Tailor-made in Southeast Asia

Getting custom-made clothes is a popular thing for tourists to do in Southeast Asia. A whole industry has sprung up in Thailand and Vietnam. The attraction for Western tourists is that you choose from an array of local silks or other fabrics, the outfit is made to your measurements, and it’s all done so quickly. I’d thought another attraction was a cheap price, but I didn’t find that to be the case when I had clothes made there.

I wanted all the pretty dresses

I wanted all the pretty dresses

Part of the problem is that I couldn’t find reliable information on what a good price was. Or any information, really. I’m a notoriously poor Googler–when people joke that I like books so much I should be a librarian, they are misunderstanding the many research duties a librarian has and my total inability to fulfill such duties–so when I Google “prices clothes thailand” or “cost of tailor vietnam” I get a lot of posts on travel forums of people saying how much they liked or didn’t like a particular tailor. But no one seems willing to write down in black and white how much they spent, which I think must be largely because people are worried that they didn’t get a good deal, or not as good as the other guy, and they don’t want to talk about it lest they get found out.

Okay, so here’s the breakdown for me: I spent $200 on two dresses in Thailand, $25 for a skirt in Vietnam, and $50 for a shirt and trousers in Vietnam. I bought silk from a silk warehouse in Chiang Mai and used some of it for a dress I had made there, and some of it for the skirt made in Vietnam. Otherwise, I used the fabric they had at the tailor’s shop, which is how it’s generally done. Did I get a good deal? Did I get my money’s worth? Sort of.

Please invite me to lots of fancy parties so I can wear this all the time

Please invite me to lots of fancy parties so I can wear this all the time

The pink dress I had made with the silk I bought off-site turned out exactly how I’d hoped, fit well after two small adjustments, and garnered all the compliments one hopes for when one shows off a new frock and nonchalantly says, “Oh, I had it made in Thailand” when asked where one procured it. Worth it.

The purple dress, made specifically for me to wear while standing up in my sibling’s wedding, was much more problematic. I’d brought in photos of designs I liked, and I looked through the design books they had at the store. I talked at length about what kind of design I preferred, and the tailor recommended a design that seemed to fit best with what I needed. I described the kind of purple I needed to match the color palette, and he brought out just two swatches, both of similar texture. I chose one and we went from there. But he failed to mention how ill-matched the design and the fabric were. No way this kind of material could hang the way the material in the design did.

The first fitting, when I hated what they gave me

The first fitting, when I hated what they gave me. The smile is a lie.

So at the first fitting, I was horrified to see something very different from what we’d talked about. But the material had been cut, there was no turning back. I’m no fashion expert (if I were, I would’ve figured out the material/design divide), but I made suggestions on how to spice it up here, make it less scandalous there. Eventually, I ended up with a dress that I thought was okay, but not great, and not noticeably better than something I could have got off the rack somewhere. Not worth it.

The last fitting, when I was much more satisfied

The last fitting, when I was much more satisfied

I had a skirt made for my cousin in Vietnam, half from material I’d bought in Thailand, and half from the tailor’s store. I went to the slightly chi-chi place recommended by my guesthouse. It turned out beautifully, and my cousin liked it. Worth it.

Finally, I got an overnight order made my last night in Hoi An. I didn’t go to a recommended place, just chose from the many shops lining the streets of the old town. I didn’t really intend to buy anything, but I obviously looked interested enough for the tailor to give a good sales pitch, which I fell for. I got a pair of linen pants, and a linen/cotton hybrid long-sleeve shirt. I picked the designs from the mannequins lining the shop. The shirt turned out well, needed no adjustments and looked pretty good. The pants were hemmed too short and started pilling from the moment I wore them. Not really worth it.

It's not a great photo, but those are the clothes I had made in Hoi An. I'm showing them off near Ho Chi Minh's palace in Hanoi, naturally.

It’s not a great photo, but those are the clothes I had made in Hoi An. I’m showing them off near Ho Chi Minh’s palace in Hanoi, naturally.

