William Wai’s Four Decades in the Garment Industry

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Gallery compiled by Laura Fosmire, photography by Mengwei Chen.

Standing by his pattern maker’s desk, William Wai holds his 40-year-old 13-inch-long Japanese-hand-made black scissors with his arthritis-swollen fingers, especially severe in his forefinger, cutting a set of muslin pieces for fashion designer Mark McNairy’s new jacket pattern. Four decades ago, Wai’s late father, Xinming Wei, a Chinese tailor working in Japan, gave the then 21-year-old Wai this pair of scissors as a gift for his career in America, along with $1,000. Forty years later, the money has long been spent, yet the pair of scissors is still accompanying him.

“I never use other scissors. Nothing is sharper than my father’s scissors,” said Wai. “Once a friend gave me an expensive pair for my birthday, but I can’t even find it now.”

William Wai, whose Chinese name is Gang Wei, is a 61-year-old freelance pattern maker from Hong Kong working at an old 21-floor-building at 270 W 38th St., that houses many garment industry businesses and is owned by the Expansion Group Inc. Regularly dying his hair black to hide the increasing gray, the five-and-a-half-feet tall Wai looks 15 years younger than his age, with rosy cheeks and a flat belly. Dressed in an expensive, hand-made Italian black leather jacket that he bought for only $200 at a sample sale, he uses trendy and brisk words while speaking, though his voice turns slightly hoarse and reveals his real age when he gets tired.

“Doing this fashion business, I have to look younger,” said Wai, “so I dye my hair.”

Before the U.S. and China established diplomatic relations, Wai came to New York City on a short-term business visa and found a way to make a living at a time when immigration wasn’t as strictly regulated as it is today. He lived that era’s version of an immigrant’s dream, going into business, getting married and becoming a U.S. citizen.

Now Wai works from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Saturday, spending two hours on the New Jersey Transit commuter train between his home in West Orange and Pennsylvania Station. He enjoys sipping Chinese green tea every now and then, as he works on patterns that designers turn into the clothes customers see in the stores, including a jacket for Mark McNairy and a dress for Christian Siriano. He listens to a Hong Kong Internet news radio station while working.

Work has been a constant in his life for nearly four decades. Divorced two years ago, Wai now rents this 250-square-feet office from his ex-wife, Wendy Fung, who owns the sample-making company called Taya. Most of the time, when there is no client coming in, Wai talks only to his six-year-old gray cat, Jimmy, whom he calls “little apprentice” in Cantonese, as she follows him wherever he goes and stares at him whenever he works.

“She is like my little kid. Wherever I go, she follows,” Wai said in a loving manner. “She understands Cantonese. She learns everything.”

As he spoke, Wai poured himself a cup of hot Chinese green tea. Smelling it, Jimmy jumped swiftly onto the table and started to nuzzle Wai’s belly with her head.

“Meow,” Jimmy demanded.

“Ah, you little apprentice, you want some? It’s a bit hot. Be careful.” Wai lowered the cup and handed it to Jimmy. She licked the Chinese liquid again and again, while Wai was watching and patting her gently.

Currently, Wai enjoys over a dozen long-term designer clients, including famous designers like Betsey Johnson. He never advertises, because enough people know him in this business to offer him personal referrals. However, things were not so easy when he first arrived here in 1971.

“I came to JFK with $1,000 and this pair of scissors,” recalled Wai. “To save money, I lived in a cheap inn on 44th Street. $25 a night. I couldn’t sleep. In the midnight, I heard hookers walking in and out, doing business next to my room. I was scared and disgusted.”

Like so many immigrants to New York City, Wai came here with no work, no language skills, and not enough education to make the transition easy. In the first six months, Wai washed dishes in several Chinese restaurants in the Bronx and Chinatown.

“Once I paid some money to a guy. He said he could give me a job in an Italian restaurant,” said Wai, “but when I went there, I found the whole restaurant was burned into relics days ago.”

Meanwhile, Wai applied to a local private evening school, Rhodes Preparatory School, to earn a long-term student visa so as to legitimize his stay — the same reason most of his classmates were in school. He spent three years and $2,400 to finish the part-time high school degree. To make ends meet, he had to do odd jobs continuously in the daytime. He quit dishwashing and started to work for garment factories in Chinatown, first as a sorter, categorizing clothes according to their sizes, colors and styles.

Wai dropped out right after elementary school, because his father insisted that education was meaningless and he should go directly into the tailor’s business. So Wai had become an apprentice tailor in Hong Kong when he was 13, taking two years of evening classes to study English while working for his master tailor.

