It is not zeenia, Sidin. It is zane-ya. Ermenegildo Zane-ya!”
My colleague, who covers high fashion and suchlike, frowned as she severely reprimanded my proletariat business Italian.
And thus, I was sent forth into the perilous world of luxury suits. A world where prices are an inconvenient element of the conversation and pocket squares lead to debates not unlike those about the West Asian peace process. In this merciless world, all that stands between high fashion and eternal sartorial damnation is one, solitary pleat.
In the normal course of things, I am your regular guy when it comes to dressing. When I wake up in the morning, I choose my accoutrements using a simple three-step decision-making process. Question 1: Is it dry? At least in the crotch? Question 2: Can it go without ironing? Question 3: Has the missus left for work?
A triple positive leads to immediate wearing. Colour matching and contemporary fashion be damned.
Therefore, when I was asked to go and scope out this entire “made to measure” (MTM) and “bespoke” suit brouhaha, I was mildly perturbed. Not that I don’t have a basic understanding of men’s suits. I own three full suits, all crafted by that super dependable guy at the Reid and Taylor outlet near Flora Fountain. There’s something in that man’s fingers that broadens shoulders, hides love handles and tightens posteriors.
Yet, I was wary when I made my calls to the Brioni, Manzoni and Zegna showrooms to book my fitting appointments. There would be no actual purchase of suits alas (I can’t. The paper won’t. Imagine the fringe benefit tax!). Still, I had to tête-à-tête with experts in the business. These are guys who do nothing but make and talk suits all day long.
The Italian job
The Zegna showroom is located within the gleaming corridors of The Taj Mahal Palace and Tower. The store is all minimalist European metal and glass. Everything at right angles to everything. Little wooden rings to hold ties together. One regulation BlackBerry-toting foreign businessman type browses through the shirts as I wait for my contact to appear.
The classic two-button, two-pocket, cuffed-trouser look.
Owais Sheikh, MTM coordinator at Zegna, is himself a dashing ambassador for the brand. He is tall, 6ft-ish, and sharp in his Zegna suit. Sheikh also has the disarming smile and pleasant diction of a man who routinely makes customers who come for a pair of socks leave with a suit or two.
“My mind begins processing as soon as you enter the store. The way you stand, sit, your posture, your walk. Before I measure, I observe. I already know what to look for in your fitting.” While Sheikh begins to explain the Zegna way, I look at myself in the mirror. And prepare for the worst.
After Sheikh mentally evaluates me, he disappears into the mysterious bowels of the store. Moments later, he emerges with a set of three suit bags. The bags contain what are called master garments. Default fits, if you will. “The master garments come in various sizes and drops. I should be able to fit you into one of these three.” I nod along numbly before reminding myself of that age-old adage: If you don’t know and don’t ask, you are an idiot.
“Your suit is a combination of two key measures: suit size and drop. The suit size depends on the size of your chest. The drop then tells me what the difference is between your chest and your waist. And that gives me a rough idea of what size jacket you’ll fit into. Then I look at what the length of the jacket should be: short, regular or long. The trousers come later.”
We go into a fitting room with several mirrors on pivots. He first drapes a size 58 jacket over me. “A quick way to know your suit size is to add 16 to your waist size in inches,” Sheikh says. I immediately decide that I will sacrifice journalistic honesty at the altar of marital bliss. Irrespective of what happens, I will report that I fit into a size 56 suit.
The size 58 is a tad too big (I swear!). The size 56 garment fits me much better. I secretly notice that Sheikh had brought out a size 60, too.
Once you know your suit size, you try various “drops” till something fits around your chest and waist reasonably well. Sheikh disappears and reappears with a range of drops. A 56-drop-7 fits me perfectly. While he quickly makes a few nips and tucks here and there, using a cool wristband-pincushion, I ask him what happens next.
“After we get your measurements, we ask you to choose fabric, buttons, linings and anything else you might need customized. Zegna is an excellent maker of suit fabrics, too, by the way. Some of the world’s best brands use our wool and wool blends.”
I ask him what the cool suit options for this season are. “Browns are always good. And the young banker types are going in for flashy linings. The suits themselves look formal and subdued. The linings add a little colour.” He shows me linings in burgundy, electric blue and a retina-burning fluorescent yellow that haunts me to this day when I close my eyes.
After you decide on all your eccentric little options for the suit—purple lining and button fly, maybe—the entire information, measurements and all, is emailed to the factory at Locarno in Switzerland.
“We promise delivery within five-six weeks. Sometimes there is a delay when the suit has to be cleared by customs. Sometimes I need to go myself and clear them.” Sheikh spends a lot of time herding his suits around. There is only one Zegna showroom in India, and he flies around the country a fair bit taking measurements, delivering suits, and so on. Customers normally pay for his tickets.
