Behind every well-dressed man is a tailor whose resourcefulness, precision and consistency has won that man's diehard loyalty (and has him dreading the day his tailor retires). It’s how we'd describe Tony Tong, the Boston-based tailor who's amassed quite a following over the 23 years he's been in business. Since we approached Tony three years ago about working together, we've come to rely heavily on him not just for company-related alterations, but for our own tailoring too. Even our significant others will only go to Tony.
We sat down with Tony at his Financial District shop to learn more about his 53 years as a tailor – from starting as an apprentice in Hong Kong to striking out on his own in Boston – and what keeps him motivated after all this time.
How did you get started as a tailor?
"Back in 1962, when I was 14 years old in Hong Kong, I had to learn a trade. There were two choices: be a mechanic or be a tailor. I liked the idea of being a tailor because it was nice and clean. So I joined a three-year apprenticeship: one year to learn pants, and two years to learn the jacket. It’s similar to how someone would go off to college.
"We worked 13 hours a day, from 11AM to midnight. You learn by doing. On Sundays we got to go home and see our parents, but only for the day. Even overnight we’d stay in the shop. At night I’d sleep under the work table.
"Once I completed the apprenticeship, I went to go work for a store in Hong Kong making custom clothes for people. In 1972, I left for the U.S., finally arriving in Boston on January 15, 1973. Since I didn’t speak English at all, I had to go work in Chinatown at a grocer.
"Six months in, I thought to myself, ‘I’m 24, not 40. I need to get out of here’. And the only way to do so was to learn English. So I enrolled in a full-time adult school in Chinatown that taught English. While I was there, I got a weekend job as a bus boy up in New Hampshire – a bus would take me there from Chinatown on Fridays after school.
"My first tailoring job in America was at Jordan Marsh. I started in 1974. After 16 years at the company, my then-wife goes, “You're only 41, you still have your energy, you should go out and start your own business.” I knew she was right, and I quit my job. But I was scared because I didn't know how to do business. I only knew how to work for people.
"Then one of the companies I had done some work for – they were called LTD – offered me a job as their part-time tailor. They said, 'If you can do our alterations for a low cost, we'll give you a space in our store for free.' That was in 1990. Two years later, LTD announced it was going out of business. I was scared to death because I didn't have many of my own customers. But luckily, the store had a big closing sale where I got to meet a lot of people. They asked me if I was going to move. I told them, 'Look, I don't have a space yet, but I'll let you know when I do'. I got business cards, and eventually did find a location of my own. I was so nervous. But the first day I opened, people I'd met at LTD came over and wanted to keep doing business with me. That was in 1992. I moved to a new space in 1995, and I’ve been here ever since."
Tony shares a catalog from Jordan Marsh, his first tailoring job in America
How have alteration requests evolved since you started your business?
"Now the men's styles are all slim, with shorter pant lengths. People like a really slight break. It used to be a big break with a cuff on it; now no one wants a cuff, everyone wants slim. All pants are different. If the crotch is lower, the inseam is shorter. You can never say one standard inseam length, because every manufacturer cuts the crotch differently. Now all the pants have short crotches. Crotches used to be longer for comfort, but now they're for style. The younger, single generation likes to dress up nicely."
You've got quite the following here in Boston, Tony.
"I have a lot of people who have followed me for the last 25 years. You follow a guy who does nice clothing for you. You trust him, you don't want him to leave. If a tailor retires, a guy doesn't know what to do; he's scared to try someone new that he doesn't trust. He gets used to a certain way."
After all this time in the business, what drives you to keep doing your best?
"I've been doing this for 53 years, and it's the best I can do. I do it really well, so I just keep doing it. I don't have the education; I don't have any other choice."