This post originally appeared on American Express Open Forum.
Whether travelling domestically or internationally, it is our duty to seek local small businesses when shopping and dining out, just as we’d want visitors to check out, use and purchase from our business while they’re on the road in our town or city.
While visiting Singapore last week, my agenda was to support the small business economies within the orderly citystate. There was absolutely no chance I’d pop into one of the many Starbucks, Subways or any of the ubiquitous 545 (and counting) 7-Eleven’s decorating the streets. Rather, after researching Singapore and what it offers, it was clear that both the most thoughtful and also the best experiences existed within the mum and Pop spots like fantastic little boutique restaurants such as Wild Rocket and Kilo, or the famed hawker’s market (food court) like the Tiong Bharu Hawker Centre or Maxwell Road Hawker Market where Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern have indulged.
Besides eating best in small, local spots, I learned that Singapore is well known it’s masterful, small storefront tailors. People travel to Singapore for the well-sourced materials and fine skills to return home with stunning, customised pieces to add to their wardrobe.
With that fashion factoid on my mind, I indulged my materialistic side and set out to spend my Singapore dollars on the Singaporean tailor experience, which would support both my wardrobe and a small business or two—hopefully at a reasonable cost.
Here’s what I learned.
1. Pick a region
There’s Chinatown, Arab Street (the Malaysian quarter) and Little India. All boast vibrant coloured fabrics of varying materials. For more conventional and conservative fabrics, Chinatown is best. For those who want to embrace the ethnic flavours of Malay and India culture, materials for more traditional garb or those channeling their inner belly dancer or sultan will find much of what they’re looking for. And if you want the most bespoke tailor on the island who is not working within a small business, but is a small business himself, the concierge at The Ritz Carlton Millennia suggests the Raffles Tailor in the Raffles Hotel where former Prime minster Lee Kwan-Yew has his suits customised and fitted.
2. Time is money
Singapore is often a stopover for travellers moving onward to explore Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries within southeast Asia, so time spent in the citystate is often limited to less than a week (although this sentiment is changing).
“We can do it in day if you need it fast,” says Vilas Francis of Continental, a Little India tailor. “We suggest you come in right away at the beginning of your stay so you can allow for more time. A proper amount of time would be three days if you can make the time.”
3. The Certified Tailor vs. The Housewife Tailor
Getting your clothing made for you in Singapore isn’t the cheapest place in the world, but it is one of the best.
Shanghai, Bangkok and Saigon are known to be more affordable, but as Francis explains that this comes with a subpar quality. “In Singapore you have proper seamstresses who have certificates of tailoring. These are proper professionals from here and around the world; they are not housewives who sew like you find in Bangkok. That is why it is cheaper. There is risk for poor quality. Here you know you are getting the best. Quality doesn’t come cheap even in Chinatown.”
4. Bring you own samples or look through their pattern books for ideas
This is your Project Runway moment to create something with the guidance of a pro. Some say the experience is easier and cheaper if you bring your own clothing you love, pick out a fabric and ask for a duplicate.
Francis says it makes no difference.
“This is still a customisation of clothing we are creating especially for you. We’re measuring you and cutting according to your body. customisation costs money. Materials cost money. Be prepared to pay around $100 on the low-end.”
When looking through fabrics I learned my taste in materials fell more around the $450 category.
And there is little ability to do any significant haggling when it comes to customised labour.
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