A stitch in time
Clean-cut and sharply finisheda 108-year-old bespoke menswear tailoring store in Kolkata looks to the future
When the American film-maker Wes Anderson heard the music of the Kolkata-based dream pop duo Parekh & Singh, he loved their sound. What struck Anderson as much was the band’s fashion statement—cheesy hipster suits that complemented the deadpan expressions of the duo and added mystique to their hazy, lo-fi sound.
Clean-cut and sharply finished, these suits looked straight out of Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which won four Academy Awards, including one for best costume design.
“I like it and I like them! And their suits. Where was all of this shot, Sanjay?" Anderson wrote in 2016 to his steady-cam operator Sanjay Sami, who had shared the video of Parekh & Singh’s song I Love You Baby, I Love You Doll with him.
It is remarkable that a corner shop in Kolkata could tailor suits that caught the attention of Anderson. His praise brought instant fame to the low-key but iconic Barkat Ali & Bros, but it isn’t surprising: The design aesthetics of the 108-year-old store have appealed to generations of city residents and outsiders, a clientele as varied as the late Bengali star Uttam Kumar, former chief minister Jyoti Basu, the Thapar family of the KCT Group, politician Shashi Tharoor, media personalities Aveek Sarkaar and M.J. Akbar, and cricketer Yusuf Pathan. It’s a fixture in a city that is losing the battle against economic liberalization. Fittingly, Barkat Ali specializes in suits which are considered by many to be relics.
The founder of the store, Barkat Ali, who was born in Sialkot, Pakistan, in the late 1880s, moved to Kolkata as a young boy to tailor uniforms for the British army. He began the store, which was originally a stable space for army horses, from The Grand Hotel (now The Oberoi Grand) on Chowringhee Road in 1910.
It’s now run by Barkat Ali’s grandsons, Sheraz and Sarfraz Ali. Their father Haji Haider Ali, who died in 2015, had married Barkat Ali’s daughter Zubeida Begum. The brothers Sheraz and Sarfraz, who are in their 50s, have been involved in the business since their college days.
The store’s shiny marbled floor, clinically white ceiling lights and neat stacks of fabric give the sense of orderliness that one associates with modern retail. But the store retains some of its old-world charm. At the far end, behind a large wooden table, Sheraz is artfully snipping away at a powder-blue plaid fabric with a pair of iron scissors, a measuring tape around his neck, and glasses that have slid to the tip of his nose.
There are hardly any salesmen. While Sheraz takes care of the measurements and cutting, Sarfraz handles trials and sales. Despite their 30 tailors, both brothers are actively involved with the craft. The store has no branches. This isn’t entirely surprising, considering its attention to detail and demanding clients like the Kolkata-based industrialist S.K. Birla, who has been their customer for six decades now.
“He is one customer who is fussy to the tune of one-eighth of an inch. When I design his three-button suits, he tells me exactly how much each button needs to be exposed," says Sheraz, who enjoys the labour and craft that produces precision.
Sitting in his 15th-floor office on RN Mukherjee Road in a sharp dark grey Barkat Ali suit, Birla says he used to get most of his suits made abroad, especially in Hong Kong. “The tailor would tell me the finer points of the fitting and the suit, and then I became very particular. I would come back and tell Sheraz to incorporate them, and he did. Even at the moment, he is making me a suit," says Birla, who has been fond of suits since college.
Jivraj Singh, 31, one half of Parekh & Singh, was introduced to Barkat Ali only three years ago. Since then, he has bought eight suits, seven of which are for the duo’s music videos. Their wardrobe, says Singh, has candy-coloured suits in teal, mustard, white and ruby.
“They (Barkat Ali) enjoy obsessive attention to detail, just like we do. Getting a bespoke suit made is one of the ultimate detail-oriented experiences. It feels more like engineering than shopping," says Singh.
In popular culture, suits have often been used to underscore the seriousness and success of strong male characters. Take, for example, Marlon Brando’s electrifying Vito Corleone and his perfect tuxedos in The Godfather (1972), or Shah Rukh Khan’s badassery in Don (2006). In the West, advertising mogul Don Draper from the TV series Mad Men and lawyer Harvey Specter from Suits have taught us that power dressing is everything. Or, take literature: Jay Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby learnt the ways of the rich and the famous, threw parties, drove expensive cars and of course, wore pink suits.
It’s not always about seriousness though. The Beatles and Ray Charles were nearly always seen in clean-cut suits. Bonnie Barrow from Bonnie and Clyde, who drove fast cars, robbed and killed people for a living, posed for pictures against a vintage Ford in a full suit with guns. Even artist Andy Warhol was often spotted in suits and ties.
