Kelly See, co-founder of Signet Store, and putting a personal stamp on your belongings.
Interview Johanna Poblete | Photography Pia Puno
Kelly See, co-founder of men’s lifestyle store Signet and listed among the “10 Most Rakish Men” by The Rake Japan, is only satisfied by the top-of-the-line and one-of-a-kind. In fact, Signet was created because he and his business partners couldn’t find a local tailor who met their exacting standards, and they’d grown weary of dashing abroad six to eight times a year to meet with bespoke specialists. The store in Legaspi Village became a venue for periodic trunk shows with master tailors, and for housing artisanal, often family-owned labels (some going back five or six generations to the 1600s and 1800s) to complete the stylish man’s wardrobe.
Asked to select his favorite item, Mr. See swung from one rarity to the next, briefly considering an heirloom bangle, vintage cufflinks, and a limited-edition bicycle, before deciding on a mahjong set he’d assembled piece by piece, for three years: the case is made of natural shagreen with an ebony interior, commissioned from a friend in Cebu; the scoring or betting sticks are made of cow bone; and the mahjong tiles are made of old ivory hand-carved in China. It’s a visual and tactile treasure commissioned not for himself but for his guests to enjoy.
With a surname like See, somebody in your family would know how to play mahjong.
My grandparents play mahjong; they always play with money. But I don’t gamble. I don’t have the luck. That’s why I don’t go to casinos.
I’m really puzzled why you would have a mahjong set commissioned and yet you don’t play.
I just wanted to have a set at home for friends and relatives who want to play. I wanted the best: It took me three years to complete the whole set. This ivory is about 20 to 30 years old. The tiles are half ivory and half bamboo since it would have been very, very expensive to do solid ivory. I also chose stingray for the mahjong case because it’s very sturdy. In olden times, they used stingray as the handles for the samurai sword. The most expensive part of a stingray is the dorsal fin— the bigger, the more expensive. I asked them to make me a case that has 10 big panels.
Where does the value of an object lie?
It’s in the material and in how it’s made and how you take care of it. Like a pair of good shoes, the more you wear it, the more it molds to your feet, and the more it gets better after the leather has aged. Even with the mahjong set, I really want people to use it because the item will gain more character.
What goes through your head when you’re collecting these objects?
I’m not a collector. It just so happens that I’ve accumulated so much stuff after years of buying. And I will not buy anything that I will not use.
You’re a curator.
At Signet, I will not offer something that I will not wear. Almost all of the products here are something that I’ve used for quite some time now.
Do you think the contemporary male has lost touch with real style?
Actually, we’re here to educate them with bespoke clothing, accessories, and we want to see more people wearing suits in Manila.
How many suits does a man have to have?
Just two. One navy and one gray. That’s the most basic. And a nice pair of bespoke shoes.
When you attend buyers’ shows, what do you look for?
I always look at the quality first, then the history of the brand. And I will always visit the workshop or the manufacturing plant. It has to pass our criteria. I look for the people working on the product: the more experienced, the better. Some of the products that we have here, they have people as old as 70 still working with them. Old techniques, usually, you can’t pass those on to the new generation. Take the mahjong set — the person who carved that is really old. He has the technique and the experience of carving something onto ivory. I like the old techniques, old ways of doing things.
If you were to sell the mahjong set, how would you price it?
I don’t know; it’s priceless.
After nearly a week of dressing to the nines at the biannual menswear fair Pitti Uomo in Florence Italy, Kelly See opted out of his customary suit and instead wore the iconic Breton shirt from French clothing brand Saint James (the same one patronized by Marlon Brando, Pablo Picasso, and James Dean), white denim pants from Japanese brand Resolute, and canvas sneakers from Doek (a Japanese brand favoring a 200-year-old weave)—all brands carried in-store at Signet.