The Armoury Interview Part II: A Conversation with Alan See

Readers might recall that in the summer of 2016 I talked to Mark Cho – co-founder of The Armoury menswear stores. Mark was gracious enough to cover a wide diaspora of topics at considerable length and thanks to his contributions, that interview (which you can read here) turned out to be one of the most popular features on our website.

Nevertheless, the satisfaction of completing that small endeavour was accompanied by a feeling of incompleteness. The collection of writings that I had commenced in 2015, devoted to North Asia’s most dynamic men’s shop, lacked a crucial voice. The realisation compelled me to speak to Mark’s partner – Mr. Alan See. Alan oversees both daily and strategic operations of The Armoury stores in Hong Kong. Along with Mark, he is also arguably the most recognisable face of The Armoury, embodying the “international classic” aesthetic the brand has championed so tirelessly in print & social media. So on an unassuming spring day in March, I dropped by for a brief chat with Alan on all things business, product, and style.  

The Armoury Hong Kong

Despite a cursory familiarity with Hong Kong’s labyrinthine retail, The Armoury 1 continues to intrigue me with its air of secrecy and surrealism. It is – with utmost respect – the city’s best worst kept secret when it comes to classic menswear. Hidden away in the historic Pedder building, the original shop beckons from the end of an (at times) seemingly infinite corridor. Preceded by private galleries and a haute horology shop, the whole location feels like some sort of pleasant isolation chamber; a respite from the breakneck pace of city life unfolding mere metres below.

My wristwatch strikes 12 as I cross the store’s threshold. At the countertop adjacent with the doorway, I see Sam Wong, one of Alan See’s associates. Clad in the characteristically soft tailoring of Orazio Luciano, he inclines his head as I wave “good morning”. He tells me that Alan is doing the rounds over at Armoury 2 – the brand’s subterranean outpost in the Landmark building – and will be up in a matter of minutes. Out on the street, the weather is typical of a Monday in Asia’s world city – hot, sticky and loud. In here, those discomforts are quickly forgotten, and I find myself admiring de novo the shopfront which I’ve been journeying to for over three years. You wouldn’t have guessed I’d already visited 20 odd times. I’m drinking it all in like a regular Daisy Buchanan.

The Armoury Hong Kong

A few minutes later Alan arrives. Fittingly, for a Monday morning uptown, he is wearing one of Antonio Liverano’s three piece bespoke creations. Over the years, the detail I’ve noticed most about Alan’s style, no matter the occasion or context, is how relaxed it is. Today is no different. Despite the absence of a tie and the presence of louche loafers (the new products from London based Baudoin & Lange) he strikes a comfortable aire. Before long I dive straight into my primary line of questioning and begin the interview in earnest.

Spurred on by rumours that another store will be opening in mainland China, I ask about the immediate future of The Armoury’s business in the Far East. According to Alan See, the store’s Shanghai outpost has been up and running since 2016, but represents a shift away from the layout that we’re accustomed to. “It’s not a retail shop like this” he says, motioning around the high ceilings of The Armoury I. “It’s more of a showroom. It’s very different what we’re doing in China”. Originally a private space intended to display and sell some of Mark’s Chinese antiquities, the idea was soon hit upon to use it for trunk shows held in association with The Armoury’s various partners. “Our goal was to bring quite a few of the artisans we invite to Hong Kong over to Shanghai. We didn’t want to do that in an arbitrary space such as a hotel or, worse still, some noisy shopfront in a mall. What we required was a space that was truly ours.”

The decision to build a showroom rather than a brick and mortar retailer is a nuanced one. In China, where commercial real estate costs hundreds of dollars per square foot and import duties can trump intrinsic values, there needs to be some semblance of certainty in setting up a physical retail business. When I ask Alan about the well-documented pitfalls of setting up an independent store in China he remains cautious. “We do have a large number of Chinese clients, but I don’t think the market there is quite ready for a shop like this. We aren’t either. We don’t have enough people to spare who would be capable of properly representing The Armoury experience. In our approach it is essential that there is sufficient time and manpower to help our customers appreciate things. As a smaller business our resources are limited, so we tend to focus on what we can realistically do.” Still, The Armoury’s “appointment only” format in Shanghai is bearing fruit. According to Alan, it has allowed the team to provide the best possible version of client interaction, albeit on a smaller scale than in Hong Kong. “The results have been promising. We’ve done a few trunk shows with Ambrosi. We’ll be continuing those in April and are also going to be joined by Orazio Luciano, who are visiting China for the first time this year.”

