In an industry of indifferent sales clerks and mass production for everyone yet no one in particular, entrepreneur Tony Wu is making his mark with bespoke shirt company Saibu no Akuma, reminding us that no website or machine can rival the art of the personal touch.
It’s a warm, balmy afternoon in Melbourne and in true Aussie fashion, my brother and I are hosting a barbecue in our backyard. My old and dear friend, Tony, walks through the door with a six-pack of booze in one hand and measuring tape in the other.
“I’m going to take your measurements so I can make you a shirt,” he tells me. “I’ve got a pretty crazy idea, but I think you’ll pull it off.”
About two weeks later, back in Hong Kong, I receive what is perhaps the most intricately crafted shirt I have seen in my life. The details, quite frankly, blow me away.
“We source our fabrics from some of the best mills in the world. Our current collection involves over 150 Swiss and Italian cottons with mother of pearl buttons coming standard,” Wu tells me. “Our fabric swatches are hand picked by our head tailor to suit a younger and fresher demographic. We also use an exclusive 3 dimensional collar technology, our heat sealed button security system emphasizes button security and strength, seam stitching is done by single needle with an 18-22 stitches per inch average, our buttons are eco friendly and the last button on all of our shirts are stitched horizontally, acting as a lock to prevent shifting.”
Wu has been dabbling in the bespoke shirt business for years before finally establishing his by-appointment-only tailored shirt label, Saibu no Akuma, in 2013. A young spirit with an old soul, Wu is a man who believes in taking his time to get things not just right, but perfect, and Saibu no Akuma is nothing if not an extension of this.
Each client is met, measured and produced with product based entirely on their imagination.
“I believe a good quality tailored shirt takes you through a journey. The best ones have stories sewn into it, a fabric that holds the best of memories that are re-visited when you put it on. It’s also the relationship you build with your tailor. A good tailor must know their clients not just in measurements, but also on a personal level, to understand them and their lifestyle.”
What spawned the idea for Saibu no Akuma?
I’ve always been a big dreamer. After years of working corporate, I wasn’t going to sleep satisfied. I was hungry to create. I started questioning what was missing, and narrowed down 3 key elements that I believe are dying within our generation; Human interaction, creativity and imagination.
The idea behind Saibu no Akuma was not to create just another shirt brand, but to spark a movement. To represent the idea and possibility of positive change and creative thinking within a generation that has an app for every question. For us, we believe we are fighters for a lost art.
It’s so easy to mass-produce these days – why make things difficult for yourself with a bespoke, tailor-made shirt company?
I didn’t start this brand looking for an easy way out. I do it for the passion, to build something from nothing and turn it into something great. I believe that mass- production results in the loss of intimacy, speciality and emotion. It can kill imagination and creativity, and now with online stores being so accessible, human interaction dies with it. You can’t mass-produce identity. You can’t mass product relationships. Each of our shirts is made for a unique individual with unique style.
Making each shirt one by one is the only option that makes sense to me in order retain the brand’s values and identity. The mass market is starting to kill off niche bespoke services, closing a door on what was once a truly booming industry. We want to bring that back, but combine those traditional bespoke methods such as 18-22 inch per stitch with modern flow and utilize technology to connect us to the world.
What’s behind the name Saibu no Akuma?
I’ve always been in awe of Japanese culture – the artistry, the craftsmanship and passion they put into the simplest of tasks. With that admiration, I decided to do one thing, and do that one thing well. When it came down to creating a name, I focused on what we do, how we work, our values and philosophy, and linked it to the western saying, ‘Devils in the details’. I wanted to incorporate the Japanese craft into our name so we translated it the best we could – Saibu no Akuma. The rest is history.
And what would you say is the core philosophy behind Saibu no Akuma?
We focus on the intricate details that make up the larger picture without compromising quality or design. We never rush, taking the extra time to explain everything to our clients from our vision to what best way to care for their shirt and why, rather than just how much it will cost. We hope that our clients leave feeling inspired, appreciating the human interaction, imagination and creativity that is involved not only in our shirts but in this world so that they can focus on the devils in the details within their own realms.
What has been the hardest thing about starting this business?
For us, the hardest part was finding a manufacturer who aligned with our brand philosophy and who could help us achieve what we want to create. There have been challenging moments but we’ve enjoyed every second, and those challenging moments have been the best memories.
What kind of impact are you hoping Saibu no Akuma will have on the fashion industry?
It’s not just the fashion industry we want to impact. We hope to be a catalyst for positive change so that like-minded influencers will be inspired to challenge their industries.
If you could design a shirt for anybody, who would it be?
I’d love to design a shirt for Bruce Lee. I think he is the real badass in life. He believed in him self so much, he put him self out there, lived a life truly worth living for and proved
everyone that doubted him wrong. It would be an honour to tailor Bruce Lee. I would make him something truly custom, with a Chinese collar and gold stitching with blood red piping throughout the cuffs.
I’d also love to design some shirts for Hov [Jay-Z], he’s got incredible flow but he needs to do something about those oversized shirts. I would make him something with a grey and black base with black mother of pearl buttons to emphasize the Brooklyn come up.
How does it work without a brick and mortar store?
We are a by appointment only service, which currently only takes 5 consultations per week to ensure quality and exclusivity. We first consult with the client on personal style, shirt customizations and what style of cuff and collar they’re after, before taking them to a measurement area where they are measured up. All measurements are kept on file for future orders.
You recently had a pop-up store in Melbourne...
After launching and getting the brand off the ground, I wanted to focus on creating the ultimate customer experience to align with our brand identity. When you think about bespoke, the common perception is chesterfield sofas, expensive whisky and other expensive products. We want to bring that service back to the modern man and change this perception and align bespoke with art and creativity rather than money.
The highlight of the pop up store for me was more the representation of where we are and to never forget about the journey it took to get here. It’s my space of inspiration. There is no dull or negative moment in there. Knowing what we’ve achieved so far, we are beyond ecstatic on the possibility of what the future holds.
Where would you like to see Saibu no Akuma in 5 years?
I see it reaching international waters, with pop up shops set up in Hong Kong, New York, Shanghai, and of course Tokyo. We’d like to have more creative control in the fabrics that are on offer; more collaboration in designs and different materials to work with. We’d love to work with more artists and design our own unique fabrics with limited runs.
I see the brand turning from a shirt brand to a lifestyle brand that sparks the minds of other influencers. I’d love the brand to not just represent custom tailored shirts, but branch out into other custom crafts, from shoes to denim. The opportunities are truly endless.
There’s a story I tell my friends that I think answers this question in an honest and interesting way. In 5 years time, I’d love to walk into a bar, somewhere overseas and see some one wearing one of my shirts. I’d walk up to him and say, “hey, I really like your shirt, what is it?” and to hear him explain the brand back to me with the retained philosophy and value, that would be sweet.