One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art. — Oscar Wilde
For his wedding sherwani, Rajasthan-based hotelier Manvendra Singh Shekhawat set his tailor a difficult task. He wanted one made of old cloth. His Jaipur-based tailor, Mohsin Khan, has known him since he was 18 and took up the challenge. He spent months locating a piece of cloth which happened to have silver woven into it. When Shekhawat chose the antique paarcha textile, Khan was forthright about his reservations. “It may not last 12 hours.”
Khan was right. By the end of the wedding, the sherwani was torn in half a dozen places. But Shekhawat was delighted with how it looked. Looking back at his relationship with Khan (his number: 9314506451), Shekhawat describes him as “an artist”. He applauds Khan’s perfectionism, his tendency to open up a jacket and redo it if there is a hint of a crease behind the shoulders. “If you have the opportunity and privilege to work with a creator, why would you not?”
It is a puzzle that in a country where low labour costs make custom tailoring affordable, many of us opt for clothes made through mass production. Of India’s many contradictions, this is one: Prêt-à-porter websites can become unicorns overnight, while many gifted tailors across the country toil in relative obscurity. As Shekhawat observes, ready-made garments make one a “cog in the machine” of production, while using a tailor allows one to “be different and diverse. We should embrace that diversity”.
Those who are sensible as well as lucky enough to build long-time relationships with tailors find they have opened up an Aladdin’s Cave that gives them access to an array of handloom weaves and tailoring styles. The ubiquity of tailoring shops across the country puts what could be called mass customisation within reach for so many of us. Instead, the availability of off-the-rack retail clothing has multiplied and online retail has propelled it to our doorsteps.
Walk into Nikki’s Fashion House in Goa’s Candolim and you will find yourself walking ankle-deep in discarded cloth that resembles a Technicolor carpet. The billboard outside the store features a Caucasian man wearing an English-style morning coat, typically worn for weddings, while the woman is apparently in a wedding gown; they look like a middle-aged version of Prince William and Kate Middleton re-enacting their vows. But don’t be fooled by the seeming disarray of the store and its rather random marketing images. In peak tourist season, Akram Mehdi Hasan (his number: 9326127609), who named the store after his daughter, has so many orders that the number of tailors and sewers he employs grows to 30-35. In the tourism slowdown after covid-19, he is down to four-five tailors, close to his off-season norm.
Just about every man I know in Goa has his shirts tailored by 62-year-old “Akram bhai”, who followed his father into tailoring. Mehdi Hasan is also locally renowned for being the tailor of regal sherwanis and occasionally bright suits and waistcoats of Jivi Sethi, who used to run a boutique hotel in Assagao until his death a few years ago. Few men were more passionate and knowledgeable about the clothes they wore than Sethi.
Customers who frequent Mehdi Hasan say he will pepper you with questions about what kind of collar you want before making even a simple cotton shirt. “Especially as I grow older, I don’t really fit into off-the-rack shirts. Half the off-the-rack shirts I buy I take to him and he fixes them for me,” says Alok Hisarwala, a lawyer and animal rights activist in Goa. When I ask Mehdi Hasan whether his rates for tailoring a suit are too low— ₹6,000 for a two-piece and ₹8,500 for one with a waistcoat—he says that since the fabric is often imported and customers pay separately for that, he prefers to keep the tailoring charges reasonable.
Missing: a support system
Shekhawat, a hotelier with properties in Jaisalmer and Bikaner, argues that as a society we do not give tailors, and indeed artisans of many stripes, the importance as well as remuneration they deserve. “Craftsmen are relegated to crafts melas. They are not treated as artists,” he says. ”If we don’t support them, their children are going to become Uber drivers and security guards.”
Shekhawat speaks with pride of one of Mohsin bhai’s creations: a hybrid European-styled military jacket with mandarin collars that also made it look like a bandhgala for the outdoors. The magazine GQ featured it a few years ago; with its large pockets, it looks perfect as a travelling jacket, while being extremely stylish.
The Jaipur tailor has also adapted britches to Shekhawat’s taste, restraining the billowing aspect around the hips. The versions Shekhawat wears have only the slightest flaring and look all the more elegant if you are wearing them to dinner parties rather than for horse-riding.
Impressed by a page about Shekhawat’s clothing choices in a men’s magazine that did not list a succession of Italian brand names, I managed to obtain Khan’s details through a friend in Delhi. On a visit to Jaipur in 2015, I met Khan, who took a fitting. A week later, he had couriered two pairs of flawless britches. To my astonishment, the college-going son of a friend decided he wanted britches as well. Thereafter, he routinely quizzed me about what material to choose for a bandhgala and how to adapt britches to his slender frame.
Having lived in Hong Kong on and off for most of the last 20 years, my longest relationship with a tailor has been with one of that city’s tribe. In a city once known for the 24-hour suit, he never offered such services. Measurements were taken afresh every time I visited. Most of my suggestions were bluntly rejected. I once asked him for a more contemporary cut to the Chinese equivalent of the bandhgala. I wanted a narrower collar, for starters. Lau, the tailor, looked sceptical. “Your head will stick out.You will look funny,” he said.
For another mandarin jacket, I had bought a military brown tweed I wanted paired with lining of Chinese self-embroidered silk that I had bought from a local crafts store. He tut-tutted about the lining, saying it would not last the way poly silk would have done, but agreed to use it. He drew the line, however, at my suggestion of using the lining on the inside of the mandarin collar. I explained that I always left my mandarin jackets open at the top and I wanted to show off the beautiful geometrics of the lining. My vanity was quickly trampled upon.”It will wear out quickly,” he said. “You are wasting my time and your money.”
If you are lucky enough to have a creative perfectionist as a tailor, my advice is, listen to them. After a while, I would routinely take friends in Hong Kong to his tailoring shop. On one occasion, a Lebanese friend had taken her son to have his school-leaving suit tailored at this unpretentious workshop. He was still growing and she wanted the suit made a little large so he could grow into it. Lau did not temper his bluntness for first-timers. I grimaced as he replied: “He will look as if he is wearing Daddy’s suit. He will wear it once and never again. You think you are saving money but you are not.” My friend laughed and recounted the tale at dinners with amusement and admiration.
In Deep Work, the writer Cal Newport quotes two academics who make the argument that such passionate engagement is typical of highly skilled artisanal work. Shekhawat makes the point that as consumers, we choose off- the-rack clothes often because “we see time more myopically than our forefathers”. When I think of the tailor down the road from me in Bengaluru, who routinely takes a month to make a shirt, I realise he is right. It has become a running joke between us. The most recent two shirts took six weeks because Narasimha had a backlog and sundry pujas to attend in his village. But they were as well made as ever in the blue Andhra ikat and pink jamdani I had selected at a pop-up in Bengaluru by Good Loom, which works with weavers.
As Shekhawat says, given the choice of enlarging our sense of community by getting to know a tailor who makes something “so intrinsic to our being”, why would anyone opt for a factory-made alternative?
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.