"My mother was a tailor, sewed my new blue jeans ...” cried Eric Burdon on The Animals’ take of House Of The Rising Sun. “If I ever get back my old blue jean, lord, how happy could one man be ...” rasped Billy Gibbons wistfully on ZZ Top’s slow burner Blue Jean Blues.
Jeans are an inextricable part of popular culture, and has been so since miners during the American gold rush of the 1850s first put on the tough piece of clothing apparel, designed by Bavarian immigrant Levi Strauss, who improvised his design originally from brown cotton tent cloth.
It’s hard to imagine anyone without a pair of jeans in their wardrobe. In fact, most folks have more than one, and the blue jeans’ unisex appeal has made it completely gender-neutral. That’s why countless songs have been written about them, and that’s also why they are seen concealing the loins of nearly everyone on the planet, from 1950s rock n’ rollers to today’s futuristic artistes.
It’s simple to walk into a boutique, a department store or even a pasar malam stall to get the denim fix, but what happens when these hardy pieces of pants get damaged? Tailors specialise in softer cloth forms, and their sewing machines are calibrated likewise, so how are jeans repaired? And where would you go to repair them?
If you’re based in Ipoh, Perak, there is literally a hub for it – Pasar Besar Ipoh, the central market which once housed the shopping institution Super Kinta. Pasar Besar Ipoh certainly looks like it has seen better days, but the service from the traders there, and more importantly, the choice of service, remains astounding.
Nestled in the bowels of the dilapidated building is a series of shoplots devoted to the reparation of jeans. Common sense and economic nous would dictate that having like-minded businesses in close proximity is committing commercial suicide, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at all.
“The service industry is like the skin trade ... it’ll never run out of business and will always be in demand,” quipped Mohd Shukri, 49, who runs Amarru Jeans Repair.
Repairing jeans is a specialist job, and unlike tailoring, there is no school that offers a course for it, or endorses any kind of certification. “There are no teachers for this ... it all comes down to creativity,” he said.
His contemporary, Nizam Husairi, 40, who operates The Jeans, right opposite, echoed his sentiment: “Clothes are much easier to deal with ... they are more straightforward. Jeans come in very different shapes and sizes, and there’s nothing you can really learn from a book to help you repair them.”
Nizam got into the trade when he realised the potential of the industry, seeing as nearly everyone would own at least a pair of jeans. “Also, this felt like it was appropriate for me,” he said.
To traverse a path less-trodden, one has to have interest, but both Shukri and Nizam reckon that their vocation transcends mere passion. “I guess we are fortunate that this is an industry where we don’t have to look for customers ... clients look for us. The more populated a city, the more clients there will be,” Shukri reasoned.
It’s all about service, and Nizam is single-minded about his approach: “We are all jeans wearers ourselves, so, when we do repair work for people, it’s important to us for the customer to have the perfect fit and comfort.”
According to Shukri, his job involves having an intimate understanding of social culture and fashion. Over the years, he has observed that from the 1990s, people bought jeans and then sent them to jeans repairers to get them altered for a required fit, but now, designer brands have been more clued in, and people simply buy from the wide range of fits available.
“Now, we have customers who are requesting for jeans that are not even torn to be repaired. It’s simply a case of fashion,” he explained.
Repairing a pair of jeans itself can be a tricky job. Both repairers have all the tools of the trade at their disposal, from automatic sewing machines (and in these parts, they are usually Singer), to broader needles and thicker thread.
According to Nizam, there are no easy repair jobs; they all come with their own challenges. He cites pocket replacement as a particularly labour-intensive process, even if that doesn’t appear difficult to the uninitiated.
“To change a pocket, you virtually have to reverse engineer everything. So, since the pocket is the last thing to go on, you start by removing the pocket, and then unpick the body of the pants, and finally the hip area,” he explained. He says that pocket replacement is one of the most expensive jobs in the trade.
Both repairers offer alteration and patch up services. Shukri used to stitch jeans from scratch, but has since stopped because it’s simply not cost-effective, given the lean profits involved, what with jeans being so cheap now.
So, why did so many jeans repairers congregate in this location? “Because of Super Kinta. People were attracted to the mall like ants to sugar,” Shukri philosophised.
Nizam is compelled to agree, saying that his clients also come from all age groups and professions: “Super Kinta was a shopping institution, and most people did all their shopping around here and the market area.”
Pasar Besar Ipoh may have lost its buzz factor, but for Ipoh-ites looking to get their jeans repaired, there is no better one-stop centre than this ageing market.