Mark Cho, the co-owner of British label Drake’s and The Armoury menswear boutiques in Hong Kong and New York is an expert on tailoring and sartorial elegance. He tells us about his businesses, personal dress sense and how gentlemanly style has evolved
How did you get started in the sartorial world?
I was going to school in London and at 16 years old you were allowed to wear a suit instead of the school uniform. I liked the idea of wearing something similar to what my father wore to work, and I ended up falling deep into the rabbithole of men’s tailored clothing. I spent a lot of time reading about tailoring and style, speaking to my father and his friends, and pestering shop staff. Tailored clothing is just endlessly fascinating to me and I love every aspect of it: from the rules to the craftsmanship to the materials to the history – all of it.
What are your rules to achieving gentlemanly style?
I’d recommend learning a few of the basic rules and then wearing tailored clothing as much as possible. It can take a little bit of getting used to wearing these types of clothes. The end goal is for the clothing to be a natural extension of yourself. You should feel as if it’s perfectly natural to be wearing it all the time. As you build experience, you also learn how to wear it in your own way, rather than abiding by someone else’s formula.”
Which five items should every man have in his wardrobe?
A navy single-breasted blazer, mid-grey trousers, a navy double-breasted suit, a brown, patterned sports coat and an ivory linen suit (perhaps not so essential). These are garments that can always serve you well for a long, long time without feeling faddish, gimmicky or overwrought.
What are the most common mistakes – or even your own pet peeves – when it comes to how people buy and wear men’s tailoring?
Wearing clothes too tight is probably the most common one. Some people like their clothes to fit like yoga gear when it’s really so much more comfortable and elegant to have a bit of ease in your clothing. Tailored clothing has the ability to create a flattering shape for a man, such as by having a slightly fuller chest, a nipped waist and a little flare in the hips of the jacket. A beautiful silhouette is created from having subtle differences in size at the chest, waist and hips. It’s an illusion that good tailored clothing can create. You actually can’t achieve this if your clothing is too tight. Also, I strongly favour men dressing in tailored clothing in a comfortable way. I think unless you’re comfortable, it’s not really possible to look your best.
Why and how did you start The Armoury with your partner Alan See?
I wish I had some amazing business plan but, honestly, I just really liked tailored clothing and dealing with customers. Alan felt the same and we were both tailoring aficionados from way back. Various things in our lives lined up to make Hong Kong the most viable place for us to start The Armoury. New York was a bit of good luck. We were already shipping a lot of stuff to New York through our online store and when it came time to think about expansion it was a good fit. We’ve had our beautiful store in Tribeca for six years now. I miss it dearly. I’d usually spend about a third of my year in the US taking care of it.
Does the type of man who shops at The Armoury differ from West to East?
In character and personality, they’re quite similar but their habits might be a little different for geographic reasons. Our products range from very good to among the best, but they’re not for people looking for a brand name or a simplified, dumbed-down experience. Our customers tend to be interested in clothing and have the patience to discover more. I’ve found that people have a tendency to want what’s exotic. Americans find Japanese tailoring more exotic and interesting than Italian tailoring, and vice versa. I do think the level of general tailoring knowledge is greater in Hong Kong, given its rich history as a centre for tailoring. New York certainly needs a lot more hardy shoes, rainboots and overcoats!
What’s your take on streetwear and gender-fluid dressing? Does it impact what you do?
I’m mostly bemused by it. Everyone has the right to do what they like – more power to them. I just don’t think I’m the right demographic to understand it well.
Tailoring styles: Italian or British, and why?
I love the UK but I prefer Italian tailoring. It’s softer, more comfortable and just suits my personality better.
The brands at The Armoury are usually incredibly well curated. How do you select who to stock – and how important is it to have that personal touch with labels and makers?
Thank you! We’re unusual in that everyone on the buying team is also on the shop floor, so there’s probably a different level of understanding of our customers than with most similar businesses. It’s very important to have a personal connection with a label or maker. Without this connection, it’s hard to really feel genuinely invested in what you’re selling. One of the reasons we have so many brands is because we want there to be choices, not just for our customers but also for our own staff. We encourage them to develop their own preferences and make recommendations to their customers according to their own judgement.
Is there anything the younger generation of tailoring and suiting fans wants that the previous ones didn’t?
Softer, lighter tailoring, especially Neapolitan tailoring, was relatively niche until the last 10 years. If you speak to older Hong Kong tailors, a lot of them can tell you about a distinct transition, about 10-15 years ago, when younger customers started coming in and asking for softer tailoring. A lot of them also didn’t like to make those changes at first – the changes being requested were far from what they were used to – but fortunately many Hong Kong tailors came around.
How would you describe your own personal style and dress sense?
Generally quite easygoing, with more subdued colours, favouring Italian or American Ivy-style silhouettes. Occasionally I like cloths that most people would just find odd – I think that’s the British streak in me.
Which outfits or accessories of yours have the most sentimental value and why?
We came up with this design called the 3PB – three-pocket blouson. It’s a short, cropped blouson jacket that we can make in virtually any cloth. I really like wearing mine – I think it’s a modern successor to the sports coat. I make them in tweed for myself in winter and in heavyweight linen or lightweight cotton kimono cloth for the summer.
Let’s talk accessories: handkerchiefs, scarves, cufflinks, ties, bags, shoes and glasses. What are some key rules you like to abide by?
You could probably get away with a white pocket square for the rest of your life. I also like navy pocket squares. I like Drake’s scarves the best – I think we come up with the best designs, both in terms of colour and pattern but also material. I’ve been slowly getting back into cufflinks: I like them with a white tab-collar shirt as part of a very classic, dressy outfit. I prefer English ties (mostly Drake’s) or Italian knit ties, especially in black. I like my tote bags to be taller than they’re wide and I like my briefcases to be wider than they’re tall. I think grained leather is a great halfway house between suede and plain calf and I’d recommend everyone to consider keeping a brown or black grained calf loafer handy. For glasses, it’s nice to have a few pairs. I like black acetate in heavier styles made by Nackymade or lightweight titanium styles by Ann et Valentin or Mr Leight.
You bought the British brand Drake’s some time ago with Michael Hill, taking on a label with a bit of a heritage. What was your vision from the start and how have you achieved this?
Drake’s was never a Savile Row label until about two years ago. It was a nice brand with a good history and a great design archive. Even more importantly, it had a very well-functioning factory for producing excellent handmade neckties. I took it over from Michael Drake because I really wanted to see great ties being made and sold for as long as possible. Michael Hill is one of the most brilliant creative directors I’ve ever worked with and he’s done amazing things with Drake’s. Over the years, the business grew and we took over our own shirt factory and expanded into many more products as well. These days we’re more “brand”-like with an emphasis on design starting with an acute understanding of colour and materials. We were primarily a tie manufacturer for so long that we have quite a unique sense for colour and materials.
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