The Sharpest Man in Fashion
Jamie Johnson discovers the cutter's secret weapon
Some of the most interesting and appealing figures in New York’s elite fashion industry are basic craftsmen, skilled people you never hear a word about. One such individual is Fu Sen Ng, sixty-two years of age, an unassuming man from Toisan, China, who traveled to the city seven years ago and began to build a reputation among major local clothing producers as something of a wizard at sharpening scissors, without which, cutters, more heralded if not exactly publicized specialists, would be hard-pressed to do their job.
I first witnessed Mr. Ng (pronounced Ing) demonstrating his talents outside the front entrance of a distinguished tailor’s workshop. Seated unceremoniously on a bucket and bent over an old rickety motorized grindstone, this faithful technician sent a wild storm of sparks showering down, not only over himself, but also over me and at least a half dozen other innocent passersby. Part of Mr. Ng’s charm, though, is that if he recognized this as a blunder at all, it couldn’t have concerned him less. He’s admired in the business for bringing an Old World disposition to his craft, which measures nothing above productivity and an unflinching commitment to hard work.
If you ask Mr. Ng where and how his professional life took shape and how it finally brought him to Manhattan, he tells a story about moving as a young teen from Toisan to Hong Kong, where through a fixed system of apprenticeships he was taught the social value of mastering a single trade. Interestingly, for a man who is considered by the best tailors and dressmakers to have perfected his rather niche occupation, he doesn’t waste much time applauding the virtue of expertise. Instead, he explains the importance of his work in more matter-of-fact terms. “It’s all about satisfying a need,” he says. “I know the job because I’ve been doing it for so many years, and I want to meet the need.”
Observing Mr. Ng as he goes about an average day’s work helps to place his pragmatic values in perspective. By any assessment, his life is a grind (pun intended), where meeting responsibilities requires him to transport a mechanical setup the size of a lawnmower from one client to the next, often a considerable distance, and occasionally climbing to the top floors of old factory buildings without the assistance of an elevator. It doesn’t concern him that more efficient machinery has begun to replace the equipment he still relies on. Preserving the traditional approach, he never takes a shortcut or places himself above the simple task at hand.
Mr. Ng is intense and focuses with an almost trancelike single-mindedness. There’s scarcely an occasion where he bothers to lift his head from his work at all, not even to exchange a few words with colleagues. He always sets his gaze low, which, some of his coworkers and fellow countrymen say, reflects a characteristic Chinese approach to self-discipline. Adding to his cut-and-dry exterior is the practical blue-collar uniform he wears: extra-heavy work pants, a shirt with two pockets, and special elastic covers he pulls over his sleeves to guard against injury from sparks firing off the grindstone. The absence of any contemporary sense of vanity is the defining quality of his appearance.
Mr. Ng only moved from Hong Kong to the United States so he could provide his three daughters with an opportunity to attend an American college. In many respects, he seems to have resisted any social pressure to assimilate. When I approached him with questions for this article, he never even bothered to ask where it might be published—he didn’t care. Bergdorf Goodman, the final destination for many of the luxury garments his clients produce, was just another foreign name to him, and not one of particular interest. In spite of working in some of the top sample rooms around the city, Mr. Ng is not bashful about admitting his complete indifference for high fashion or what it represents. He’s proud of holding a respectable place in the industry, but it doesn’t mean he has regrets accepting other jobs when business is slow, like sharpening knives in a restaurant or servicing a hair salon. One opportunity to help a client is just as good as the next, and his earnest effort persists day in, day out.
As a regular patron at many of the city’s bespoke workshops, I can honestly say I’ve never encountered another figure like Mr. Ng at any level of the trade. Part of what makes him so likeable, I think, is his humble demeanor and the satisfaction he has derived from dedicating his life to mastering a simple craft. His career offers virtually no opportunities for recognition, yet his terms of success are actually more quantifiable than most. Sharp is sharp, and his clients know that well. The demand for Mr. Ng’s work is a testament to his precise skill and to the virtues of hard work, but, ironically, he also seems to stand out in the fashion world by virtue of his air of invisibility; his inconspicuous manner lends a touch of refreshing modesty to the vainglorious precincts of luxury fashion. Perhaps humility is the ultimate dignity. BG