Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Measure of a Man by JJ Lee

Cover image from JJ Lee website

This memoir delivers the deep satisfaction of a good read. It is funny, poignant and informative. Whether the image is of Oscar Wilde, Georgio Armani, King Edward VIII or Beau Brummell, I'll never look at a man's suit in the same way again.

The author fascinates us with the suit's history, contemporary variations, and symbolism, as well as how to accessorize it. He even advises readers which front coat buttons to fasten.

With my trusted guide, a journalist, architect, designer and aspiring tailor, I got to experience things a woman never could in real life. For instance, while listening in on JJ's man-to-man chat with the master tailors of Savile Row, I learned precisely what is meant by a bespoke suit, along with the ins and outs of a recent court case that hinged on that definition.

The thread that binds the book together is the story of a practical project: the author, who lost his father to alcoholism, is trying to make over his Dad's last remaining suit so that he can wear it.

He hopes that through this process, he can find his own way forward and regain some of the sense of a father-and-son bond he sorely missed as a child. In remaking the suit to fit him, he uncovers and deconstructs his father's life history, gains a mature perspective, and forgives past wrongs.

As part of his quest, JJ Lee apprentices himself to Vancouver master tailor Bill Wong, who in his eighties is still working happily in a tailor shop that opened a hundred years ago. Through their long and close association, Bill becomes a father figure, and helps JJ find some of the lost parts of himself.

Though it has some harrowing, even tragic scenes, the multi-layered story of JJ's tailoring quest is truly heartwarming, and the writer's fresh and vigorous prose is a joy to read.

Meanwhile, master coat-maker Bill Wong stitches coats at Modernize Tailors, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year. (Another tailor in the shop specializes in pants.)

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