Ravi Bajaj will never forget the day he fitted Montek Singh Ahluwalia for a suit. It was many years ago, but the Delhi-based designer and suit-maker still recalls how the Planning Commission’s deputy chairman stood in front of the mirror, took one look at the finished product and told Bajaj that the left sleeve was shorter than the right. The designer measured him twice before discovering that the difference between the sleeves was one-eighth of an inch. “I appreciate discerning clients who are hard to please and I’m seeing more of them every day,” Bajaj says.
Indian men have rediscovered what their grandfathers raised in the British Raj knew—that a good suit can be the Little Black Dress of the male wardrobe.
“A suit neutralizes your look. When you wear one, you could be from anywhere in the world. You then belong to a global community,” says designer Raghavendra Rathore, who learnt his suit-wearing basics while he was studying at Mayo College.
Munesh Khanna, director at the Halcyon Group, says he wears suits on most days, as he’s still not figured out smart casuals. “I would expect people in service-related industries to be well dressed. You can be in smart casuals, but a suit signifies seriousness,” says Khanna, who favours Ermenegildo Zegna.
Over the years, the suit’s seen some tough times, but has emerged stronger than ever. Bajaj splits up the suit’s Indian existence into two eras. “The first was in the 50s and 60s, post British rule, when we still had a bit of a colonial hangover. The 70s and 80s were all about bohemian dressing, so the suit was forgotten. But it surfaced again in the 90s when foreign companies brought with them the culture of dressing up for work,” he says.
“People weren’t travelling much in the 70s, only a few had access to good tailors, so there was a huge dip in suit-wearing,” agrees Tikka Shatrujit Singh, brand advisor for Louis Vuitton in India. But there’s no denying that it’s the most important business accessory today, he says.
He’s bang on—the suit is versatile, apt for most occasions and not swayed by fashion trends (can’t say the same about your B’Berry, can you?). And a good specimen can be obtained in most budgets. Raymond’s most inexpensive custom-made suits can start from Rs3,500; at Zegna, an off-the-rack suit can go up to Rs1,50,000, while a made-to-measure piece could max at Rs4,50,000. At the Canali store in Mumbai, the best-sellers are the entry-level suits, priced at Rs60,000.
Getting the suit right is not really as difficult as one would imagine, because the Italians—who make suits just like they make wines, better than anyone else in the world—have come ashore. At Mumbai’s Hilton Towers, luxury suit-maker Brioni is opening up where the second Hugo Boss store used to sit, Canali’s been here for more than two years and will open a second store in Delhi later this year, Zegna shut their franchised store at Crossroads, Mumbai, more than a year ago, only to announce that a 3,000sq ft store would be opening soon in The Taj Mahal Palace and Tower’s heritage wing.
And they don’t mind sharing their expertise. Vimal Suitings recently got over Maurizio Bonas, a master craftsman from Florence, so he could teach the art of crafting an Italian jacket to Indian suit-makers. His big tip: The lining is as important as the suit fabric. Using a quality lining, such as Bemberg, helps give the coat a light seam. “Most tailors save costs on this and the suit is not constructed as well as it could have been,” says Bonas.
But this Italian invasion isn’t taking away from local stalwarts. Everyone knows that there’s no place like Raymond’s for a quick fix. Their tailoring department reported a 30% increase in production in the past year and the brand is adding 45 stores to the 315 that already exist.
And there’s frenetic activity going on at S. Kumars. They’ve just launched a mid-premium brand, Belmonte, with Shah Rukh Khan as brand ambassador. Reid and Taylor, their premium brand, will have 70 stores across the country by the end of March (there are about 40 currently). Come April, S. Kumars will launch British brand Stephens Brothers, one of the outfitters to the Prince of Wales, as their contribution to the super-premium segment and will also open a Dunhill store, the luxury brand with which they have a franchisee agreement.
If you want designer endorsement, there’s Bajaj, Shahab Durazi and Narendra Kumar. Ashwin Deo, managing director of Moet Hennessy India, says his collection only has Indian suits, made by Bajaj, Kumar and Arjun Khanna. “They make suits with a fantastic fit and finish. They’re priced much lower than a Savile Row suit, but are the same quality,” he says. Mohammed Khan, chairman of Bates Enterprise, doesn’t agree. “I’m not being snobbish, but I’ve never seen a good suit made in India. When you get a bespoke suit made in London, you understand what a suit is about,” he says.
Whatever your preference, there’s really no excuse for wearing an ill-fitting suit. As Singh says, “Your suit can’t be shoddy. If you can’t take care of yourself, what business will you do?”
Today, business is what most have in mind while ordering a suit. “Since most men today wear their jackets all day, comfort has become key,” says O.P. Grover, of the Grover Cloth House in the Capital, who’s been keeping close track of the changes. “Earlier, suits were made of heavy fabric and each jacket weighed around six to seven kilos,” he says. “Now, like the Europeans, Indians want suits to be made in natural, lightweight fabrics, so the jackets weigh about 2.5 kilos,” he says.
Smaller bespoke suit-makers like Vaish at Rivoli—family-run concerns that have witnessed the evolution of the Indian man and his suit first-hand—are the best way to track changes in suit habits. “Here, styles are dictated by the body type of the individual rather than what Rohit Bal or any other designer has forecast for the season. Our clients trust us to hide their flaws and highlight their strengths,” says 34-year-old Sachin Vaish, a third-generation suit-maker. His Savile Row-trained grandfather set up Vaish at Rivoli in New Delhi in the 1940s, and has clothed Indian maharajas and British Army officers (see Page 14: Three ways to suit yourself).
Vaish says pinstripes and checks have never been hotter than today, while Bonas predicts the shirt jacket will be the latest revolution. “What differentiates Italian jackets from the rest of the world is the fact that they are lightweight, allow easy movement across the shoulders and are leaner as you go down,” he says. This version is ideal to wear all day long, as opposed to English-style jackets, which are stiffer and more constructed.
Khan of Bates Enterprise shares his biggest peeve: “Indians shouldn’t be seen dead in brown. It’s a colour that doesn’t suit us,” he stresses. Khanna of Halcyon says he’s been told that his colour preferences are atrocious. “People say that as a serious banker, I shouldn’t be wearing a light suit,” he laughs. “So I have changed a bit, but not completely.”
A point Rathore and Bajaj can’t stress enough is not to veer too far from the classic. “I still wear suits from 15 years ago,” says Bajaj. Rathore feels that a suit with too much decoration is a gimmick. “You don’t have to look far for inspiration. Our ancestors were definitely more stylish. Investigate how your grandfather dressed,” he says.
Delhi-based businessman and owner of the Paradox interior design stores, Naveen Ansal, has done just that and it’s served him well. “I picked up the basics from my father, Tek; he was always in a suit,” says Ansal, who started wearing one when he was in college. “My sense of style is experimental, like my dad’s. He wore bell bottoms; I’m fond of tweed and suits with white lapels,” he says.
Deo of Moet started his suit wearing with an altered hand-me-down from his dad. Today, he wears one almost every day and follows one rule: “Being slightly plump, I opt for dark suits,” he laughs. If it’s double breasted, that’s an added bonus.
Seema Chowdhry Sharma contributed to this article.