His background served him well. By the time Wai was 23, he had became the youngest sample maker in the garment district, thanks to Binglong Chen, a friend from Hong Kong, who introduced him to the boss of a fashion company. According to Wai, the sample-making industry at that time was primarily dominated by Italian women in their 50s or 60s.  “So they all treated my like a kid, but in a friendly way,” Wai recalled. “In Hong Kong, tailors hide their expertise to beginners, including my master. Everything is different here.”

Wai held this job for two years, while going to school every night. When his friend Chen left, he became the assistant designer. But then he got fired. “This industry is changing fast,” Wai said calmly. “The boss said that designer’s sales were not good, so our whole team got fired.”

But he had been in the business long enough to define a dream for himself: He wanted to be a designer. In 1975, he enrolled part-time at the Fashion Institute of Technology, majoring in fashion design, working harder than ever. The tuition was $700 a semester. He regularly earned $400 a month doing odd jobs, but he never went back to that awful inn.

“We all did part-time jobs while having classes. We had to rely on ourselves.” Said Wai. “No one looked at your ID at that time. Less strict.”

After graduation, Wai started his own business, a clothing manufacturer named Imperial Sportswear at 252 38th St., where Wai produced his own clothes, from design straight to manufacture. Susan Curr, an American friend from FIT, joined his business and became a partner, later changing the company’s name to Casia Fashion, from a flower’s name.

They cooperated for two years and then went their separate ways. Wai continued his half of the business as William Wai Design for 15 years before deciding that being in business for himself was too difficult, and that designing was risky and unstable. He shut the company down in 1999 and went back to pattern making, where he has been ever since. 

During his partnership with Curr, Wai fell in love with Wendy Fung, a sample maker who worked for the company. He married Fung when he was 33, running his own company, and she was 10 years younger. Because Fung had a green card, the couple was able to apply for citizenship. Wai officially became an American citizen in 1988, after which he immediately began the process of bringing his mother from China to live with them; she arrived at 1996.

But the marriage did not work out. After 16 years of marriage, they decided to live separately. “She is a heavy Mahjong player,” said Wai, “Every day she went to play for over five hours straight after work. Then she came back home near or after midnight, when my mother and I were asleep. The sound she made in opening the garage gate was unbearable.”

They waited another 10 years to divorce – and even though they did divorce two years ago, they still have a marriage of convenience where business is concerned. “The relationship between me and my ex-wife and her company is in essence taking advantage of each other,” said Wai. “Many customers go to their sample making room right after getting the patterns from me, then send it back to me for revision.”

Wai and Fung have a 29-year-old son who lives with his father and his grandmother. Wai said his son had a talent in tailoring, but Fung did not want him to enter this business. He now works for a collection company at New Jersey.

“My father forced me into this industry,” Wai said, “but I cannot do this to my son.”

He charges from $100 to $350 for each pattern piece, depending on the type of the clothing. Typically, it’s $100 for shirts, $200 for pants, $300 for jackets and $350 for coats.  He said the most complex and expensive ones are coats and jackets.

After all this time, he takes great pride in his skills. “People in my business usually specialize in one type of clothes, like suits, but I can handle all sorts of things,” said Wai. “My hands are faster than a computer.” Wai smiled proudly in this moment, saying that he could finish in a day what takes some pattern makers a week.

But Wai is not merely an old-school pattern maker. He frequently uses professional software called Pattern Design to do computer design. Wai said that it only took him three hours to master this program, learning from his Hong Kong master’s son, Shen.

“For the same software, in FIT, they want you to start with learning how to use mouse. That’s so funny. I am not that old.” Wai said confidently. “Keeping an open mind is so important. This business is all about dealing with young people. In China you might ask ‘how on earth is anyone going to wear this?’ but here in America, people wear everything.”

Outside his workroom, he leads an equally circumscribed life. A subscriber since 1984, he reads the New York Times on the train every morning. On his walk to work, he buys another 50-cent Chinese newspaper, World Journal, at a newsstand. And every Thursday afternoon, Wai goes to a ballroom dance at Flushing, which he has been practicing for 10 years.

“I need to have some fun as well,” said Wai. “Work. Work. Who doesn’t need a break?”

Every day, Wai brings a lunchbox to his office. He opens it exactly at 1 p.m. and warms it at a shared cooker in the next room. Today’s meal is fried eggs, boiled celery and plain rice. His 89-year-old mother cooks his lunch, Monday to Saturday.

 

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