One of the peculiarities of living in 21st century India is that in a country known for bureaucratic delays and traffic jams, the private sector feels a need to overcompensate. A restaurant aggregator’s 10-minute delivery promise this summer might have been thankfully short-lived but speed, even in a country that lives in three centuries simultaneously, is becoming an obsession.
High-end tailors, ranging from Vaish in Delhi’s Connaught Place to Y&O on Bengaluru’s bustling Commercial Street, in effect make the opposite promise. Their proprietors say upfront that they will ideally require as many fittings as needed. The process can take from four weeks to two months. Says a loyal customer of Vaish in Delhi, who has had seven jackets, two suits and a bandhgala tailored since he moved back to India a few years ago, “The only thing they ask of you is that you be prepared to invest the time to get it right.”
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Y&O’s Yunus Ahmed believes high-end tailoring in India sometimes doesn’t get the “respect” it deserves because people have become accustomed to doing so much in a hurry as well as buying off-the-rack clothes.
Spend even a little time with Sachin Vaish, who runs Vaish, or Ahmed and it is apparent that these proprietors are sticklers for process. They are content to turn away business or guide the customer to less classically bespoke options that are quicker rather than compromise on quality. At Vaish, a tailored suit typically costs ₹80,000 to ₹1.2 lakh but can go up to ₹10 lakh, depending on the suiting. Y&O’s bespoke starts at ₹90,000. Happily, duties and shipping on fine suiting material from overseas add just 30% to the cost so the finest Italian and English brands are easily available via their efficient supply chains.
If one can afford a high-end bespoke tailor, it makes sense to follow their process and enjoy the craftsmanship on display. This is how clothes were made for centuries. And, waiting a month or two for a garment that you will wear for decades together just requires a little planning. Y&O, and Syed Bawkher & Company in Chennai, are overseen by men whose families have been in tailoring for three generations. Before independence, Vaish used to serve the officers at the British army barracks in what is now Palika Bazaar as well as many princely families.
Vaish and Y&O’s tailoring routine starts with making a paper pattern and then the toile, essentially a custom-made garment in cheaper fabric, such as cotton used for uniforms or muslin, that is a prototype of the suit to be made.
It is only at the second fitting that the fabric the customer has ordered, usually light wool, is used. This preamble allows the tailor to adjust for the quirks of the individual body as a physiotherapist treating a patient would. “Most people are asymmetric,” says Sachin Vaish. “The drop of the shoulder is often different. One guy might stand with a soldier’s pose while the other stoops a lot; the size could be the same but the jackets would be completely different.”
Haute couture can be an art form. Bespoke tailors use what is called the “floating canvas” to give the jacket its shape. This lining is often made of horsehair or camel hair and wool or cotton because these breathe better and are lighter. It is attached to the fabric that the customer has chosen with a series of hand stitches. By contrast, many less laboriously tailored suits have fused lining, essentially glued together using heat.
The former is what one needs for a better fit but the pity is that most men opt for the latter or buy off the shelf. On the anecdotal evidence gathered from having split my career pretty evenly between the world’s financial capitals in New York, London and Hong Kong, I can report with regret that in none of these places do men wear jackets that look as unflattering as they tend to in India, usually because the fused lining is bulkier here than it should be and the process of multiple fittings has not been adhered to. Typically, the jackets are cut too tight.
The other problem is that India’s warm climate and today’s more casual dress codes both make a persuasive case for the unlined jacket but most Indian men shy away from them, unlike men in the West. Even though this simply means making a jacket without the lining at the back and the sides, most customers react as if that would leave them feeling undressed. Vaish says he has been able to wear unlined jackets in Delhi almost till the end of December and starts wearing them again in February. Even so, his suggestion that clients consider an unlined jacket finds few takers.
In Bengaluru, which often seems blessed with outdoor air-conditioning year-round, Ahmed favours the more casual shacket, a jacket worn in the style of a shirt. The styles are very different and the shacket may be too casual for most but the principle is similar—a more comfortable, climatically attuned garment than the traditional lined jacket.
Another Vaish recommendation is that clients try hopsack, a kind of light wool that has a basket-weave, and, again, one that breathes better.
As a rule of thumb, pick your tailor carefully—and listen to them. Imagine having a genie at your side who can conjure up the equivalent of magic mirrors that make you look slimmer and smarter. “Bespoke tailoring is a relationship. It’s more than just buying clothes,” says Ahmed, whose father decided to open a bespoke tailoring shop after seeing how fascinated he and his brother, Omar, who handles the business’ operational side, were with fine Italian suiting fabric during a family holiday to Italy. They were then 13 and 11, respectively.
A couple of decades on, it is apparent that Y&O is a labour of love. Its leather sofas and plush interiors suggest a posh club rather than a tailoring shop. Yunus and the master tailor spend time sweating the details. They seek to understand whether, for instance, a client uses a pocket diary that will require a little extra room in the jacket and where they prefer their initials on their shirts. Buttons made from an indigenous nut are procured from Latin America or made from Swarovski crystals from Austria and lined up in large cupboards in their studio. Accessories go way beyond cufflinks, to umbrellas sourced from Italy and stylish man-bags.
If you are having a suit tailored, consider English-styled adjustable side straps on the trousers. These are adjusters made of the same fabric as the suit, with a metal clasp that enables one to loosen or tighten them. I hate wearing belts and dislike looking at belt loops even more. I am also fond of working cuffs, the kind that allow you to button and unbutton them when a work meeting or a wedding function runs on and on.
The last time I saw my long-time tailor in Hong Kong, a few years ago, I mulled aloud whether I should have a sky-blue hopsack fabric I had just bought made with a mandarin collar instead of a more conventional jacket. He pointed out that I had half-a-dozen mandarin jackets (the Chinese variant of the bandhgala) already. The finished product made for an eye-catching blazer, complete with Paul Smith-styled multicoloured striped lining. An eccentric South African woman in the press box at Wimbledon requested a photograph the first time I wore it.
This is the supreme paradox of bespoke tailoring: At its best, it is unshowy and understated, yet people usually can tell your suits are tailored. If there is a moral to this story, it is that when you find an excellent bespoke tailor, enjoy the process and benefit from their wisdom.
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Rahul Jacob was the travel, food and drink editor for the Financial Times in London and is the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.