Phyllida Jay/ Forbes India
Thanks to two enterprising brothers from Chennai, tsunami victims in Tamil Nadu have found a livelihood by making Savile Row suits
In a workshop in Mahalingapuram, Chennai, a group of former fisherfolk, people who lost their livelihoods in the tsunami that followed the 2004 South-East Asian earthquake, are using their once-calloused hands for some very precise needlework. They are crafting suits. Not just any suits: These are for the Classic Bespoke line of a Savile Row establishment, Whitcomb and Shaftesbury.
Yes, Savile Row, that so-called golden mile of tailoring in London’s Mayfair, playground of the rich, meeting place of the powerful, where the air is thick with wealth and the purring hum of gleaming black Daimlers is broken only by the clip of doors being opened, as wealthy passengers exit into the shops of Piccadilly and the softly lit interiors of private members clubs. Like those clubs, the tailors’ shops of Savile Row have deep leather armchairs and mahogany-panelled walls. These shops are portals of luxury, part of an alternate universe inhabited only by the wealthy and privileged. A bespoke Savile Row suit is considered the pinnacle of men’s luxury.
Against this, suits made in India tend not to be associated with luxury, but with mass production and even sweatshop labour. Nevertheless, here they are, these former seafarers, and the suits they’re making will be sold on the Row. Remarkable, some would say. How did this happen?
Whitcomb and Shaftesbury isn’t your typical bespoke suit tailor. For one, there aren’t - and never were - any Mr Whitcombs or Mr Shaftesburys around. The founders are Suresh and Mahesh Ramakrishnan, brothers, two of a set of triplets, born in a city then called Madras. Like many smart young Indians of the time, the early ’90s found them working abroad, in New York: Suresh, a Wharton MBA, worked as a Goldman Sachs investment analyst; Mahesh as a systems consultant with Sapient Corp. The standard Indian dream.
But then, a decade ago, they gave all that up, to follow a new dream. They founded a small, traditional tailoring service in London, and named it after two roads that intersect in Mayfair.
How did these South Indian brothers infiltrate this bastion of tradition - some would say stuffiness - of this closed world? If they had one initial advantage, it is that they came from the world of their customers. Mahesh concedes their background in the world of finance and marketing has helped. They knew how to access equity and had a pool of potential clients from their own network. They began by commissioning bespoke suits for them, building relationships with cutters, coat and trouser makers, some of the most renowned craftsmen on Savile Row. The relationship between a tailor and customer is often likened to that between doctor and patient, based on absolute trust. Step by step, they began to understand the Row and the flow of connections between different tailors. IN GOOD SHAPE Robert (Bob) Bigg, a Savile Row legend and among the top coatmakers in the world, is canvassing, a technique to apply a three-dimensional shape to a coat. The extent of this shaping is unique to each individual and a key art in Savile Row suits. With over 50 years of experience, Bob trains his wards in India on all aspects of coat making
They negotiated this complicated world with aplomb. They were able to poach John McCabe, a renowned head cutter for over 40 years on Savile Row, taking him with them as director when they started their own business in 2003. In each Savile Row tailoring house, the head cutter defines and maintains its distinctive ‘style’, a highly political figure, in a world where so much is placed on ‘traditional ways of doing things’.
Getting McCabe on board was something of a political coup. The firm soon had a client list that included American business magnates, Hollywood celebrities and Indian billionaires.
Then, one day, Jean Francois Lesage (son of Jacques Lesage, famous for the embroideries he made for old Parisian couture houses) walked into Whitcomb and Shaftesbury to commission a suit for himself. A friendship was struck up. When the 2004 tsunami devastated large parts of Tamil Nadu, Lesage became involved with Children of the World and the French Blue Cross to help rehabilitate affected communities. He asked the Ramakrishnans, “Why don’t you run tailoring workshops as part of the rehabilitation programmes?”
Let’s step away from the Ramakrishnans for a moment, and get to know the Row.
The tailors there are a fierce bunch. Accusations and jealousies slip from the lips of rivals, revealing ancient snobberies and deeply entrenched hierarchies. Many are in their fourth, fifth, even sixth decade of employment for the same tailor. Yet, there are often movements between them as buyouts and new management cause artistic temperaments to flare. There is an almost cultish devotion to style that different tailoring houses use.
A bespoke suit costs upwards of £3,000 and is distinct from either ready-to-wear or made-to-measure for several key reasons. Standards set out by the Savile Row Bespoke Association (SBA), which is seeking geographically protected status for Savile Row, include that a bespoke suit be cut from an individual paper pattern made by a Master Cutter (who serves a minimum five-year apprenticeship), that at least 50 hours of hand labour go into each suit, that it be made from a choice of over 2,000 fabrics and that it must be made on Savile Row or nearby in surrounding Mayfair - preferably no more than 50 yards away.