Raja’s, too, was born of war.
Amid the Vietnam conflict of the 1960s, dollar-rich US troops flooded into Thailand. Thai tailoring “has always been popular because of inexpensive labor and good access to good fabrics,” Bobby Gulati explained, and Raja’s set up shop across from a US airbase in northeast Thailand in 1964.
Raja’s military heritage is evident to this day. A“Wall of Fame” in the shop is a mosaic of plaques, coins and certificates of appreciation from men and units ranging from the Royal Air Force to the Swedish Navy to the US Marine Corps. Discretion is to the fore – Asia Times was asked not to photograph these endorsements.
But while the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the fall of Saigon did not mean the fall of Raja’s. The business relocated to the capital and today armors the expatriate gent with bespoke shirts, jackets, suits, tuxedos, coats and accessories.
Stroll in, sit down, measure up
Stroll into Raja’s and you will find the walls bedecked with hundreds of bolts of fabrics from Asia, Italy and the UK. Ties, pockets squares and cufflinks are also on display. Fitting rooms await at the rear.
Once you have selected fabrics, Gulati takes your measurements. Then it’s decision time. Single or double breasted? Slim fit or classic? What style of lapel, or pockets? Do you want functioning sleeve buttonholes? What color lining? What color buttons?
It’s your call, but Gulati stands ready with advice. “We put a lot of effort into making sure the customer gets what he wants,” he said.
Highly personalized options are doable. Raja’s has constructed suits with secret pockets for magicians and jackets tailored to cover the holstered pistols of people in related professions.
The need for speed
As is the usual case with Bangkok outlets, the actual tailoring is outsourced to a team of off-site Thais in Raja’s workshop. “Logistically, we have a guy who runs up and down, we have fabrics on hand, so we don’t have to order, and the same with buttons and linings,” Gulati said. “We have total control over production.”
Prices are closer to Skid Row than to Saville Row. Shirts range from 1,700 baht (US$55) to 3,000 baht ($98). Suits start at 12,000 baht ($393) and go up to 35,000 baht ($1,150) for top-drawer Italian fabrics. For comparison, a full bespoke suit in Saville Row will set you back $3,600 and up.
While Saville Row spends months on a suit, Raja’s does the job in four-five working days. Moreover, Raja’s offers the same number of fittings – three – as top London tailors. And for customers whose preferences and measurements are known, Raja’s can whittle that down to three working days.
In terms of turnover, Gulati says Raja’s moves 10-15 suits per day, plus “a few dozen shirts.”
And customers come back.
“I came to Bangkok just for the tailoring – the extra zero London [tailors] put on price makes it better to come out here, kick back on the beach and get half a dozen suits and 20 shirts made,” Charlie Hosner, an American consultant based in London who has been visiting Raja’s for a decade, told Asia Times.
“I come here even though there are 40,000 tailoring options in Bangkok,” he added. “It’s not the deep fashion experience – you get quality materials, stitched to last, and an awesome selection.”
While the family owns property and runs a hotel behind the tailoring shop, that management is outsourced and the Gulatis stick to their core competency. “We are good at what we do,” said Bobby Gulati. “You can only do one thing right.”
Still, the business is not standing still.
Dane Gulati, after a US educational sojourn, where he studied marketing and finance, returned to the family firm. The idea was to “… bring Raja’s into the 21st century – build up social media, new fabrics, new designs, new product categories,” he said.
Partly as a result of Dane Gulati’s trips to the biannual Italian men’s fashion gathering in Florence, Pitti Uomo, Raja’s have added bespoke denim jeans, silk boxer shorts and casual shirts to their offerings.
Online is an emerging platform – but while the Gulatis acknowledge advances in tailoring hardware and apps, they prefer to meet and measure clients in person. After that, they can confidently sell future pieces online.
Even so, these are evolutionary, not revolutionary shifts. If you are a fashion victim whose ambition is to look like a K-pop star, it is probably best to bypass Raja’s. But if you need to get suited swiftly, economically and well, this is your spot.
Waddle in dressed like you crawled out of a pond and stride out days later, looking like James Bond.
Warning: Raja’s Fashions is not the only tailor using the “Raja” brand in the vicinity. A number of customers seeking the Gulatis have accidentally wandered into an across-the-street competitor. Best to schedule an appointment to ensure you are in the right Rajas.