Tailored to succeed
Justin Chang is measuring up as the future of family firm Ascot Chang.
When Tony Chang, managing director of upmarket menswear retailer Ascot Chang, started working in the family business in 1977, he had no idea that his father Ascot was such a big name.
“I started working at Ascot Chang because my father’s health was deteriorating. It was unplanned,” he says. “I knew nothing about textiles and business. I was a mathematics and computer science student. I just knew my father made custom shirts, but little else. After being in the business for a while, I started to realise how big my father’s reputation was. The more I learned, the more I loved my family’s business.”
More than 30 years later, Tony’s son, Justin, found himself on the same path as his father. Justin started working at Ascot Chang after graduating from university in 2008, without knowing what kind of career he wanted to pursue.
“My encounter with the family business was rather similar to my dad’s,” says Justin, now the company’s business development manager. “I had no idea what I wanted to do as a career until I started interning at the company’s New York store. At the time I was pursuing a textiles and apparel management degree at Cornell University. I was amazed that Ascot Chang had such a strong reputation in men’s fashion, so I decided to join.”
Tony says he was surprised that his son ended up working in fashion because he never had an eye for style and appearance when he was young. “He would prefer T-shirts to the tailored shirts I made for him,” he says. “But gradually he found a passion for fashion. Similar to my own experience when I was young, the more he learns about it the more he loves it. It is great that he has an interest in the family business.”
Justin says he has acquired a wealth of useful experience by entertaining unusual requests from clients. “Most unusual orders tend to come from performers,” he says. “I have made a shirt for singer James Taylor, who wanted a buttonhole in the tail of the shirt to hide his microphone wire. I also had a request from a singer who needed to change shirts really quickly during live performances. I made shirts that had buttons on the front like a normal shirt, but Velcro at the back so he could change really quickly.”
Established in Hong Kong in 1953 – the first store opened on Kimberley Road in Tsim Sha Tsui – today Ascot Chang has 17 shops spread across Hong Kong, the mainland, the US and the Philippines. Like most businesses, however, it started off humbly.
When the elder Chang first started out he was a poor apprentice who at 14 had moved from his hometown of Feng Hua, a town near Ningbo, to Shanghai, in hope of a better life. “He was born into a peasant family,” Tony says. “He started as an apprentice at a shirt maker and learned his craft. In 1949, shortly after getting married, he moved to Hong Kong, because the economy in Shanghai was unstable at that time.”
When Ascot arrived in Hong Kong, he slept on the balcony of a relative’s home in Causeway Bay. Without a shop, he would go from door to door at offices in Central, promoting his shirts to Shanghainese businessmen. “My father’s outstanding craftsmanship soon caught the attention of customers, and in 1953 he saved enough money to open a store on Kimberley Road in Tsim Sha Tsui,” Tony says.
Ascot Chang became a popular brand among business travellers and tourists. Tony was amazed at the number of letters the company received from overseas customers admiring the quality of the shirts. “We were one of the first businesses to offer a mail-order service,” he says. “My father developed a fantastic client database. Every customer had a file recording their measurements, preferred styles and other details. Tailors could follow the information and create shirts that fit perfectly without having the client set foot in Hong Kong. Clients sent us requests and we delivered their bespoke shirts through the mail.”
Business grew steadily until the late 1960s, when Hong Kong became unstable due to the anti-British riots. To sustain the business, Ascot began to run “trunk shows” all over the US to keep the business going. “My father and uncle would go on three-month road trips, visiting several states to make shirts for clients,” Tony says. “Their hard work built a solid foundation for me to open the first Ascot Chang store outside Hong Kong. Between 1984 and 1986, I stayed in New York preparing for the store’s opening.” The company later opened a store in Los Angeles in 1989 before opening outlets in Shanghai in 1993 and the Philippines in 1999.
Over the past three decades, ready-to-wear clothing has dominated the market, but Ascot Chang remains loyal to its core product of bespoke shirts. “We started producing ready-to-wear shirts in the 1980s, but that remains a small part of our business,” Tony says. “In fact, many clients get to know our bespoke shirts through buying ready-made ones. Bespoke is the bread and butter of Ascot Chang and it will continue to be.”
Justin believes made-to-measure shirts – which fall in between bespoke and ready-to-wear – are gaining ground in men’s fashion. TCNY, a subsidiary brand, was successfully rebranded as a made-to-measure business. “Customers’ measurements are taken, but the shirts are not as sophisticated as bespoke ones,” he says. “This is highly popular among young executives and is the fastest-growing segment of our business.”
With rising demand for such shirts, Tony says the challenge is finding enough tailors. “I hope local institutions can put more focus on teaching tailoring to students who are interested in fashion. There are many fashion programmes in Hong Kong, but most focus on design. The industry could certainly use more tailors.”
To help the industry train tailors, he is introducing a training scheme to attract young people. “I plan to invite young people to intern at our workshops for a few weeks and see if they are interested in the craft,” he says. “It is really difficult to find young tailors in Hong Kong. Institutions in Britain have started offering programmes to train tailors, and I think the local education sector should consider doing something similar.”