Suit from In Personam (tailored), watch from Orient Star, tie from Zara, shoes from Septième Largeur.
In the vein of Audi’s new Q2, to be untaggable means to be undefinable; to mean different things to different people, or to be so good at so many things that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what you do or who you are. With that approach in mind, our Audi Q2 x Shentonista campaign sees us speaking to four individuals who seem to be able to do it all—balancing different roles both at work and play, managing to stay on top of everything, and having the best of all worlds.
Last but not least in our series is Samuel Ng. Samuel was called to the bar in 2013, and as if the demands of the legal world weren’t enough, he turned his personal tailoring hobby into In Personam, his own business, in the very same year. Of late, he’s also added adjunct faculty member to his roster of roles, teaching once a week at his alma mater; helped to set up a legal practice; and is looking to expand his tailoring business. What’s crucial to Samuel amidst all the growth and change, however, is that he stays rooted and always mindful of where he’s come from and how much further he has to go. Though Samuel has the gravitas of a trained professional, we also see his other side when we speak to him: one that comes through in his easygoing, affable demeanour and way with words.
How did you start doing what you’re doing now? Did law come before tailoring?
Officially, yes; unofficially, no. I’d just started my traineeship as a trainer solicitor, then at the same time, my tailoring hobby kind of spun a bit out of control; I ran out of place at home. I studied law because my parents suggested that it would be something I could do. No one knows what law actually entails until they start. Then you either, fortunately, discover that you like it, or you find that you hate it and don’t even finish law school. I found out in year one that I really enjoyed it. Practice itself is a whole different ball game, but I enjoyed the study of law.
When did your interest in tailoring start?
I’ve always been very interested in clothes. Everyone wants to look the best that they can, as long as it’s not too much of hassle, of course. At the point when tailoring became a little bit too expensive for me to maintain, I decided that I’d better do it myself.
So how did you pick it up?
By looking at books. These days the resources are readily available: there are online, technical tailoring forums where tailors share their knowledge. I find that tailoring is something that either comes to you naturally or it doesn’t. I’ve been very blessed—when I look at the drafts, I can see them coming to life. I find that it’s very logical, as if your whole body is a system of pivots: you pull one point and something moves correspondingly.
As a kid, were you always interested in making things?
When I was very young I wanted to be an artist, but then my dad told me that artists are only famous after they die. My parents are very conservative, traditional Chinese-educated.
What do you think they’d say if you told them that you wanted to quit law and just do tailoring?
I think they secretly fear that that’ll happen one day, and for the longest time I didn’t tell my parents what I was doing on the tailoring side until I started to experience a little more success, commercially. They didn’t object and it was quite touching that during Chinese New Year, my dad, on his own accord, told people about my business. I think that’s the biggest sign of affirmation that I’ve seen from him.
What else do you think you might have been doing, if it wasn’t law?
I would have wanted to do medicine, which I feel is infinitely more meaningful because it’s more constructive than destructive. But I can’t do maths! It’s the one thing I can’t do. If I still had my law degree I’d be teaching. That was a career that I considered quite seriously, and I do think that I might go back to it at some point. Right now I’m doing it as an adjunct faculty member, and I really love it. I just like the process of engaging people on a one-to-one basis.
Any differences between teaching and practising law?
In terms of skills required, I think it’s the same whether it’s practice, teaching, or even tailoring, because ultimately, you have to think about what your recipient needs and where he’s coming from. To me, the person must wear the clothes, the clothes cannot wear the person. People should come as they are and leave as they are, they should not leave as you are.
Between lecturing, lawyering, and tailoring, how do you manage everything? If you had to pick one, what would it be?
I’m pretty happy doing everything; I couldn’t pick one of the three. I teach once a week right now, and there’s room for that to increase. The beauty in running your own legal practice is that you can arrange your own schedule. Of course, when you have court hearings you have to work around them, but for the most part it’s quite flexible. Tailoring allows me some time off from very mentally demanding tasks. I do that on some nights when I’m free and I need to unwind—it’s a hobby after all. On the weekend, I don’t go out—I spend all my time at the workshop.
How does family time fit in?
I make it a point to spend time with my family as often as I can, especially going out for dinners and whatnot because I’m the only child, and it’s important to just maintain that contact. Family is a very crucial part of my life and I would prize it above anything else. But life is all about balance and how you juggle time. It might mean cutting back on some other leisure activities, which is not a problem for me, since I view tailoring as a leisure activity in the first place.
We heard you do pro bono work as well. Why?
I think, from time to time, you feel like you just want to give back. As lawyers, what we can do is to put whatever we’ve learnt to good use, be it in criminal defence or corporate work for non-governmental organisations. It’s not difficult to do pro-bono work, as long as you do something that’s directly relevant to what you’re good at. I think that’s the one way we can contribute the most meaningfully.
Do you think your environment affects how you work?
