Modernize Tailors is a Vancouver institution. Founded in 1913, the store was owned and run for over 60 years by the legendary Bill Wong.
Honoured by the City (November 3, 2013 was Vancouver’s official Modernize Tailors Day) and the Chinese-Canadian Historical Society of BC, over the decades Bill and his brother Jack crafted suits for superstars including Sean Connery and Arnold Schwarzenegger from his compact studio in the heart of Chinatown.
When Bill passed away in April 2017 the young lady entrusted to keep Modernize Tailors moving forward was his one-time intern, Blanche Macdonald Fashion Design program graduate Mia Wu. She’s been building on Bill’s legacy ever since.
Beverli Barnes is a Vancouver fashion designer and a long-time friend of Bill’s who helped Blanche Macdonald build up its fashion program. They trained me and guided me through all these years. When the day came, they told me, ‘Mia, keep Modernize alive.’
“I got the courage to do this from Park Wong and Beverli Barnes,” explains Mia. “The Master Jacket-maker, Park Wong worked in Modernize for 63 years. Beverli Barnes is a Vancouver fashion designer and a long-time friend of Bill’s who helped Blanche Macdonald build up its fashion program. They trained me and guided me through all these years. When the day came, they told me, ‘Mia, keep Modernize alive.’ So I did! I worked very hard to earn what I have today.”
Born and raised in Taiwan, Mia first learned how to sew from her mother on a Singer foot pedal sewing machine. Looking for fresh opportunities and inspired by the idea of turning her hobby into full-time career, an on-line search led Mia to discover the Fashion School that would change her life.
“The first design course I found was Blanche Macdonald. I saw they could help find internships and work visas. I landed in Vancouver and a week later I was starting School. My English wasn’t great at that point but I felt confident and comfortable in sewing class with Brenda Swinglehurst.”
The first design course I found was Blanche Macdonald. I saw they could help find internships and work visas. I landed in Vancouver and a week later I was starting School. My English wasn’t great at that point but I felt confident and comfortable in sewing class with Brenda Swinglehurst.
Brenda didn’t just help Mia improve her sewing technique. She inspired the young designer to follow her own path while introducing her to the man whose business she would eventually run.
“I have quite a traditional and conservative personality. I wanted to do traditional suiting and a bridal gown for my collection. At a School like Blanche you’re generally encouraged to aim for high fashion. Brenda told me that it’s my journey and I should do what I felt was right for me. I changed my designs three months before the show and made a trouser, shirt and vest. When I needed buttonholes Brenda told me to come to Modernize as they had the machine for that. That’s when I met Bill Wong. The first time we met we sat and talked for two hours. I asked him what life was like as a tailor and what the future of men’s fashion would be. We agreed on one thing – neither of us liked fast fashion!”
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. A request for buttonholes turned into an internship almost instantly. Mia asked Bill if she could spend more time learning from him after their first conversation.
‘‘Sure, come in!’’ said Bill.
“I’ve always wanted to work in a traditional tailor shop to learn the beauty of craftsmanship,” continues Mia. “Men’s tailoring techniques have been around for more then a century. I wanted to master tailoring skills and to apply those to women’s wear. Creating beautiful garments that last and look good decades is what we love doing everyday.
“In Modernize, our job is to solve problems for both customers and designers. From pattern drafting to sewing to the final fitting, our focus is quality and customer service. Many of our old customers come back with suits that were made here in the 1970s to get them refitted. ‘Modernize your closet’ was what Bill always said.
Mia began her apprenticeship with Bill in 2014 and worked with him until his passing in 2017.
“I was here with Bill, my mentor, every day. It had all become very personal. I met my husband and got married while I was working here. Bill made my husband’s suit for our wedding as a gift. Traditionally, in my culture, the bride’s parents provide the suit. But all my family isn’t here in Vancouver, so Bill did that for me. That meant a lot to me.
People wanted to help a business that had existed for 100 years. I earned the trust of those customers.
“Everything happened very fast. Bill was 95 when he passed. I spent that month working on all the outstanding jobs and getting ready for the transition. Nothing changed at first. People would come in and I needed to tell them that Bill had passed before introducing myself. Lots of people asked if I was Bill’s granddaughter. I would ask them to give me a chance to prove that I was capable. People wanted to help a business that had existed for 100 years. I earned the trust of those customers.
“I am not from the family but Bill treated me like one. He would say that in the olden days Chinese tailors working for him were all immigrants. Just like me! We all came from different places, all far from home, but we were rooted in Chinatown so everyone took care of each other. Bill worked until the day before he went into hospital. He passed away that night. He loved his job and had a wonderful life. I appreciate all the support and help from the Wong families and from the Chinatown community, and also the help from my school, the Blanche Macdonald Centre.” Mia took a break for three months after giving birth to her daughter. Since her return to Modernize her priorities have been creating beautiful custom garments, renovating the store, polishing the brand image, growing the business and welcoming two new apprentices to work alongside her. Everything is illustrated beautifully on their Instagram page.
I appreciate all the support and help from the Wong families and from the Chinatown community, and also the help from my school, the Blanche Macdonald Centre.
“As a tailor, my greatest reward is to see our apprentices grow and succeed. In 2019 one of our apprentices won the award in Vancouver Fashion Week and was sponsored to host his second show in Tokyo. When I saw ‘Sponsored by Modernize Tailors est.1913’ shown on the big screen, I felt so proud. “
During the Covid-19 crisis Modernize slowed down their suit production and started making fabric masks for the local community. They also continued to collaborate with the Chinese-Canadian Historical Society of BC to show their appreciation of the community so integral to their legacy.
I care about the community here. I want to be involved. My mission is to keep what Bill gave me and turn this store into the go-to tailor in Vancouver.
“Of course I feel the responsibility of continuing the legacy of Modernize,” insists Mia. “I care about the community here. I want to be involved. My mission is to keep what Bill gave me and turn this store into the go-to tailor in Vancouver. I hope one day to become a leading tailoring house in the city and across Canada.
“As a tailor, my best moment is when a client tries on something that fits perfectly and I can see their happy face in the mirror. That means I’m doing something right!”