“One of the best metaphors for style is that it is a language. Some speak it well, others less so. But a language can always be learned, improved, trained.”
2016 marks the sixth year since The Armoury’s emergence – a family of classical menswear stores originating in Hong Kong. Internationally renowned to devotees of tailored men’s clothing, The success of The Armoury is in large part thanks to its two founders, Messrs Mark Cho & Alan See. Sharp and softly spoken, Mark has contributed significantly to the prestige of Asian menswear in recent years. From his team’s decision to distribute Japanese suitmaker Ring Jacket to an inaugural (and yet pivotal) relationship with bespoke maker W.W. Chan, Mark’s cosmopolitan influence continues to permeate the spirit of his business. Although these days he is busy with the strategic management of the business TVG caught up with Mark for a few burning Q&As.
The Versatile Gent – You are a well regarded and self-professed watch enthusiast. Considering that you and your team sell suits all day long have you noticed any parallels between the horology and menswear industries?
Mark Cho – I see a definite overlap in the customers who buy those two products. Mostly because of the numerous traits shared by both watches and suiting. In both cases, men are seeking a product with some form of complexity, be it an unusual cloth or special horological movement. They want to know the nittygritty of what they are getting, particularly when it comes to an item’s provenance and construction. Aesthetically speaking, watches and suits go hand in hand. For me, the latter are the ultimate and only form of men’s jewelry. The watch you wear has an effect on your appearance and informs the way you present yourself.
TVG – In that case, the watch I wear has had a disproportionately negative effect on my appearance. Kidding aside, for horological neophytes like myself, which five watches on the market would you describe as essential? To put it another way, which pieces represent the pinnacle of excellence in their field?
MC – I very rarely buy new watches these days (Mark is an avid collector of vintage & marketplace finds) and tend to stick to vintage. But if I had to pick five new watches still in production that I think are exemplary there are still a couple that spring to mind; Credor Eichi 2, Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ultrathin, A Lange & Sohne Datograph, Rolex Explorer and F.P. Journe Optimum.
TVG – From a quick glance at your recommendations, it appears the commonality between all of these watches is how small they are?
MC – Most modern watches are much bigger than they need to be. Personally, I would love to see an across-the-board return to 36mm casings. And while each of the five aforementioned watches is exemplary in a certain way, there are plenty of other great albeit simpler options out there.
TVG – Moving toward perhaps a more personal topic, what motivated you to transition out of the financial profession into something so staggeringly different? I read in the South China Morning Post that you’d worked for a period of time for HSBC in commercial property development. Meanwhile, your partner Alan See was based at supply chain titan Li & Fung. There must have been some extremely strong motivation to get the two of you out of such stable careers.
MC – The motivation was equal parts love for the product and love for the industry’s personalities. Tailored clothing is an incredibly rich subject, inextricably intertwined with world culture and history. It is also technically complex, providing lots of opportunities to see and learn. The personalities in the industry that we work with (our suppliers and craftspeople) are generally trying to make the best products possible. They aren’t contemplating what corners to cut without sacrificing superficial quality. Efficiency is obviously important, but it’s more enjoyable working with people whose attitude focuses on the pursuit of craft.
At The Armoury we are lucky to work with clothing that harkens back all the way to the 19th century, yet is still as relevant today. Tailoring designs have different nuances depending on when and what part of the world you hail from. This makes our work interesting depending on where our garments come from. These can include areas as diverse as North America, Britain, Milan, Naples, Japan et cetera.
TVG – I’ve observed that fathers and paternalism have a sort of running influence on the menswear scene. You have said on your personal website – which has some fantastic content – that your own father played a role in shaping your personal style? Do you think the industry’s obsession with dads goes beyond mere aesthetics?
MC – Not going into industry trends, but speaking from a more personal perspective, my father definitely had his own style both aesthetically and as an individual. I take some cues from him, more out of enjoyment than a desire to imitate. I enjoy having things in my wardrobe and in life that remind me of my father. A paternal, or (more generally) parental influence is a fundamental part of most people’s lives. I find comparing my work to what my father achieved to be a useful yardstick for future possibilities. He did much in his life and worked hard on projects all the way until his end at 79, wishing he had time to do more. To me, such a way of life is immeasurably influential, to be both fulfilled yet hungry in your work for so long.
TVG – Your approach to managing The Armoury is quite multidisciplinary. Were your avid interests in tech and photography a product of managing the business, or have you always been a bit of a boffin?
MC – Tech and photography have been long term interests of mine. It just so happens they come in handy for my work at the store. It’s nice when my various interests collide.
In The Armoury’s early days I took a lot more photos of our staff but have since had to cut back significantly due to time constraints. However, I stay involved with photography by doing a regular column for THE RAKE Japan. The column consists of a portrait of each subject paired with a brief interview. You can view English copies of my previous interviews on my website.
As for tech, it has been always been an interest of mine to collect and make better use of data. Our team at The Armoury have developed a few little tools for internal use that have been quite fruitful and that reflect this. An example would be our alterations database, where we track all progressive changes that are made to our various garment models. We developed in-house models for almost all our suits and constantly try to refine them based on our customers’ feedback. Documenting trends in our alterations is an extremely important part of the product development process.
TVG – Of late, the term ‘international classic’ has been frequently used to describe The Armoury ‘house’ style. Can you speak on the genesis behind ‘international classic’ and how the term was coined?
MC – It’s actually a term I myself coined. ‘International classic’ is arguably the easiest way to describe what The Armoury is focused on. We deal in the best of classic clothing from around the world, with the only caveat being quality. Menswear needn’t be confined to English or Italian-centric viewpoints. In fact, great menswear is made all around the world and it is worth understanding a range of regional flavours. To illustrate my point, we carry ‘Teba’ jackets from a maker called Justo Gimeno. Tebas are classic English country jackets that were adopted by the Spanish and later adapted for the latter region’s use. We also work with one of the most prestigious bespoke bagmakers in the world, Ortus, who are based in Tokyo. The world is increasingly interconnected and this is reflected in my view on ‘international classic’. Rather than letting style devolve into a homogeneous, lowest-common-denominator mess, The Armoury is a celebration of differences.
TVG – Of all the industry players I’ve seen over the years, I believe The Armoury is among the best when it comes to championing a bit of individual difference. Thanks for chatting with us Mark.
And on a personal note…
Writing on the subject of menswear can often feel derivative. In the grand order of human endeavour, the repetitive fixation on trouser hems and jacket vents seems a little trite. For me, the element that continues to invigorate my interest in this subject is the human one. It is in this respect that I have found speaking to Mark so satisfying. Along with Alan & co, he has brought cosmopolitan flair back to an industry that is so often caricatured as Fashion Bros slash Pitti Uomo. There is a real diligence and sincerity to The Armoury aesthetic that I have loved since my beginnings as a menswear fanboy. And though I am sure Mark and his team shall refuse to take credit in any guise for this, they have contributed significantly to the resurgence of confidence in East Asian menswear. Good clothes and great design may be achieved anywhere, and we deprive ourselves of meaningful discoveries (as consumers) when we come to the table with fully formed preconceptions. In the realm of style Mark and his team have worked to guide customers away from such pitfalls, often rooted in fleeting secondhand information. With footholds in both Hong Kong and New York City, they can continue to fight the good fight – one hopes for many more years to come.
You can shop The Armoury’s online store here
The Armoury 1 is located at 307 Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, Hong Kong.
The Armoury 2 is located at B47 Landmark Central, 15 Queen’s Road, Central, Hong Kong.
The Armoury 3 is located at 168 Duane Street, New York.