Definitely. The environment has to be comfortable, and I try to arrange my things in a way such that they are most easily accessed. It has to be neat—I mean, that’s what we all say, but after awhile it stops being neat! (laughs) It becomes an organised mess. I like talking to my colleagues when they work, but I don’t like being talked to when I work. (laughs) They know when not to disturb me—I have the ‘in the zone’ face.
What is innovation to you?
Essentially, doing the same thing in a different way. I think, after so long, products don’t really change, and neither do issues and problems. Problems might come up and look new, but if you dig deep enough, they’re always the same old problems and you just have to find new ways to deal with them. I think that’s pretty much the way I see innovation in daily life. Take suits, for example. Style comes and goes—lapel widths, the gorge, two or three buttons—but at the heart of it, what is comfortable, how clothes should fit, and what looks aesthetically pleasing doesn’t change by very much. What changes is the way you go about doing it.
What would you say was your most interesting/challenging order or suit to make?
There are two main ways in which an order can be challenging—either the client’s figure is challenging, or the client is challenging. A very unreasonable client might say this wasn’t what he wanted or agreed to, and might ask for a refund or for it to be redone. These clients also exist in legal practice. Over time I’ve learnt that if you handle them correctly from the start, there’ll be no mismatch of expectations or miscommunication. Don’t over-promise and under-deliver. Everything else might be out of your control, and sometimes people are wildcards, but you just have to deal with it as they come. I think we should all be cautiously optimistic, of course, but we must be pragmatic in our expectations, both of ourselves and of other people.
Is there a dream client you’d like to make a suit for?
I think if I could make a suit for anybody, it would be for myself, because I can’t! (laughs) Jokes aside, though, I don’t really have a dream client because I pretty much treasure every single one who comes my way. It’s particularly significant to me because people know that I’m not a full-timer. They know that I don’t come from a family of tailors, and that I don’t get to inherit somebody’s business. I’m very grateful when my clients are forgiving, be it on timelines—because they understand that my real life is tied to my lawyering job—or on finishings, because they know that I’m still learning. I don’t think tailoring is something that people can say they’ve mastered completely. There’re so many other competent tailors in Singapore, so I’m exceptionally grateful for those that actually choose to come to me, to my dingy little workshop, and who have been with me from the start. So I don’t even dare to dream about whom I want as a client.
What do you think are some of the best things in life?
As mentioned, family is particularly important. You might go about chasing all these material things but at the end of the day what you’re really trying to achieve is personal well being. All that matters is the people around you. Likewise, when law students ask me, “What area of law should I go into? Which firm should I join?” I tell them it’s really not the kind of work you do but the people you work with. If the people you work with are really pleasant and you treasure those relationships, it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing.
What motivates you?
Lunch and dinner. (laughs) I’m actually not a big foodie but I recently find myself enjoying food more and more. I don’t know whether it’s because I can finally afford things I want to eat, or that there’s just so much food around me. In all seriousness, though, what makes me wake up every day is the knowledge that today there’s probably something new for me to deal with. The nature of lawyering and tailoring is such that no two clients are the same. You get to meet all these interesting people and the opportunity to just know people on a deeper level excites me.
What’s a piece of advice that you really hold onto?
“Be nice to people on your way up, because you have to be nice to them on your way down.” Closely related to that is to not forget where you come from—not literally, but where you started and all the people who have helped you along the way. Gratitude is particularly important. I think all of us are the sum aggregates of all our experiences, and it’s important to embrace everything we’ve gone through in life, even if they’re horrible experiences, because they always make you a better person.
Do you draw inspiration from anything?
A lot of people throw things at me like movies or magazines when they come to me for clothes, so I do consider that. But I draw inspiration from the clients themselves. That’s why my appointments are usually not 5–10 minute affairs, because I make it a point to know every single client, and I try to find out at least two to three new things about them during each meeting. Not that it ultimately matters to the final product, but it just helps me put that extra little thought into making something that’s suitable for him. After all, if you wear something that you’re not used to, it will show.
You mentioned you started off wanting to dress well. Do you have any style icons?
Yasuto Kamoshita, the creative director of Japanese brand United Arrows. He dresses in a very plain way, not exactly dapper. Not everyone can be dapper because it’s very purposeful, and I don’t like doing things on purpose. Another style icon of mine is Takahiro Kinoshita, the editor-in-chief of Popeye magazine.
What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
I’m very transparent! I think I can do a pretty good impression of Barney, the dinosaur. My favourite singers are David Bowie, George Michael, and Elton John. I also like Queen, Depeche Mode, Oasis. I’ve also loved cats since I was young, I found dogs to be very noisy and aggressive. Cats, though quiet, know how to get their way. They would make excellent lawyers.
What is #untaggable/undefinable to you?
Singlish. I think it doesn’t belong to any particular category. It’s not a dialect, a language, or pidgin English. It’s something that’s so unique to us. I don’t know how it made its way into the dictionary, honestly. It just feels like a secret code.
This is a project for Audi Singapore.