Suits also became aspirational clothing for the Indian middle and upper classes. They represented the “dress for the job you want, not for the one you have" idea, until, of course, Apple’s Steve Jobs, in his black turtlenecks and blue jeans, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg redefined corporate attire.
However, people like Rajiv Chawla, a businessman and second-generation customer of five decades, ensure that Barkat Ali has no shortage of business. “All gentlemen of substance and repute came to Barkat Ali for their suit," he says.
Chawla and his son are getting suits tailored for his daughter’s wedding. Inspecting his reflection in the mirror, he finds a minute fault on the elbow crease of his right sleeve that the tailor fixes almost immediately. While waiting, he reminisces about a time in the 1970s when the store recommended buying two trousers instead of one because trousers are used more frequently and wear out faster than jackets.
A customer typically makes three visits to the shop—the first to select the fabric and give measurements, the second, for a fitting, and the third, to collect the suit. “Usually, five measurements are enough for a blazer but we take 10 because we want to get everything right in one trial," says Sheraz, who studied tailoring at the postgraduate level in London.
Different masters specialize in shirts, sherwanis, slim-fit suits for young men, and classic cuts for the older generation. They started catering to women in the 1980s-90s and do Western formals—A-line skirts, blazers, and pantsuits—on request. Some of their high-end fabric is sourced from Italy and they don’t offer a thread count of more than super 150 because delicate fabrics are difficult to hand stitch. Tailoring prices go up every two years: Right now it’s ₹ 7,200 for a two-piece suit, ₹ 8,800 for a three-piece suit, and ₹ 550 for a shirt. Fabric charges are additional. Women get a 10% discount.
Two things are particularly important: fitting and finishing. The fitting is taken care of by the masters, including Sheraz, and the finishing by the tailors. Despite efforts to preserve handwork, modernization has altered the entire experience of tailoring.
There is a workshop as big as the 1,600 sq. ft store on the floor above. About 30 Singer sewing machines bought 25 years ago are used to stitch the garments. But, says Sheraz: “Earlier, the tailors were proud of their work. They brought down the suit to hang it, admired it from all angles, examined it for mistakes, and then delivered it. Now they don’t have time to even bring it down. Technology has destroyed the art of tailoring," he says.
Akbar Hussain, 45, a tailor who has worked at the store for several decades, explains that the main structure of the garment is stitched with a foot pedal sewing machine. Everything else, including buttonholes, linings, and the inside of the pockets is stitched slowly by hand, blending seamlessly with the fabric. His father, who worked at Barkat Ali for 50 years, taught him the craft at a time when every bit of a suit was created by hand.
Recently, a customer walked into the store with an inherited Barkat Ali suit from 1953, in mint condition, and requested the same degree of craftsmanship. Sheraz couldn’t offer it. Another client dropped by to collect a favourite navy-blue suit, tailored in 1988, that he had wanted altered. After 30 years of regular use, it needed minor modifications: a few centimetres loosened around the waist, a couple of inches relaxed around the abdomen, and jacket buttons replaced. Such was his trust in the craft of Barkat Ali that he walked out without even trying it and promised to return for a new garment.
Aritra Sarkar, 42, a former vice-president of the ABP Group, owns 10 Barkat Ali suits. He compares Barkat Ali to Flurys (Park Street’s famous bakery) because of its international standard of tailoring. Barkat Ali’s customers are not limited to Kolkata, or, for that matter, India—the store has found a client base at the 100-something-year-old Grand Hotel where many non-resident Indians and foreign tourists stay, and the store sometimes delivers in two days.
Sheraz equates his store with those on Savile Row, a street in London’s affluent Mayfair neighbourhood popular for traditional bespoke tailoring. In Kolkata, Barkat Ali has competition from dressmakers such as Srimaan, Saharsh, and Sood (formerly Burlington’s) in the Park Street neighbourhood and high-end brands such as Italy-based Canali in Quest Mall, but it has still carved, and maintained, a niche.
However, Barkat Ali now depends largely on people who patronize it for occasions: Indian Institute of Management aspirants getting ready for interviews; students going abroad to study; typical “big Indian families" at weddings; health-conscious young men who diet, work out, and need slim-fit suits that fit faultlessly; and Kolkata’s affluent community of industrialists and celebrities.
“This is like the food business—if you’re not able to survive, you’ll shut down, but if you offer what you promise and people like it, then that’s it," Sheraz says.