Part of the appeal of these places is that you can get custom-made clothes in just a few days, before you go back home or move on to your next tourist destination. But how is that possible, unless an army of seamstresses sews overnight to get it done? It’s very like most of what we consume, actually; you pick out what you want in a comfortable environment, with a salesperson eager to make you happy, and then you go off to have a nice dinner while underpaid workers labor ceaselessly to make what you require. I definitely should not have bought anything at that last place, where it literally had to be done overnight because I was leaving the next day. Possibly I shouldn’t have supported the other places either, but I feel more okay about those, because they had 3 days to make the skirt, and 7 to make the dresses. That seems like a fair expectation of labor. And the quality from those places was better, too, which is not a hard equation to figure (more time = better quality).

Did I overpay, though? I talked to a few fellow tourists who had more clothes made, for less money than I’d spent. I don’t know what the quality was like, and I don’t know if the clothes were more complex than mine. My shirt and pants started falling apart quickly enough that I think I did overpay for them. The purple dress has a bit of a shine on it from bad ironing after one of my fittings, but it’s otherwise good, and the pink dress and the skirt are great, so maybe I paid a little more than I could have elsewhere, but maybe it was for good reason.

Despite the photos of Daniel Craig with the cheesy tagline "Be James Bond!" outside, this was a good shop.

Despite the photos of Daniel Craig with the cheesy tagline “Be James Bond!” outside, Kimmy Custom Tailor was a good shop.

This turned into a very long post on what I bought on my trip, but I am hoping it’s helpful for others who plan to get tailor-made clothes in Thailand or Vietnam. (Keep in mind, too, that although I say “tailor” throughout, the person you talk to is usually not the person actually sewing the clothes. They are the salesperson, with a good understanding of the process, and the best English out of everyone in the shop.)

I don’t know what a “good” price is, but this is what I spent: $200 for two dresses (one that I was also buying material for and one I wasn’t), $25 for a skirt, and $50 for a shirt and trousers. Probably your Googling skills are better than mine, so you can find better info that way. Prices were given to me in baht in Thailand and dollars in Vietnam, and I could pay in either dong or dollars in Vietnam.

Here’s where I went:
CM Tailor in Chiang Mai. I went to the branch off the main road, but by the third round of fittings for that tricky purple dress, the tailor took me to the main shop (on Rajchapakinai Road) so his boss could oversee things. It was an all-male operation, while everyone was very cautious of my modesty, they were definitely flirting in a persistent way, and telling me how great I looked in a way that seemed disingenuous and not helpful in figuring out the actual issues of the dress. A lot of the reviews online (which is how I decided to go to this shop) were by men who got suits made, and probably that’s a very different experience. The problem dress was made from their fabric and the good dress was made from mine, so maybe go to the main branch to see the full selection of fabrics, and bring your own if you don’t like what you see. They did as many fittings as I needed for me to be satisfied, they were not pushy in the sales pitch, and they do offer to ship anywhere in the world. Recommended, with reservations.

Kimmy Custom Tailor in Hoi An, on Tran Hung Dao Street. Super busy shop, designs displayed on fancy tablets and computer monitors, fitting room upstairs. I was a little rushed here, but they did seem to grasp what I wanted right away, picked out a complementary color for the skirt immediately, and had it ready as scheduled. Recommended.

Anh Thang in Hoi An, on Tran Phu. Lots of cool examples to choose from. Pushier sales pitch than anywhere else I went, which made me uncomfortable but also worked on me. It is easy to see how well the end result turns out when you have the 3-D version of the design right there in front of you, so I liked that. Not great quality and I probably could have used more fittings, if I’d allowed the time. Not recommended.

Is the answer to go to the big-name places that have all the Trip Advisor reviews? Can you trust your guesthouse to give you a good recommendation, or just a place they get a kickback from? What’s been your experience having clothes made in Southeast Asia?

My final tailoring experience in Southeast Asia

My final tailoring experience in Southeast Asia

Running the Numbers: Getting Ripped Off vs. The Bigger Picture

“Oh, you know they’re always trying to rip you off.” “They’re always looking for a way to scam you.” “You have to be really firm with them.” I heard variations on this theme so many times in Southeast Asia that I started to wonder what I was missing, because I didn’t feel that way. How much of this attitude comes from personal attitude, and how much from the many, many guidebook warnings on scams and ripoffs in Southeast Asia? Probably a mix. A not very pleasant mix of reality, stereotypes, and suspicion.

