Tan Ee Fei has always had an interest in men’s fashion. “The market is niche for men’s accessories, which play a big part in dressing a man. You can have a white shirt and black suit but a tie would really bring the whole look together,” she says.
Even while travelling, she was drawn to men’s ties and bow ties, fascinated by the designs and patterns found in other countries. She began to notice the lack of choices in Malaysian stores. “Whenever my friends looked for ties, they would always end up with the same plain ones. I’ve always liked the quirky and dapper styles from the UK.”
Thus, in 2016, Tan decided to start her business, The Gentlemen’s Bar, to fill the gap she saw in the market. “I think men like fashion but they don’t know where to find it. My brand is a place for them to get what they really want, without having to go overseas.”
She roped in her mother, Lok Yoon Fun, to stitch pocket squares. They then slowly expanded their offering to include ties and bow ties. “My mum used to be a tailor and makes her own clothes. We had to go through a lot of trial and error but we launched in June 2016 on Instagram,” she says.
At the time, Tan made the decision to keep her full-time job as she had thought of The Gentlemen’s Bar as a side business, a hobby even. “I was in luxury fashion as a visual merchandiser. So during events and fashion shows, I would set up displays and do the styling,” she says of her day job.
According to Tan, she always had an eye for fashion. She too sews, a skill she learnt under her mother’s tutelage. “When my buttons came off, my mum would tell me, ‘You have to fix them yourself’. So I have been learning everything from my mum since young. I would sit next to her and watch her.” She admits that she had never dreamt that she would be a tailor too.
The mother-daughter team splits the sewing workload. “My mum makes the ties and I make the bow ties … She is a perfectionist, which is fun and challenging at the same time. But now, because we are in tune with each other, she knows what she needs to do when I pass her the fabrics,” says Tan.
However, sewing each accessory is not as straightforward as it may seem. Tan and Lok have to study the fabric before they cut it, a skill they have honed over time. “For every fabric, especially when it’s not a monogram design, we have to choose the part where we want to cut to make sure that the florals are within the tie’s frame,” she explains.
The Gentlemen’s Bar releases a new collection almost every two months. What makes its products unique are their limited quantity and unusual fabrics. “The prints are a bit quirky and can be loud to some men. There are floral prints and bold colours … they are limited pieces and definitely one of a kind. We only make two or three ties per fabric or per design and this is the same for bow ties,” says Tan. She sources her materials from all over the world, creating collections that use floral prints from Italy, sakura fabrics from Japan and even Chinese pottery prints.
The mother-daughter team wants to encourage men to be more adventurous with their style. “Men’s fashion can be minimalist and simple, but you can add a twist of quirkiness … we have different designs, from batik to oriental fabrics,” Tan points out.
Her products are stocked at Robinsons Kuala Lumpur, which contacted her after seeing her wares at a bazaar. They can also be purchased through social media and at her pop-up stalls. Tan says she has received a lot of positive feedback. “A number of men and even women tell me, ‘I have been looking for this kind of design and normally I can only find it in London or the US. This is the first time that I’m finding it in KL. Please contact me if you have more collections.’ So I have quite a lot of regulars.”
It was this encouragement that helped her make the decision to quit her full-time job. She has been focusing solely on The Gentlemen’s Bar since April this year. “I think it is the customers’ appreciation and compliments that have driven us to move forward. Most of my clients really love my products.”
Until recently, the brand’s products had been stitched by hand by either Tan or Lok, with them putting their heart and soul into each accessory. But Lok has decided to hire two tailors to help with the production side of things. “I would really love to expand the business and to help out more homegrown tailors. For those who need to assist their family financially, I really want to go full force and expand the business together,” says Tan.
Their focus has always been on quality fabrics, hand-stitched to perfection. Each tie takes Lok about three hours to complete, whereas Tan takes about an hour to make her ready-to-wear bow ties. In the future, Tan intends to include self-tie bow ties in their collection.
Women have also been attracted to Tan’s ties. “They are unisex. When the ladies go for functions or have an annual dinner, they don’t always want to wear a dress. If they want to wear a tie, then they come to me.”
Apart from working on her new collections, Tan is also in the process of setting up her official website. “It’s a challenge for me. I have a friend who is going to teach me how to start my website. I’ve bought the domain name and will hopefully launch the website within these two months.”
This article first appeared on July 15, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.