Michael Jackson wore them. Richard Gere loves them. The inside story on how Chennai boys, Mahesh and Suresh Ramakrishnan, have become the go-to guys for bespoke suits — sought after by Italian Counts, American aristocrats, soccer stars, Hollywood celebrities and Mumbai millionaires.

Fabric bundles in a range of colours – from fire engine red to midnight blue. Dapper double-breasted suits on mannequins. Tall tables and low, focussed lighting. From behind a mound of rolled paper patterns, Chand bhai, the ‘head tailor' emerges, dusting off threads from his pale blue shirt. He rolls out a pattern, matches it with a fabric bundle and fades away into the next room where Aneesh, the ‘head finisher' is checking a charcoal grey suit inside out – not once but several times. She can't afford to compromise on the finish since each suit being despatched costs over £1, 400. From this inconspicuous unit in Mahalingapuram, Chennai, it will be couriered to Savile Row, the ultimate destination for gentleman's style.

The men behind this tailor-made success story are Mahesh and Suresh Ramakrishnan. They own Whitcomb & Shaftesbury, which has a clientele that reads like a wish list. The Whitney and Tisch families from the U.S. are repeat customers. Italian Counts and the British aristocracy admire their finesse. Boardroom-hopping Mumbai millionaires travel all the way to London to place orders. Richard Gere and Nicolas Cage flash their suits at various dos. Sachin Tendulkar, the Amritraj brothers and several soccer stars from Europe are regulars at their Savile Row establishment. Michael Jackson asked them to custom-make an Ambassador's coatee. The list goes on… but a reticent Mahesh prefers to downplay it. “People at Savile Row don't advertise their clients. Neither do we pay celebrities to wear our suits at red carpet occasions as is done by top designers in the West. It is a product made by virtuoso craftsmen, we take a lot of pride in it,” says Mahesh.

The story goes back to New York in early 2000. While Suresh was with Goldman Sachs, Mahesh was enjoying his stint at a consultancy firm. Frequent trips to suit-makers to live up to the sartorial standards of the workplace got them interested in the semantics and snobbery of bespoke tailoring. Once, they ripped open a fitted Super 100s suit just to deconstruct it and discover the different components that made it look different from the boxy ones our dads wore. Such was the passion.

Pursuing their passion

When their hearts drifted from the workplace, they simply followed suit! To Savile Row, the epicentre of British bespoke. As they walked the Row in London in 2002, they realised that custom-made was about uncompromising fit and virtuoso craftsmanship. “After seeing what was happening at the bespoke hub, I felt good quality readymade was an oxymoron. A bespoke suit requires well over a dozen measurements. It plays up your pluses and camouflages your minuses. As customers, we built a small network of people there,” says Mahesh Ramakrishnan.

Post-tsunami, their friend Jean-Francois Lesage of a famous embroidery house in Paris and Vastrakala in Chennai, invited the brothers to help out with a rehabilitation programme “Children of the World.” It involved training rural artisans for vocational crafts in the tsunami-hit coastal regions near Chennai. “We woke up to the possibilities offered by the huge communities of artisans in rural India. We could train them, use their top-quality skill and rehabilitate them. It was at this time that we also chanced upon Thomas Mahon at Savile Row. A personal cutter for the Prince of Wales, Mahon offered to help with the training. He too saw the opportunity of building a brand of English cut suits in Europe and America by working with the artisan community in India. One led to the other and we launched English Cut Made-to-Measure with Mahon as co-founder,” recalls Mahesh at his huge unit in a nondescript part of Chennai. “For bespoke needs, Suresh and I opened Whitcomb & Shaftesbury on Savile Row. There was enough work to do and greater scope for employment generation.”

So, their next stop was Tada in Andhra Pradesh. Their tsunami rehabilitation project involved intensive training for three years after which the participants were sent to master craftsmen for apprenticeship. According to Mahesh, “The Tada project launched in 2009 covered abused and deprived women. So far, 300 women have been trained under this programme, out of which 95 have moved to the next level. Most of them don't even know how to hold the needle when they come. We follow the same training standards as Savile Row with master tailors and cutters coming from there to train them. The participants are paid generous stipends and we help them find placements in cottage industries if they don't wish to go through the grind of Savile Row training.”