Some customers can be pretty mysterious. One enigmatic gentleman called the Zegna store one day and asked for a house visit. Sheikh had to decline because the customer lived somewhere in deep rural Maharashtra. The customer then despatched an existing suit, for reference, with his “people”, who promptly picked up the finished product a month and a half later. The client never left a name. Merely a set of initials.
If customizing suits excites you, then you are in luck. Zegna allows you to hand-pick your shirt as well. And if you can’t pick one from the 400 on display, your individual tie too. All for a price, of course. I briefly contemplate buying the cheapest thing in the Zegna store—a thousand-rupee roll-on deo—and then drop the idea. As I begin to leave, Sheikh tells me I might want to buy a Zegna iPod cover in leather. No thanks, I tell him, it’s only a thousands bucks cheaper than my iPod itself.
Armed with new knowledge (56-drop-7), I am all set to hit the next premium clothier on my list: Manzoni.
Two-piece suits: Rs1.5-4 lakh
Fit first, fashion later
The wonderful people at Manzoni are hardly perturbed by the Italians and their fashion fixation. The suit should be all about the wearer—I am told when I go there—it should be about making him look like a million bucks. If the Milanese will frown upon your lapel and your double pleats…too bad.
The Manzoni store is adequately swanky with mellow piped music, ceiling-embedded lights and “rolled up silk tie in a shoe” type displays that ooze class and unaffordability. Though Manzoni has only been offering bespoke suit-making since January, they tell me that sales have been brisk. I soon find out why.
Manzoni: The outlet at Napean Sea Road, Mumbai.
We sink into a set of comfy sofas on the top floor. A cup of masala chai appears magically. Relax, the cheery salespeople tell me, and tell us what kind of suit you want. I have no intention of making this easy. “I have no idea. You tell me. What do you think will look good on moi?”
A saleswoman quickly measures me up. She lingers on the strong cheekbones and brilliant facial structure (who can blame her?). She thinks aloud about the fact that I work in media. That is creative work and I could afford to get a little creative with my suit too. Not too much though, I might be interacting with people in important places. CEOs, ministers and high-power individuals like that.
They ask me to stand up and maintain my usual posture. A measuring tape appears. I offer some information: “I normally wear pleated pants, you know. It gives me room around the hips.”
Immediately, a collective frown descends upon the proceedings. I should be wearing flat fronts, she tells me. That will make me look narrower at the hips and my pants will flare out less at the sides. She is right, of course. My existing suit trousers can effortlessly take a cellphone, an iPod and a paper book, all in one side pocket.
But then, she quickly adds, it is entirely up to me.
And that’s the key Manzoni philosophy. Each person has an entirely unique build, the saleswoman tells me, you can’t just make master garments, say, in Italy and expect Indians to fit into them. No number of variants can get you the fitting and finish a bespoke suit does, she says. Complete wearer comfort comes only from bespoke. Manzoni delivers your ultra-personal bespoke suit in two weeks.
I immediately have two questions. Isn’t “bespoke” just a fancy word for what my usual tailor does? He starts with a set of measurements and raw fabric too. And why go for Manzoni, a new brand with very young heritage, when there’s a Zegna or a Brioni? The next morning, I throw both my questions at Shreyas Joshi, president, Raymond Apparels.
“Our craftsmen are as good as anyone in the world. Our fabric is completely imported and half the suit is handmade,” says Joshi. According to Joshi, around 10% of Manzoni’s buyers are foreigners. “At Manzoni prices, our suits, shirts and accessories are great value.”
As I leave the store, I quickly note down my Manzoni recommendations: 112 size jacket, thin pinstripes not too far apart, two-button, double-vent, no cuff, low-slung trousers and a light brown or light grey shirt. She says I can use my Daffy Duck and “little footballs” tie if I have to.
Of course, I have to.
Two-piece suits: Rs45,000/60,000/1,00,000
Dressed to kill
No doubt there are many similarities between this writer and James Bond. Like the famous filmi jaasoos (detective), I too possess dashing good looks (according to my mother), have a way with the ladies (during moments of personal rumination) and regularly save the world (on my PlayStation).
But we differ when it comes to one important characteristic: clothing. Bond wears sharp Brioni suits, while yours truly once single-handedly dressed his entire class for the “Goa Beach Party” segment of the inter-class fashion show competition. We won hands down.
Brioni, Lancy D’silva tells me, is the Rolls-Royce of suits. D’silva is store manager of the Brioni outlet at The Oberoi. At first sight, it looks like any of the shiny, marble-y stores that occupy the shopping arcade. Shirts on racks, luggage placed in spotless store windows and cubbyholes full of ties. But then, I am ushered into the VIP room and that impression changes quickly.
Brioni: The white door that leads to the exclusive VIP room at the Mumbai store.