In the 40,000 kip tuk-tuk

In the 40,000 kip tuk-tuk

Guidebooks and websites list the various scams you can fall prey to–the gem scam, the tuk-tuk scam, the travel agency scam, to name just a few. I even knowingly went into one of the well-known scams, to see what it was like. There are a lot of setups to separate you from your money, and the more serious ones have legal repercussions if you don’t cooperate (see: anything involving drugs). Being wary of any deal that seems too good to be true is a smart move for avoiding scams anywhere you go, including SEA. That’s pretty straightforward.

It’s the ripoffs that are a murkier area. Traveling in SEA from a Western country means encountering new currencies, new modes of transport, new foods, and a new bar of “normal” prices for it all. I got pork satay for $1 and thought I’d got a bargain, until further up the street I saw someone selling it for 50 cents. Did I feel cheated out of those extra 50 cents? Slightly. Did it affect my budget or my mood? Not at all.

I met some women on the slow boat to Laos, and when we arrived in Luang Prabang we decided to share a tuk-tuk to the Kuang Si Waterfalls, 40 minutes outside of town. We found a couple tuk-tuks and asked how much to take us there and back. (You never have meters with tuk-tuks; you always negotiate price upfront.) The drivers wanted 50,000 kip per person, round trip. What a ripoff! That’s much more than it should be! We’re going to find someone else! And then they did start walking off to find someone else. The drivers let us get pretty far; this wasn’t a haggling technique, you could tell, they really didn’t want to drop their price. But finally they consented to 40,000 kip each, which was deemed acceptable. (I should say here that I really enjoyed hanging out with these women, as we did over the next several days, but we just disagreed on this point.)

We passed a checkpoint (all the tuk-tuks in Luang Prabang belong to a group that they report rides to and presumably pool some money for), and I saw a sign saying trips to the waterfalls are 200,000 per tuk-tuk. There were four of us, which meant the 50,000 was just basic math, not a ripoff at all. But when I mentioned this, the women said no, they’d read online that it shouldn’t be more than 40,000 per person, and it’s a matter of principle, not being ripped off. And “they” will rip you off any chance you get, I was reminded; hadn’t the price of a dress been slashed in half at the market yesterday when one of the women simply started walking away after hearing the opening figure? That proves that they’re always asking for way more than it’s worth.

How much, how much?

How much, how much?

But I think it’s not that simple. The dress, yes, that was a funny piece of haggling, because clearly the woman would have settled for much less than her opening price, but why shouldn’t she give it a shot? It wasn’t out of line with prices in other stalls, and it was still only $10. It’s frustrating when you’re not sure what the normal price is, but markets here are meant for bartering, so make up your own normal, or what feels comfortable for you without leaving the seller with no profit.

The tuk-tuk, though, is much easier to avoid being ripped off. They’d gone online to see what the norm was–40,000–so if the driver had said 100,000, we would have known straight away that we were being ripped off. But 50,000 isn’t unreasonable, and according to the tuk-tuk company sign, it was in fact appropriate for the size of our group.

And in the end, it’s a $1 difference. Yes, it was the difference between a $7 or an $8 ride–for 40 minutes out, waiting several hours, and 40 minutes back to town. That $1 means so much more to the driver than it does to me, so why begrudge him that slight boost in his pay for the day? It’s going to go a lot farther in his pocket than in mine. Sure, they countered, but if you keep saying, “oh it’s only one dollar” everywhere, those dollars are going to add up, and you’ll lose a lot of money that way. Yep, I replied, and I’m okay with that.

I complain about how much I’m spending on this trip more often than I should, but I’m still acutely aware of how fortunate I am. I’m far more upset about the ATM fees I pay every time just to access my own damn money than I am about the couple hundred dollars I’ve probably overpaid to people trying to send their kids to school or get dental care.

Finally, this kind of thinking can get dangerously racially based. There’s way too much “they” and “them” in the talk surrounding scams and ripoffs. If you’re always thinking that a certain group of people is always out to get you, you’re not allowing them any individuality, and you’re closing the door on opportunities for understanding each other. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t look out for ripoffs–I had to bail on a taxi in Hanoi with a super-fast meter, for example. But try not to make it the first thing you see in a person.

If you see someone as a scam artist solely based on his race, that’s racist. If you see someone as out for your money, that’s one more friend you haven’t made. That’s a lonely way to travel, and it doesn’t fit in my budget.