Given the choice between making cloth shoes or shirts, the 14-year-old chose shirts. To have had any choice at all amidst the poverty and turmoil of China in 1937 was a blessing. Besides, there was no going back now. His mother had already sold the family cow, and with that money the boy would leave rural Ningbo and go into the world. This was how Ascot Chang Chi-bing found himself amidst the bright lights of Shanghai.
Early 20th century Shanghai was renowned for its tailoring tradition which had emerged from the tumult of the First Opium War. The Treaty of Nanking, which also ceded Hong Kong to Britain, had made Shanghai a treaty port that lured affluent merchants and businessmen to the banks of the Huangpu. With them came fine European tailors who found, in the traditional robemakers of neighbouring Ningbo and Suzhou, ideal apprentices with their detailed handwork and precise eye. Ascot Chang took his place within these multitudes.
The youngster learned his trade well, but the 1940s brought revolution to China, prompting the departure of Shanghai’s elite to the relative safety of Hong Kong. In 1949, like many of his fellow tailors, Chang followed them. With little more than US$10 in his pocket, he started over with a modest door-to-door bespoke shirt business. In 1953, with his brother Johnny, he opened a little shop at 34 Kimberley Road for the well heeled and sartorially inclined. Business went well and in 1963 he set up shop at the Peninsula Hotel.
Chang had seen fashion change along with the world, from the big lapels of the 1940s to the slim cuts of the 1960s. Now in the disco days of 1976, with its upturned shoulders and flared trousers, the shirtmaker found himself in Los Angeles working hard on a routine trunk show, taking measurements that would be sent home to Hong Kong and transformed into detailed paper patterns then immaculate shirts. But something felt off. Work had been hard, yes, but this was normal. The cold sweat and chest pain were not.
“I received a call,” says his son, Tony Chang. “Our father was hospitalised. He’d had a heart attack.” Exquisitely suited in navy blue with a crisp shirt and tie, Tony is the present day head of Ascot Chang, and he speaks in even tones from his company’s Hung Hom factory. “My father decided he needed some help in the business. I had just graduated and had nothing to do so I came back.”
Tony Chang says he had “no expectations.” Although he grew up just a few blocks from his father’s shop, he didn’t know much about what he did there, beyond making shirts. “I had no idea what kind of business it was,” he says. He set himself a two-year deadline and immersed himself in the trade, apprenticing in tailoring before working at the Peninsula store. Replying to customer enquiries via telex, Chang soon realised the magnitude of his father’s reputation and international customer base. With thousands of clients in America alone, the next steps became clear: he opened a shop in New York.
“It was a beautiful store!” says Chang, remembering the pre-war townhouse at 7 West 57th Street where he set up business in 1986. “It had been a hair salon but once we took down the drywall we saw beautiful moulding and a beautiful fireplace.” Restoring these crumbling features pushed Chang’s renovation beyond budget, but transforming a niche Hong Kong shirtmaker into an international brand while simultaneously creating a new kind of shop was never going to be easy. That year, Chang had plenty besides to worry about: he had just had his first son, Justin. “He was crawling around in front of that fireplace,” laughs Chang. Justin underwent his own tailoring apprenticeship at the age of 18 and finally joined the family business in 2008 after studying fibre science and apparel design at Cornell University.
Entering an Ascot Chang shop today, with its large table and library of swatch books, one wouldn’t think it was particularly innovative, until you learn that in 1986, this was a huge departure from conventional tailor shops. “Tailor shops sold shirts by showing bolts of fabric,” says Chang. “The whole table would be covered. Very confusing and messy. Organising the material in swatch books is clean and neat. We created a big library table so people could sit down comfortably while looking at fabrics and getting recommendations. It was quite unique.”
Marrying a modern retail approach with the service of old world tailoring was a coup that set the shop apart. So well regarded was Ascot Chang’s Shanghainese tailoring that it caused one New York Zagat reviewer to breathlessly exclaim, “If you meet a man in an Ascot Chang shirt, marry him!”
