If British style gurus Trinny and Susannah or Gok Wan require backup in their quest to smarten up the world’s style-challenged, Christchurch tailor Mark van Roosmalen is a hot contender for the job.
“At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old curmudgeon, I think we could be seen as a nation of slobs. It’s disheartening to see the shapeless, formless stuff that so many people find acceptable to wear,” he says over plunger coffee at The Suit Doctor, which he bought 23 years ago.
He believes “the Kiwi blokey image” stymies many New Zealand males’ ability to dress decently.
“There is definitely a middle ground between trackies, hoodies and low-hanging crotches and the metrosexual look, which is all about guys being dressed and groomed by their girlfriends! That middle ground is about quality and style and that’s what I do.”
At his Manchester Street business, which dates back to the 1920s, Mark creates bespoke suits for clients who value the lasting style a completely handmade suite can offer. “I’ve got a few people around the country – and a few others who call through here when they’re on business in New Zealand – for whom I design and hand-tailor all their clothing… It’s my enduring passion.”
A bespoke suit is usually made by a single tailor and takes 45 to 50 hours to sew, plus time for fittings. It takes a full day to cut out a suit, which has about 100 pieces, including pockets and linings.
The pay-off is a suit you’ll wear for years, says Mark. “I still have a suit I made for myself in 1989. I’ve worn it twice a week on average – it’s probably only now getting to the end of its life.
“I’m not really trend-driven. A good suit should last for more than a couple of years. You don’t want to draw attention to the garment – but to the wearer. Ideally people will say, ‘You look fantastic’, rather than comment on the nice suit you’re wearing.”
Mark also offers a made-to-measure service – the client is measured, style details and finishes are selected, cloth is chosen and the garments are made at Rembrandt in New Zealand or handmade by a team at Regent’s factory in Germany.
“A fully handmade bespoke suit will start at $5000, a suit out of Regent in Germany will cost say $3500, the local variety will cost around $1500.
“Made-to-measure gives that fit. Pot bellies, overweight, round shoulders, lopsided, humpy backs or a customer in a wheelchair are all part of the variations. Cut is about selecting a style that won’t exacerbate problem areas.”
Every now and then he’s heartened by the turnaround a smart suit delivers. “I can think of one guy who came in about a year ago. He was a university student, as scruffy as hell, with long hair. He ordered a really swish, sharp-looking pinstripe. He came in later wearing the suit, hair styled; he’d bought new shoes. He looked like a completely different person. It transformed him. He said: ‘This is how I want to be.’”
Though it may be casual Friday across the nation, for Mark there’s no break from formal dress code. This particular Friday he is clad in a fine wool crew-neck top – his own design – and a suit that was part of a highly commended entry in the former Benson & Hedges Fashion Awards. Over the years Mark has collected a pile of accolades and was inducted into the fashion awards’ hall of fame in 1997.
It isn’t surprising that Mark ended up pursuing a career in clothing. “I had four sisters so our dining table was always strewn with patterns and fabrics.”
His father trained as a tailor in Holland and his maternal great-grandparents, grandmother and great-aunt came to Christchurch from Lebanon in 1904 and established clothing manufacturing businesses in the city.
He sailed through the clothing and textiles diploma at the former Wellington Polytechnic, graduating as best all-round student and “coped with being the only guy with 33 girls on the course”.
Mark says he’s still learning. “I’d call it a lifelong study. It’s a science and it’s an art.” As far as he knows there are no tailors currently being trained in New Zealand so, in a small shop in Christchurch, he’s doing his bit to keep alive a traditional craft that values quality above all else.
Story: Ann Warnock
Photographs: Guy Frederick