Roger Shamoun’s Zimma Tailors in Sydney brings the beautiful handcrafted detail of bespoke tailoring into the Instagram age. Photography: Phillip Castleton.
Naturally enough there have always been tailors working in Australia, from the time Europeans arrived here, but there has never really been a definable ‘culture’ of tailoring, like Savile Row in London, or the crasftman of Milan, or the Hong Kong-via-Shanghai suit and shirt makers.
And while there are some longstanding men’s bespoke tailors in this country – JH Cutler and Zink & Sons in Sydney, Tino De Mattia, Pino Carbone and American Tailors in Melbourne – the momentum has continued to shift towards cheaper, more accessible off-the-rack and made-to-measure in recent decades.
There is a class of high-achieving professional men – lawyers, medicos, financiers – who always did and probably always will go to work armed in a suit made from a pattern created by a tailor just for them. Their willingness to invest in personalisation is the bread and butter of those who survive in the tailoring trade.
But the resurgence of interest among young men in the history and traditions of dandyism, of suiting and of craftsmanship, has seen a new generation take a renewed interest in the bespoke process. Add in the internet and social media, which has not only made menswear trends a dynamic, shared global experience among interested gents, but given profile to certain savvy contemporary exponents of the artisan craft of tailoring.
One of those is Roger Shamoun, who founded Zimma Tailors in Palings Lane in Sydney’s CBD in 2011. With an Instagram following approaching 50,000, in which Shamoun appears wearing the suits, shirts and ties he makes while going about his day, the self-taught tailor (“I don’t call myself a tailor,” he says more than once during our interview) has found a niche making beautiful and precise fitting work wear for the city’s corporate titans.
The son of a migrant Lebanese father and Sudanese mother, Shamoun became interested in how suits were put together in his late teens, trawling through St Vincent de Paul and Salvos op-shops to find garments he could experiment on… or “ruin”, as he puts it.
“Buying stuff from op shops, you’d come across a lot of clothes from deceased estates, old Savile Row stuff,” he recalls. “So I’d take them home and open them up to understand what canvasses were and what fusing was, how these things were made. My greatest endeavour was figuring out stuff myself without anyone telling me. Remember, there was no Internet then.”
A zig-zag path which involved no retail experience and no knowledge of shop fit-outs led him to open his small ‘shop’ next door to Justin Hemmes’ Ivy nightclub five years ago.
“I didn’t exactly know what I was doing and I wouldn’t advise anyone to do what I did,” says Shamoun, who doesn’t so much answer questions as entertainingly think aloud in a way that casts him as part canny businessman, part passionate artist and part world-weary philosopher. “You really have to be stupid or crazy to start a business the way I did, and I was a bit of both. My dad told me about two years ago that they thought they were going to have to institutionalise me. But I knew what I wanted to do and knew there was a market for it that was suppressed at the [post-GFC] time but would explode eventually. And I wanted to be there when it did.”
He began as a made-to-measure service, adjusting and altering suits for clients until he realised through trial and error that he would only be able to make the suit look ‘right’ on any particular customer by making his own pattern.
“I began to develop my own system because made-to-measure works on an established pattern…” he explains. “You put the guy in a 47 jacket and you make adjustments and alterations… but it doesn’t take account of posture, and posture is one of the most important things in a suit.”
Shamoun stands up in his double-breasted jacket to show how the length of sleeve changes depending on a man’s posture, and how a chest measurement on its own doesn’t tell him how the balance of the jacket will work.
“That’s the problem with made-to-measure – you literally have to fit the mold to make it work. What I did then was I fused made-to-measure with bespoke. The bespoke part is the pattern. We make a pattern for everybody. Bring me your suit into the shop and I’ll make you a suit off your suit because I’ll work on your metrics but also your posture, whether your neck is forward or back. The made-to-measure, the production, we do by machine. Bespoke, we do all by hand, and I don’t cheat.”
Once he’d worked out his approach, Shamoun says his business began to grow quickly but he became frustrated with the stop-start life of being tailor, customer liaison, self-marketer and more – and for the past couple of years gets specialists in to help make the suits. Roger still does all the fittings. The day Men’s Style visits Zimma Tailors and heads up the spiral staircase to the work-room above the shop, Mohammed (“he’s an absolute wiz”, says Shamoun) is hand-sewing hems on the pants of a check suit.
Not all men who need to wear a suit most days know what style they want, or which will work for their shape. Shamoun admits he dislikes being shown photos in magazines or on Pinterest and being asked to replicate the look for a customer. Instead, he prefers to guide them towards an understanding of the personal style that will best work for them.
“A lot of clients want me to direct them,” he says. “But I don’t do it directly. It’s very important to me that I open up that box inside them which is their own style, because once a guy gets his style it’s easy for him to make his own judgments and decisions about his look.”
The relationship between a man and his tailor was perhaps ever thus, but in a world where appearances count more than ever and Instagram accounts portray apparently perfect people with perfect lives, Shamoun says the most prized asset when interacting with clients is honesty.
“Sometimes I’m an amateur psychologist, sometimes an amateur chiropractor,” he laughs, “but I can guarantee that my advice is straight. I don’t want to fluff anything. I want you to be happy with what I’ve done.”
Unlike the tailors of yore, who worked in darkened back rooms and only emerged into the light with your finished product, Shamoun via social media is the face – and body – of his brand, wearing his creations with panache and an easy elegance. He credits the growth of his business to Instagram, as a forum where he could easily and effectively show people what it is he does. It’s the modern way. But don’t for a minute think the 38-year-old is a social media obsessive.
“If I spend more than five minutes doing Instagram I start to get frustrated,” he says. “At the start I took photos of mannequins in shirt, tie and suit… people started to follow and I realised people liked to see different looks. Then I started to take photos of me but without my face… then I realised I needed them to recognise me and when people didn’t start unliking [laughs], I understood I could be teaching people about what I do through my own dress and style. It was never about beautiful photos. In a world where everyone is trying to be perfect, this is real… that’s my life, that’s how I want to be portrayed.”
A social media star with a centuries-old artisanal calling. Does Shamoun think much about the future of tailoring, the future of suiting? He says he has numerous approaches each month from younger people wanting to do what he does. Two years ago he put together four bags, each containing the elements needed to make a tie – tie fabric, interlining, needle, ball of thread and seven-fold tie pattern he drew himself. Whenever a keen young thing approached him, he gave them the bag and asked them to make him a tie. “I didn’t care whether it looked like a flower or a cardboard cut-out of a muppet, I just wanted to see effort.” He never heard from any of the wannabe tailors again. And yet, he can’t see a future in which only machines make suits for men, in whatever form the suit eventually takes.
“I don’t think the suit will ever die,” he says. “In 100 years it will still be around in some form. Nothing will ever beat the eye, or the workmanship of the eye. If you really want it hand-made, you can’t get a machine to do it… you can’t beat artisanship. All the people who started the world’s major fashion houses are dead but those brands are still maintaining the traditions, and that’s why people trust them and buy their expensive products.
“Tailoring might not be growing in Australia but overseas the tradition is still strong. There’s just no real culture of it here…”
But from his little shop in Palings Lane, in his own unique way, it’s clear Shamoun is trying his best to bring the past into the future and revivify the art of making suits.
This article is from our Classic Edition, on sale now.