Randy Lai and Alan See at The Armoury Hong Kong

For now, grandiose new store openings may be off the table. Nevertheless, I press Alan on other exciting developments in the business. With little apparent effort the conversation shifts to the topic of casualwear – a part of The Armoury’s offering that has become increasingly sophisticated over the years. In a fit of nostalgia I derail my question to obsess over the store’s jeans. High waisted with a wide leg, they are easily the most comfortable casualwear I own. Dyed using “green cast” indigo, they continue to endure in the store’s marketing, and as it turns out, are an iconic part of design history at The Armoury. “Making a pair of jeans was the first real stab we had at casualwear” says Alan. “We found a small maker in Hong Kong who was a really big denimhead. He manufactured for prominent companies all over the world but his true passion was the Japanese stuff. He set up his own small workshop here that makes only 6 pairs per day, using old school shuttle looms scooped up from factories that were going out of business. That’s a true enthusiast’s mentality and we were glad to work with him to create our first piece of fleshed out casualwear.” What began with denim has since exploded into a fully fledged collection that is constantly evolving. Fresh from an expedition earlier this year to Clutch Collection Yokohama – the biggest heritage and denim tradeshow on the Japanese mainland – Alan & co are now in the process of refreshing an already rich offering: one that includes polos, trousers, and outerwear. “We’re working with a few guys in Japan on new products that we’re very excited about. Those are going to be available between April and May. We don’t wear suits every day of the week – I myself spend a lot of time at the playground with my kids on weekends – so it’s important to have options when “roughing it”, so to speak.”

Alan See at The Armoury Hong Kong

The words “roughing it” stir me to a sort of epiphany. My mind marshalls together eclectic images of fine tailoring set against casual clothing. I realise that everything I have asked since our conversation began is unified by a greater question: how does one develop truly authentic personal style? It’s a tired line of inquiry with an elusive answer. And yet, I can’t help myself. With good humour and patience, surely born from answering such inane questions daily, Alan pauses briefly before responding. “You don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel” – what comes next would sound cliche, if not for its singular truthfulness – “but you do have to find yourself”. “If you look at all the really stylish guys, they possess an innate sense of style. They know themselves and can create their own sort of look accordingly.” The salient detail in Alan’s answer – that style is the expression of much more than just one’s taste in clothes – is lost on me and so I forge ahead, intent on pinpointing what worked for him, as if we were discussing the proprietary formula for Pepsi. “I’m very scatterbrain, but there has been quite a bit of film. I always use cinema from the 1950s as a reference. Everyone has their interests. If you like films and music move through and explore those cultural influences.” In an effort to engender a more technical response I mention the Permanent Style article from June 2015 (“Wearing sports jackets and texture”). Therein Alan gives a straightforward account of his favourite ways to pair sportcoats with accompanying clothing: shirt, tie, and trousers. Had any of his insights changed since then? “Keeping it simple is the way to go. Men often go to tailors and say “I only wear navy”. To a tailor that’s an invitation to explore a vast number of cloths that don’t necessarily match the standard corporate blue. There’s nothing wrong with having only navies and grays in your wardrobe. I myself don’t wear too much pattern. It’s mostly just solid colours in a bunch of different textures.”

Alan See at The Armoury Hong Kong

Apropos of his style, Alan’s suit is made up in an old charcoal woollen from Edwin Woodhouse (now incorporated under Yorkshire weaver Bulmer & Lumb). It is chunky, imbued with palpable heft and drape, softened by rounded edges typical of Florentine tailoring. “The cloth is similar to sportex – extremely hard wearing and casual.” The very rustic three piece is paired with a simple white shirt. The only “fashionable” detail: a spread collar with elongated rolling points. “I enjoy the soft collar roll as it complements the ties we have quite well. It’s also much more forgiving. In English tailoring, the very stiff collars sort of necessitate that you be dressed quite formally.” All things considered, it is not a high concept look, especially in the sort of city where the designer-tee-and-tuxedo-jacket combo still persists. But the deftness with which it is executed ensures that all the other elements (comfort, softness, and texture) of good personal style shine through.  

I glance down at my watch again – 30 minutes have passed. Cognisant of the flurry of customers that are beginning to fill the shop, I ask Alan for a few photos and thank him for his time. In seconds, his outfit is polished with a repp striped tie in what I unhelpfully dub “the freedom colours” (red, ecru and blue, nobody laughs). The look takes on a new dimension. We continue to talk over the whispered clicks of camera lenses and the conversation pivots back to the state of men’s fashion in North Asia – this time, in Hong Kong. “People are willing to wear a bit more colour. Especially in pocket squares. Two years ago we reached critical mass and I started seeing them all over the place. At the same time, Hong Kong has been a city of really dark suits for a number of years and I don’t know when that came about.” Crowd mentality? Self-serious bankers? The pervasive tendrils of fashion? Somehow I think I can predict where Alan is going with his final thoughts. “Whenever you look through old photos of Singapore and Hong Kong we wore so much beige and white. It was more out of practical necessity because the lighter fabrics were always in gabardine or linen. At some point we went from really light to dark.”

I construe Alan’s last words a little too literally. In the mass appeal of darker fabrics I perceive modern man’s penchant for sartorial bloodlust. The move away from airy linens in joyful colours calls to mind the sort of bloke for whom, in the words of Bruce Boyer, “dressing is a blood sport rather than a celebration”. For a moment, I wonder if the all black and shiny suits I see around town denote how mirthless we’ve become. That may be a stretch. But I can’t help thinking we’d all be better off wearing our clothing a little lighter, a little easier, a little jollier. Even when it isn’t Liverano.

Alan See at The Armoury Hong Kong

Photos courtesy of Caitlin Kerrigan.

Alan See is wearing Liverano (bespoke), The Armoury’s house label shirt, Drake’s London tie, Baudoin & Lange loafers and vintage colour fast bandana (as pocket square).

You can shop The Armoury’s products at their website (just relaunched) here.

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