In the face of such acclaim, the business widened its offering from shirts to suits. Today, with the recent closure of Ho Chiu, Ascot Chang has taken its place amongst Hong Kong’s “big four” tailor shops, alongside A-Man Hing Cheong, H. Baromon and Yee On Tai. But Chang is loath to admit his family’s business has made it to the big leagues, simply acknowledging that Ascot Chang has developed “a certain respect in the tailoring field.” He makes it clear that while the recognition is an honour, Ascot Chang will not be resting on its laurels. “For all these years we’ve always tried to do our best,” he says. “We are always learning, especially when facing different customers and requirements. You have to do a lot to accommodate so that a suit looks good and feels good.”
Ascot Chang’s house cut is characterised as “continental,” with medium shoulder padding and styling that tends towards the slim. Both Changs embody this style in aesthetic and character, neither showy nor loud but quietly confident. Cities with deep tailoring traditions usually develop distinct styles, like the elegantly insouciant Neapolitans with their slimming cuts, and the British with their strongly structured suits and padded shoulders exuding authority. Despite Hong Kong’s long tailoring history, it is difficult to pinpoint what the Hong Kong style might be, even as the city has become a global style reference point with the prominence of Ascot Chang and its frequent collaborator, The Armoury.
“I’m not sure I would say Hong Kong has a very distinct style,” said Justin Chang in 2017. “But Hong Kong tailors have developed a distinct standard.” Hong Kong’s tailors are different to their Neapolitan and Savile Row counterparts who stick stolidly by house styles. “Italian master tailors would kick you out if you don’t follow their style. Hong Kongers won’t say no, so commercially they’re very successful, but from a stylistic standpoint, the development hasn’t been drastic.”
Still, the process of push and pull between clients and tailors does seem to have led to a certain look, even if it is subtle. “Know-how from Shanghainese tailors in the 50s brought a kind of cut to the suits,” says Tony Chang. “A little variation from the British style, but the silhouette is not as sharp and the line is a little more relaxed. You could say this is a Hong Kong style originated by the Shanghainese tailors, but it’s always evolving based on current trends.”
The 2010s brought ever slimmer cuts and greater influence from Italy but, in 2017, Justin Chang observed a trend towards casual wear and looser fits reminiscent of 90s era Tommy Hilfiger and the like. “It’s been a pretty good decade in terms of men’s style,” he said at the time, laughing. “A part of me kind of doesn’t want that to change.”
But everything has changed. “Things are definitely trending towards more casual, helped on by Covid,” he now says. “Before Covid, banks were already going casual. In the last two years we’ve sold the least number of ties that we ever have. Nobody is wearing them. Our customers want shirts that look good without ties.”
In the spirit of proactive Hong Kong tailoring, Ascot Chang is meeting these demands head on. In contrast to the classic style of his father, Justin projects a smart but laid back attitude in a blazer and jeans. He is sans tie but his shirt collar stands flawlessly, as if defying gravity. “We developed this shirt to be worn without a tie,” he says. “It’s based on an Italian one piece collar that gives a smart casual look to the shirt while allowing it to stand nicely. Of course it can also be worn with a tie. We call it the Ascot Collar.”
Tony Chang looks on with paternal pride. “This is something that Justin insisted on developing.”
In 2010, Justin Chang met Mark Cho, who would soon open The Armoury, a Hong Kong-based menswear company that has gone on to international prominence. Ascot Chang and The Armoury have spent a decade creating forward looking menswear couched in the classic. Their partnership has yielded teba jackets, a shirt/polo hybrid and a safari jacket.
“I didn’t even know if we made safari jackets,” recalls Justin.
“Of course!” his father rejoins with a laugh. “We made so many back in the 70s when Roger Moore wore the safari suit in Man With The Golden Gun!”
Ascot Chang’s oft-cited client list is indisputably impressive, name checking everyone from Andy Warhol to Andy Lau by way of I.M. Pei, George H.W. Bush and Leonardo DiCaprio. All were drawn by the quality of the clothes but it is the quality of the people which is Ascot Chang’s true mark of excellence. In the preening world of luxury menswear, the Changs stand out for their grace and modesty in the dedicated pursuit of sartorial greatness. These days, when sweatpants and a t-shirt will do, the roll of a collar and width of a lapel can seem trivial.
“There are plenty of things that are more important than dressing well,” says Justin, “but my grand-uncle Johnny once told me that it’s a sign of respect for other people and the occasion. You make the effort to dress in a certain way and care because you feel they are worth your time and consideration.” Asked how he feels about one day passing the torch to Justin, Tony Chang smiles quietly to himself. “Happy. I’m happy.”