As I lounge on the sofa and fight the tendency to switch on the widescreen LCD TV, I ask D’silva who he thinks is a worthy competitor to Brioni. He makes a genuine effort, thinking quietly for a few moments, before shrugging his shoulders. “We could possibly be the best suit makers in the world.”
Now that the question of brand leadership is settled, D’silva, a no-nonsense man who speaks little but takes great visible joy and pride in his suits, guides me through the process of buying for myself, albeit imaginarily, a Brioni suit.
“First, we make you wear one of our off-the-rack jackets. We don’t use master garments here. Our ready-made jackets are references in themselves.” Brioni currently offers MTM services to customers in India. Like Zegna, once the measurements are done, the details are sent to the Brioni factory in Penne, Italy. The garments take a total of 25 man-hours of work before they are shipped back to India in four-five weeks. And, as may be expected, you get to embellish your suits with a choice of linings, buttons, monograms, and so on.
Quite satisfied with all the bells and whistles, I ask D’silva to measure me. He asks me to stand up. After a few moments of thought, he utters: “You look like a 56-drop-7 to me.” I am dumbfounded. He didn’t even pick up a measuring tape. He did that just by looking at me from a distance of 12ft or so. I am both shaken and stirred.
As we walk to a rack of jackets, D’silva predicts the problems I could have. “You will probably get a little wrinkle behind your shoulder. The sleeves may need a little trimming and one shoulder will need extra padding.” He drapes a ‘Parlamento’ model jacket in rich brown over my shoulders. And, instantly, I am in love. Everything is perfect. Except for the wrinkle behind my shoulder, the length of sleeves and uneven shoulders.
D’silva is turning into some sort of suit god in my eyes. I ask him where he learnt the art. “I used to work as a store manager in a manufacturing company in Abu Dhabi,” he says. D’silva, who tinkered with sewing machines as a hobby, began making ladies clothes after work. He also made his own clothes. Soon, friends began asking him to make suits for them.
I ask D’silva if the suit he is wearing is handmade. He grins and nods. “I made it myself.” He then begins to lay out jacket after jacket on a glass table to show me why they fit so well and what makes Brioni suits so special.
At some point in the conversation a chauffeur of a customer walks in with an envelope and hands it over to D’silva, who nods and says that delivery will happen as planned. And then he quietly slips the envelope into the inside of his suit jacket (of course, I know who the buyer was. Of course, I will get sued if I say anything more).
Normally, due to my advanced musculature, my suit jacket tends to gape all over the place: behind the neck, over the chest and above the tummy. Basically, everywhere.But my Brioni jacket has none of these issues. I keep the jacket on, hoping he will forget. I may have uttered “Jacket...my precious” a few times.
“These suits also last for years. I recently altered a 15-year-old suit which was being passed from father to son,” D’silva says Brioni alters its suits free of charge for the life of the garment.
We then begin to hunt for a shirt and tie that will go with my suit. A peach shirt is chosen and, soon, D’silva picks out a tie for only Rs13,500 that seems made for the shirt. Throw in a wallet and I have my complete Brioni ensemble of choice. The fruits of suit-seeking labour lay before me on the glass table. Total cost? A cool Rs4 lakh, plus small change.
“Perhaps when you get your bonus this year you must come and buy one!” D’silva says.
Of course, I say as I begin to pack up to leave. That, and maybe one of them kidneys on the black market. As I begin to leave, D’silva has one final point to make. “We hope you enjoyed the experience.” I nod vigorously. And then he nods at my jacket. I sigh, shrug out of it and hand it over.
As I walk back through the hotel lobby and out into the street, one question lingers in my mind: “How many kidneys does a guy really need?”
Two piece suits: Rs2.5-14 lakh
Confused by all the suit jargon? Equip yourself before you get measured
Off the rack
The basic, uncomplicated type of suit. You pick it off the rack, try it on, alter it here and there if necessary, and voila, your suit is done. Premium brands make outstanding ready-made suits. Yet what you are wearing is a mass-produced product. True luxury lies further ahead.
Made to measure (MTM)
The first step in personalization. MTM begins with a set of master garments in a range of carefully graded sizes. You try on one after the other till you get the size that fits you best. All the alterations required are noted down and sent to a master tailor in Italy, Switzerland or any other country. The tailor has access to several suit “blanks” in your master garment size. He picks one up and makes all the changes you need, and the suit is despatched, in due course, complete with flashy lining, monogram—the works. MTM services normally add a 15-20% premium on the rack price of a similar suit.
The ultimate in customized clothing. Your suit remains merely rolls of fabric and a gleam in the tailor’s eye till you open your wallet. The suit is crafted from scratch and designed to fit your figure and requirements perfectly. The fabric, styling, embellishments and finish are entirely for you to obsess over. But bespoke comes at a price. Be prepared for an outlay that is at least 25% higher than a similar ready-made piece.
The high-end brands offer home service for measurements and delivery, and normally extend a lifetime guarantee for all alterations.