Bush family, diplomats and spies flock to NRI Bangkok tailor

Jesse and Victor Gulati

BANGKOK. July 20, 2004
By Denis D. Gray

Jesse and Victor Gulati insist word-of-mouth is all the advertising they need for their hole-in-the-wall tailor shop. And who's to argue when they have President Bush hearing endorsements from a regular customer — his dad


Tailor Victor Gulati fits Andrew Scott of Alexandria, Va., at his Bangkok shop, popular with visiting dignitaries.

A stop at Rajawongse Clothier has over the years become a must for visiting statesmen, ambassadors and generals, along with spies and Secret Service agents ("They like their suits a bit loose," Victor notes). (Related site: Rajawongse Clothier)

One of our most esteemed customers, former U.S. President George

The shop's back wall is covered with letters of appreciation and photographs of happy customers like the Bushes, Sen. John Kerry, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Nancy Reagan.

Rajawongse is among hundreds of Bangkok tailor shops, many catering to foreign visitors who have discovered that the city has dethroned such Asian tailoring capitals as Hong Kong in value for money.

Most of the tailors are geared to what Jesse, the 54-year-old family patriarch, somewhat condescendingly calls "the tourist trade." Prices in those places may be bargain-basement, but buttons tend to pop and collars wilt after a few wearings.

Then there are a handful of world-class masters like the Gulatis, who have built up a loyal clientele over 43 years through quality craftsmanship, reasonable prices and a friendly, smooth-as-silk service in perfect English.

"Morning, Andrew," says Jesse's son Victor, not skipping a beat as he greets a longtime customer, a State Department official traveling through Southeast Asia who pops in to have one suit, three pants and three shirts made.

Both father and son have a knack for instantly recalling names and faces of customers they may not have seen for a decade. And the Gulatis keep a detailed client database, although they admit problems arise when some forget to update with the growth of a paunch or a crash diet when placing orders from abroad.

"It's the best value in the world," says the visiting diplomat, Andrew Scott of Alexandria, Va., emerging from a tiny fitting room. "They make great stuff in Italy but you'll pay $1,000 a suit."

Jesse, his neat attire and trim beard topped by a purple turban, says his suits average $250, and he hasn't changed his prices in eight years. Comparable ones in Hong Kong go for $700-$800, while in New York custom tailors would charge up to $2,000, he says. Dress shirts, made from top quality Egyptian cotton, sell like hot cakes at $20 apiece.

Low overhead keeps prices down, the Gulatis say. Rajawongse does "zero advertising" although its profile is heightened by sponsorship of local charities, and a recently started Web site has brought in substantial business.

The shop is hardly attractive enough to snare walk-ins along Bangkok's touristy Sukhmuvit Road. Set in a row of nondescript shops, it consists of one narrow room stacked with bolts of cloth.

The family set up there in 1974, having started their business 13 years earlier near a U.S. Air Force base in the northeastern city of Ubon. That was the Vietnam War era, which spawned a generation of entrepreneurs catering to American troops in the tourism, sex and tailoring trades.

Among them was Jesse's now deceased father, a Sikh who had immigrated from India and whose four sons and daughter followed him into the business. One of the sons, Raja, later set up Raja's Tailor, located around the corner from Rajawongse, and likewise has assembled an impressive international clientele.

During the war years, the Gulatis' reputation among American servicemen caught the attention of the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, bringing about their relocation from the provinces.

"We dress pretty much the whole embassy now, from the Marine guard to the ambassador," says 26-year-old Victor, a business administration graduate who has worked with his father since the age of 15.

It was an ambassador who recommended Rajawongse to the senior George Bush, who brought measurements to have suits cut for all his sons while on a 1999 Bangkok visit. The current president made contact during last October's summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, ordering two suits, gray and blue, plus five shirts.

Jesse, who even breakfasted with the president, says it took Rajawongse six months to fill orders for some 1,000 suits from participants at that summit. A number came from a loyal constituency — senior espionage officials from Western nations and bodyguards who accompanied the VIPs.

Nancy Reagan dropped by with an order during a visit to Bangkok with President Reagan in 1986. "She saw all the Secret Service guys dressed so well, so the first lady asked, 'Where did you get all those clothes?'" Jesse says.

Besides tailoring some suits for her husband, Jesse and his crew had to work furiously through the night to fill an unusual request from Mrs. Reagan. "She said she needed a backdrop that had better match her blue earrings and blue dress when she appeared for a television interview the next morning," Jesse recalls.

He came up with a fancy, curtain-like screen, and the White House later sent its thanks.

"She was quite a tough lady," Jesse says. "But very nice to me