India isn’t normally a country you’d associate with fine tailoring but a new company aims to change that. “Our goal is to make the best garments in the world,” says Suresh Ramakrishnan, one of a set of triplets from Chennai, India, who, along with Savile Row tailor Tom Mahon, last month launched English Cut Made to Measure, offering custom-made suits from the subcontinent.
“Fifty years ago no one had heard of Italian tailoring but now Brioni makes 700 garments a day and sells suits for $5,000 each,” says Ramakrishnan. His dream is to effect the same revolution for India.
Priced at half the cost of his partner Mahon’s British-made bespoke suits (which Mahon continues to offer), the point of difference for English Cut Made to Measure also has to do with moral value: the suits are made by Indian craftsmen in rural communities who have been trained by Indian and British bespoke tailors in a for-profit community rehabilitation scheme. Female consumers have long understood that India can produce high-quality, handworked clothes, with extraordinary embroidery, thanks to brands such as Alexander McQueen, Prada and Gucci, all of whom produce in India. But so far it is unclear whether men see the country as having any kind of meaningful tailoring tradition.
It will be an uphill battle. A “made in India” label doesn’t seem to have much resonance for English Cut Made to Measure’s target consumer. The chief finance officer of a Mayfair-based hedge fund, for example, said that if his tailor offered him a competitively priced hand-made suit from India he would “change tailor”. He believes that “the point of a suit made by a Savile Row tailor is that he will have endured a long apprenticeship and benefited from the experience of generations of tailors”.
Robert Johnston, style editor at GQ magazine, says: “India is seen as a sweatshop, tarred with the same brush as Bangladesh, and that affects people’s view of the quality. However, that’s probably very unfair because if you go to Hong Kong you get Indian tailors and they’re often very good.” It’s not that British men don’t buy Asian-made suits – Hong Kong’s Raja Daswani sells 10,000 bespoke suits a year in the UK alone – it’s just that they aren’t considered an investment on par with Savile Row (Daswani’s suits start at about £300).
Yet English Cut’s made-to-measure service works similarly to that of any classic tailor. Suits are cut to a block (or pattern) devised by Mahon, a Cumbrian bespoke tailor who worked at Savile Row’s Anderson & Sheppard before going solo a decade ago, and constructed and sewn according to his specifications. They are sold for £1,400 and take six weeks (by comparison, Mahon’s UK-made bespoke suits start at £2,700 and take about eight months). The suits, all made of British cloth, are constructed according to Mahon’s “soft tailoring” precepts, which means they have very little padding in the shoulders and the chest, use drape to give a “waisted” silhouette and are lighter than most Savile Row suits. The only difference, aside from geography, is that the patterns are standardised, rather than personal.
The business has been a decade in the making. Ten years ago Suresh and Mahesh Ramakrishnan were working in New York, Suresh for Goldman Sachs and Mahesh for a consultancy firm, when their interest in tailoring led them, as customers, to Mahon. “Over time we realised that this [tailoring] was where our true love lay,” says Suresh. In early 2004 the brothers gave up their old careers to start a hand-tailoring business in Chennai.
In the aftermath of that year’s tsunami the brothers’ business became part of a French Blue Cross programme to teach new skills to Indians affected by the disaster (their friend, couture embroiderer Jean-François Lesage, has a workshop in Chennai with 120 craftsmen and brokered the relationship). At the end of the initiative the Ramakrishnans set up and privately funded another training facility in the countryside north of Chennai, this time for rural women with few other opportunities. Thus far they have trained 300 women with another 98 in the programme. This ability to produce in volume appealed to Mahon, whose bespoke business was limited by how many suits he could cut – he personally drafts a pattern for every bespoke suit – and by his ability to find British craftsmen. “Other avenues had to be developed,” he says. And so English Cut Made to Measure was born.
A month after launch, Mahon has taken orders from both existing bespoke customers and new customers. Richard Moules, a bespoke client of Mahon’s, says he used to associate Indian tailoring with “the travelling tailors who come here from Asia, who are not synonymous with quality”, yet he has just ordered a made-to-measure suit from English Cut. “The reservations that I had about the suits being made in India were allayed by the fact that Tom was running the show,” he says. “I was struck that I recognised it [an Indian-made suit] as one of Tom’s.”
And, as Johnston points out, “India has got such great heritage in clothing – the hand skills are first class.” Give it some time and “in 10 years, the right company, with the right ad campaign, could be an Indian Brioni”.
Mansel Fletcher is features editor at online shopping site Mr Porter