Huge challenges

For Mahon, one of the youngest talents in Savile Row, there are huge challenges in training rural artisans for the exacting standards of bespoke suits. “Suit makers in the U.K. don suits and jackets and also see people wear them all the time, so they have knowledge of what makes a good suit. These artisans don't have the same opportunity. So it's a bit like teaching a vegetarian chef how to cook meat. But it is all about technique and can be taught. The second challenge is to get them to believe they are craftsmen and not just workers making a living. The whole world appreciates their skill, but they have very low self-esteem.”

Talk about the apprehensions about the Made-in-India tag, and London-based Mahon says, “The biggest issue was the perception of sweat shops and people being forced into labour for very low wages. The other issue was quality. Part of our goal is to challenge these perceptions and help people realise there are high quality craftsmen making beautiful things in a lovely environment. One of the first things we did at English Cut was make a short film on the craftsmen in India, so that people could see the level of commitment and the quality of the work environment. It also allowed people to see the role that tailors at English Cut, led by head coat maker Paul Griffiths, had in the products coming out of India. People understood this was a deep collaboration, not an exercise in outsourcing.”

Having quit cushy jobs for suit-making, Mahesh and Suresh were apprehensive about sailing through the initial years. “Savile Row is a closed community. As complete outsiders it was difficult to get to know the craftsmen and build good relationships with them. Besides, because of our lack of history at the Row, getting customers was a challenge. We had to convince people we would offer the best in terms of standards and service. But once we established a reputation for quality at an elite level, things became much easier,” explains Suresh, who takes care of the operations in London.

The duo is all suited up for the future. “Currently, our products can be purchased only at Savile Row. Our next goal is to extend our reach worldwide. We are looking at partnerships with established stores that will be able to offer made-to-measure services. A readymade line is also under construction,” says Suresh. As a social entrepreneur, his brother adds, their programme for rural women will continue. “Though we get a steady inflow of work for them from the half-a-dozen companies we work with in London, we need to do more. We want these women to look at long-term careers and try to become the best of the best. In our own little way, we want to change people's perception of India and make them look at it as a quality destination, not an outsourcing place where labour, pricing and standards are compromised.”

The measure of a man

Mahesh Ramakrishnan deconstructs the making of a bespoke suit:

* A Whitcomb & Shaftesbury suit is the result of over 80 hours of expert craftsmanship. Over 20,000 individual hand stitches creates its unique structure. Every part of the construction is carried out the old-fashioned way using the hands. From cutting the cloth to stitching the final buttonhole, it is crafted by skilled individuals for whom quality is high on their radar.

* The long-drawn measurement session also involves studying the client's poise and personality.

* After the paper patterns are made and the cutter finishes his job, a full canvas is created to give the suit/jacket its shape and structure. Every canvas is made individually by hand and takes over ten hours to complete. It has thousands of stitches in silk thread. It is stitched and infused with steam in a very specific sequence to create a three dimensional shape that will then mould to the client's chest creating a more fitted and shaped look. This allows the jacket to move with its wearer and mould to their individual body.

* Normal jackets typically employ a cheaper ‘fused' or ‘half canvas' method of construction that simply glues the fabric to a layer of canvas or loosely bastes it. This technique is frowned upon in traditional tailoring circles as it produces a coat that appears flat.

* The ‘roll' on the lapels easily identifies a bespoke suit. They are soft and hold their shape without any artificial creasing or pressing. To produce a lapel of such quality calls for a high level of craftsmanship, each lapel has literally thousands of stitches that hold it in place and create the perfect roll.

* Button holes are sewn by hand using the finest silk thread to create durability.

* Pockets, whether a simple besom or the traditional ‘ticket' pocket, all have a crescent shaped stitching on either side. This serves to reinforce the seams and prevents the mouths from ‘gaping' when heavy objects are placed in them.

* With bespoke suits, what is inside is as important as what is outside.

Made in India

While launching the “Rehabilitation of Destitute and Abused Women” programme in Tada, Mahesh and Suresh Ramakrishnan had to focus on two aspects — ways to provide employment for rural women and changing their perceptions about themselves. “Because of their backgrounds, their emotional state is as fragile as egg shells. It's too much pressure for them to deliver something as perfect as an English Cut suit. People with over half-a-century experience do the quality-checks. When the parcel is returned, it can crush their egos,” says Mahesh. “So a lot of pep-talk happens. We keep reassuring them about their skills.” But with time, the women have proved that they can produce suits that live up to their definitive billing.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012