BANGKOK. July 20, 2004
By Denis D. Gray
Jesse and Victor Gulati insist word-of-mouth is all the advertising
they need for their hole-in-the-wall tailor shop. And who's to argue
when they have President Bush hearing endorsements from a regular customer
Tailor Victor Gulati fits Andrew Scott of Alexandria, Va., at his
Bangkok shop, popular with visiting dignitaries.
A stop at Rajawongse Clothier has over the years become a must for
visiting statesmen, ambassadors and generals, along with spies and Secret
Service agents ("They like their suits a bit loose," Victor
notes). (Related site: Rajawongse Clothier)
One of our most esteemed customers, former U.S. President
The shop's back wall is covered with letters of appreciation and photographs
of happy customers like the Bushes, Sen. John Kerry, Homeland Security
Secretary Tom Ridge and Nancy Reagan.
Rajawongse is among hundreds of Bangkok tailor shops, many catering
to foreign visitors who have discovered that the city has dethroned
such Asian tailoring capitals as Hong Kong in value for money.
Most of the tailors are geared to what Jesse, the 54-year-old family
patriarch, somewhat condescendingly calls "the tourist trade."
Prices in those places may be bargain-basement, but buttons tend to
pop and collars wilt after a few wearings.
Then there are a handful of world-class masters like the Gulatis, who
have built up a loyal clientele over 43 years through quality craftsmanship,
reasonable prices and a friendly, smooth-as-silk service in perfect
"Morning, Andrew," says Jesse's son Victor, not skipping
a beat as he greets a longtime customer, a State Department official
traveling through Southeast Asia who pops in to have one suit, three
pants and three shirts made.
Both father and son have a knack for instantly recalling names and
faces of customers they may not have seen for a decade. And the Gulatis
keep a detailed client database, although they admit problems arise
when some forget to update with the growth of a paunch or a crash diet
when placing orders from abroad.
"It's the best value in the world," says the visiting diplomat,
Andrew Scott of Alexandria, Va., emerging from a tiny fitting room.
"They make great stuff in Italy but you'll pay $1,000 a suit."
Jesse, his neat attire and trim beard topped by a purple turban, says
his suits average $250, and he hasn't changed his prices in eight years.
Comparable ones in Hong Kong go for $700-$800, while in New York custom
tailors would charge up to $2,000, he says. Dress shirts, made from
top quality Egyptian cotton, sell like hot cakes at $20 apiece.
Low overhead keeps prices down, the Gulatis say. Rajawongse does "zero
advertising" although its profile is heightened by sponsorship
of local charities, and a recently started Web site has brought in substantial
The shop is hardly attractive enough to snare walk-ins along Bangkok's
touristy Sukhmuvit Road. Set in a row of nondescript shops, it consists
of one narrow room stacked with bolts of cloth.
The family set up there in 1974, having started their business 13 years
earlier near a U.S. Air Force base in the northeastern city of Ubon.
That was the Vietnam War era, which spawned a generation of entrepreneurs
catering to American troops in the tourism, sex and tailoring trades.
Among them was Jesse's now deceased father, a Sikh who had immigrated
from India and whose four sons and daughter followed him into the business.
One of the sons, Raja, later set up Raja's Tailor, located around the
corner from Rajawongse, and likewise has assembled an impressive international
During the war years, the Gulatis' reputation among American servicemen
caught the attention of the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, bringing about
their relocation from the provinces.
"We dress pretty much the whole embassy now, from the Marine guard
to the ambassador," says 26-year-old Victor, a business administration
graduate who has worked with his father since the age of 15.
It was an ambassador who recommended Rajawongse to the senior George
Bush, who brought measurements to have suits cut for all his sons while
on a 1999 Bangkok visit. The current president made contact during last
October's summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, ordering
two suits, gray and blue, plus five shirts.
Jesse, who even breakfasted with the president, says it took Rajawongse
six months to fill orders for some 1,000 suits from participants at
that summit. A number came from a loyal constituency senior espionage
officials from Western nations and bodyguards who accompanied the VIPs.
Nancy Reagan dropped by with an order during a visit to Bangkok with
President Reagan in 1986. "She saw all the Secret Service guys
dressed so well, so the first lady asked, 'Where did you get all those
clothes?'" Jesse says.
Besides tailoring some suits for her husband, Jesse and his crew had
to work furiously through the night to fill an unusual request from
Mrs. Reagan. "She said she needed a backdrop that had better match
her blue earrings and blue dress when she appeared for a television
interview the next morning," Jesse recalls.
He came up with a fancy, curtain-like screen, and the White House later
sent its thanks.
"She was quite a tough lady," Jesse says. "But very
nice to me