When President Vladimir Putin visits India later this month there is a good chance some members of the Russian delegation will be wearing suits custom made by Moscow’s premier tailor — Sammy Kotwani of Indian origin.
Among Mr. Kotwani’s customers are Russian ministers, business tycoons and showbiz celebrities, as well as a handful of Presidents of neighbouring countries, including Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Armenia. His salon is strategically located within Moscow’s “golden mile,” a stone’s throw from the Kremlin.
Mr. Kotwani came to Russia when other foreigners were leaving a nation that seemed to be on the brink of economic and political collapse. He stuck with Russia during those early years and persisted in doing what he knew best — offer high-quality tailoring services. Today, Mr. Kotwani’s Imperial Tailoring Co not only dominates the Russian market of men’s tailored suits, but is rated among the world’s best tailoring companies. It placed seventh on the list of top 10 international tailors compiled by askmen.com, the world’s largest men’s lifestyle website.
It took Mr. Kotwani 20 years to rise to the top of his trade and his road to success was not strewn with roses. A qualified tailor with experience of working in Hong Kong, Africa and Europe, Mr. Kotwani came to Russia in 1990 when the Soviet Union was on its last legs. It was not the best time to start a business in Russia, let alone such an upscale one as bespoke tailoring.
He witnessed the fall of the great Soviet empire, survived the post-Soviet economic meltdown, and saw at close range the tank bombardment of the rebellious Russian Parliament by troops loyal to President Boris Yeltsin.
Kotwani was robbed at gunpoint on his doorstep in 1991, had his car stolen on the very day he bought it in 1993, and lost most of his expat clientele in the massive financial crash of 1998. But he never despaired. “I’ve been always successful in times of crisis,” Sammy said. “Crisis gives me a wakeup call.”
When many foreign customers of Imperial Tailoring left Russia in the wake of the 1998 crisis, Sammy decided to shift his focus to Russians. After all, he thought, Russia’s climate is ideal for the suit-making business: in contrast to India or Africa, one can sell suits 12 months a year in Russia.
Mr. Kotwani has built his business “by word of mouth,” slowly creating a niche for himself through customer satisfaction. A stickler for quality, Sammy offers his customers a choice of 10,000 British and Italian woollens. He takes more than 30 measurements to ensure each suit is a perfect fit for the client, calls back his suits every six months for free dry cleaning and ironing, and provides free alterations if the client gains or loses weight.
Today, Mr. Kotwani, who has just turned 43, and his two brothers and “all the cousins,” run salons in five Russian cities, as well as in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Armenia.
The tailoring business, which practically disappeared in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is coming back again, but Imperial Tailoring holds on to its dominant position in the Russian market of luxury clothes. Every month the company makes about 500 suits, each carrying a minimum price tag of $2,000.
Having dressed thousands of Russians, Mr. Kotwani aspires to be a guru of style and good taste for much larger audiences here. Next year he is planning to lecture MBA students in Moscow on the art of dressing elegantly.
Mr. Kotwani’s one big disappointment is that Indo-Russian trade and economic ties have so far failed to take off in a big way. “There are huge possibilities for Indians in Russia, provided they come here, not for a quick buck, but for a long-haul journey,” he opines.
As for himself, Mr. Kotwani has settled in Russia for good with his Indian wife and three daughters. He has even applied for Russian citizenship. He hopes the Russian passport will help him realise his ultimate dream: dress up President Putin.