William Lee: A Modern Gentleman's Lair
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Makati’s central business district, William Lee is as nondescript as the street it is located on. The William Lee experience starts off with location, requiring a keen eye for detail in order to find your way through its glass and wrought-iron entry door, like mid-century speakeasies and swanky bars it draws inspiration from.
“It always begins with getting to know the client…” Borgy Manotoc lets his sentence trail off as he turns his attention to one, who is in the middle of discussing the details of a suit he is having made for his upcoming wedding. It is evident in the conversation that the groom, a young Caucasian male in his thirties, accompanied by an equally welldressed male friend, knew how he liked his suits. The client considers the weather and the location when choosing his suit style and garment; he also toys with the idea of adding a pop of colour while consulting showroom manager Leon Esquillon. They shift from one fine detail to the next: the suit’s lining, the lapel’s buttonhole, and somebody suggested a hand-stitched boutonniere loop. Standing tall and upright in their loafers, paired with crisp button-down shirts, both men bantered and shared laughs with Manotoc and Esquillon, as they flipped through books of fabric swatch samples. The camaraderie is palpable, like a scene straight out of an episode from the hit television series Mad Men—except that the conversation is on suits, not on advertising. The group of young gentlemen, all in impeccable ensembles, are engaged in conversation, even as one, or two, of them is fully utilising the vintage bar cart with a whisky glass in hand.
“Then we start styling the suit,” Manotoc continues. “We try to inform our clients about the basics, or if they prefer to trust our expertise we are always happy to make more direct suggestions.” Manotoc, a known entrepreneur of several resto-bars, clubs, and establishments in the city, is no stranger to fashion. It seemed like the most natural transition for him; after putting his modelling years behind, he applies what he has learnt in his years in the fashion business to his entrepreneurial skills when he launched this new business venture together with co-owner, Sono Advani.
William Lee, named after and inspired by The Beat Generation’s godfather William Burroughs, is a bespoke boutique in Manila that specialises in two-piece suits made with imported fabrics and produced in Hong Kong. William Lee is inspired by Manotoc’s years as a resident in Singapore and his frequent visits to Hong Kong, where the bespoke industry is thriving. Drawing from their own experiences of several failed attempts at finding a good tailor or a local shop that offers made-to-measure suits, Manotoc and Advani aim to raise the bar and provide a tailoring experience that produces quality garments. “In Manila, people go to fashion designers for suits, but it takes a certain skill level to create a suit. It has become a lost art here, there are few local tailors and even fewer craftsmen in the industry.”
Tailoring is still seen as ol d-fashioned and arguably conservative. William Lee offers a more laid-back approach to bespoke garments. Topstitching in subtle contrast colours and bright-hued jacket linings telegraph a custom look, but the new higher-quality tailoring extends beyond such surface details. While these special custom-details and peculiarities aren’t likely to become standard anytime soon, the William Lee team recognises the need to bridge the gap between old-school tailoring methods and traditions while incorporating subtle but daring, contemporary styles.
With the next client walking through the boutique’s tiled floors for his fitting, marketing assistant Julio del Prado talks us through the whole bespoke suit-making process. “We select a handful of fabric swatches that we feel best fit what the client needs, and show him a variety that could all work in the desired context.” He adds, “This can take a great deal of time as our range of textiles covers the globe from the oldest mills in the world to some small production innovators.” Once a client decides on a fabric, he collaborates with the William Lee team to discuss possible cuts and other personalised details. The client’s measurements are then sent to their specialised tailors in Hong Kong, who cut and sew the garments. This can be sent back and forth as many times as needed, until the client is ultimately satisfied.
Advani proceeds to take the newly-arrived client’s measurement in the dressing area of the shop. Well-acquainted with the client, conversation comes easy during fitting. Manotoc reiterates the importance of getting to know their clients on a personal level and cultivating some form of relationship, saying, “It does a lot, they need to be comfortable enough to ask the right questions.”
After finishing his fitting and his G&T, the last client for the day leaves—albeit reluctantly. The William Lee team remains in their well-curated and edited space, which co-owner Manotoc meticulously rearranges every so often throughout the afternoon. No detail is left unnoticed; they thoroughly discuss ways to enhance certain clients’ unique, personal styles. “We’re constantly working to be aware of modern sensibilities without losing track of the traditions that made tailoring what it is today.”
William Lee is located at 117 Aguirre Legaspi Village Makati City
- Photography MJ Suayan