How to borrow a suit in Bangkok

If using your position as a journalist to convince a Bangkok tailor to lend you a suit and shoes off his own feet in exchange for a story is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

By JARED DOWNING | FRONTIER

In defence of my journalistic ethics, I needed the outfit to get into a club that was really cool – a basement cocktail joint called Maggie Choo’s modelled after a 19th century Siamese speakeasy, complete with exposed masonry, Victorian armchairs, live jazz and a strict dress code. The doorman took one look at my shorts and sandals and told me to hit the bricks.  

Fortunately, there was a high-end tailor’s shop next door, The Elegant Bespoke Tailor. On a long shot, I asked a man who called himself Mike if I could rent a pair of trousers for an hour or so. Of course, his answer was “no” and it might have stayed that way if I hadn’t learned that he was a Myanmar-born person of Nepali descent who had moved to Bangkok from Myitkyina.

I then announced myself as Jared Downing, senior reporter at Frontier Myanmar magazine whose writing is read by tens of people every year, and a fervent buyer of suits. Liberal Tailor at Bogyoke Market, which has been in the menswear biz since the 1960s and outfitted Barack Obama during his visit (really), offers custom three-piece suits for about US$100.

After four years in Myanmar, my collection includes a black suit, a navy suit, a bright blue summer suit, a checked grey suit, a burgundy suit, a beige suit, a houndstooth sports coat, a shiny grey blazer and – the jewel of my collection – a coat woven with metallic thread of two different colours that shimmers orange and green like a sunrise on a lake. 

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Mike gave me a tour of his shop’s extensive collection of fabrics and told me where the best wholesalers were. He explained how any fabric marked “100% Italian wool” is actually a polyester blend from China, but it doesn’t matter because at a certain point you can’t tell the difference. He also showed me how to test a fabric’s quality by burning a small sample with a lighter: If it smells like burnt hair, it’s the good stuff. If it’s gummy, like melted plastic, it’s cheap. 

Mike isn’t the only Myanmar-born tailor in Bangkok. Many Myanmar-Nepali families migrated to Thailand from 2008 onwards after American sanctions hurt business in the north, especially the ruby trade that flows from Mogok. He has since made a steady living as a tailor, but said his true passion was translating Buddhist prayer books into Nepali and posting them on his Facebook page.

“I came to make money, but I can’t [realise] my dream. Real life and your dreams can be so different,” he lamented. “But it’s better than nothing. Now I am a good tailor.” 

Half an hour later, the doorman at Maggie Choo’s looked up from his phone to see the same scruffy white guy from before outfitted in a pin-striped suit and fine black leather loafers.

“Hey. You look pretty good,” he said. 

Damn right I looked pretty good.

By Jared Downing

By Jared Downing

Jared Downing is an American journalist from Colorado and Alabama. He likes podcasts, radio theatre and hitchhiking and collects cans of sardines from around the world.
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