Asif Sabri is dressed in a rust-coloured checked woollen jacket, a black turtleneck sweater and black trousers. Sabri, 50, is a fit-looking man but it’s the sharp fit of his jacket that draws attention. He stands amid an assembly of mannequins in smart menswear: blazers with pocket squares, sharp suits with ties and tapering trousers, velvet and corduroy coats, brocade sherwanis, ethnic ensembles and Nehru bandhgalas. Fabric swatches from global luxury brands like Scabal, Loro Piana and Ermenegildo Zegna are displayed in the store.

Aasif Bespoke in New Delhi’s South Extension market has become a giant tailoring enterprise that Sabri started with one sewing machine 25 years back in a nondescript neighbourhood.

It’s been an elastic quarter-century for him: from stitching regular clothes to working with some of India’s most known designers and now, heading a large tailoring and manufacturing team with more than 50 tailors and two production factories. Today Sabri, who specializes in menswear, caters to upper middle-class customers, including those with requests like “make me a Hugo Boss suit".

The masterji, the know-all tailor as indispensable in the Indian way of life as a family doctor, trusted jeweller or priest, is no longer just an overworked man with a measuring tape. 24x7 WhatsApp availability, tailoring rate cards on websites, a readiness to reproduce designer garments at less than half the price, and innovative business strategies have widened the entrepreneurial girth of the tailoring profession.

As someone who relies on her tailor for the bulk of her wardrobe, even for what she wears when she travels abroad, Vadodara-based Deepti Sharma, who runs a proprietary consulting outfit called Finncare, is correct when she says that “the wardrobe needs of the XXL Indian remain unfulfilled by the ready-made market"—this, she says, is a big reason why tailors haven’t been robbed of their business. “The fact that more tapered trousers are made in tailoring units now is not just because they are a cheap alternative to the steep prices of premium brands or a blind craze for Western-wear, but because ready retail has been unable to offer the camouflaging solutions needed by Indian women," she adds.

Chennai-based Sruthi Kannath, who runs an eponymous label and also undertakes tailoring projects, explains how a pattern-master has become crucial to tailoring units. “A pattern-master is an intermediary between the designer and the tailor. He tells the tailor what to stitch and how. These professionals are a lot in demand," she says.

Back in New Delhi, designer Arjun Saluja would agree. “Pattern-making is the key to conceptual fashion, as in my case. So tailors who execute the vision of a designer are trained to work in a certain way. By and large, while I think the tailoring profession has become a money game due to the demand-supply inequality, there are indeed tailors who understand the evolution of the market and study by night to become professional pattern-makers," he says.

Inchitape, a personalized service in Mumbai. Photo: Devendra Parab/Mint
Inchitape, a personalized service in Mumbai. Photo: Devendra Parab/Mint

Instead of becoming irrelevant, the masterji—often male—is a sought after and much poached professional. Consider these comments. “Male customers have become fussy. They are in search of well-fitted bespoke garments which suit their body type, not possible with ready-to-wear garments," says Sabri. “Women need sensitive tailors who understand the politics between their real measurements and their imagined self-image—often the two are not the same but both must be pandered to. No Zara can do that," says New Delhi-based Bindu Kirpal, who ran a boutique for two decades.

Most countries saturated with ready-made retail and the growing influence of designers have no space for personal tailors. But here the tailors are on a high, both as Mr Fix-It and Mr Easy-to-Access. So when Kirpal says that masterjis are in short supply and their demand far exceeds availability, it is clearly an entrepreneurial loophole waiting to be plugged.

That’s exactly what Inchitape founders Neha and Neha, two namesake friends who met in Pune while studying business management, did. Currently working in private companies (they requested their surnames be withheld), they started a Web-based women’s tailoring unit in 2013 that operates in Mumbai and its suburb Powai. They send “Inchitape experts", educated girls with a basic background in tailoring, to homes to collect orders and take measurements. Detailed forms are filled out specifying sizes, fabrics, embellishment details, colours, piping, lace details, linings and silhouettes—everything that goes into the making of a bespoke garment.

The company has also tied up with eight-odd tailors with different specializations—from Indian-wear to formal work-wear—to execute customer orders. Stitched clothes are dropped off at clients’ homes. Stitching charges range from 750 for churidar suits and sari blouses, to 1,500 for dresses, and 1,700 for anarkalis.

Inchitape even offers to shop for fabric or embellishments if the client doesn’t have time. “We have conceptualized the service keeping ourselves in mind as customers," says Neha, adding that they interviewed 50-odd tailors through websites like Quikr and private references to finalize their list.

Most clients cite affordability as a prime reason for sustaining relationships with tailors. But they admit they are willing to spend big amounts for good fits, an elusive luxury in ready-made garments.

Some specialized tailors in Mumbai and Delhi, for instance, charge more than 8,000 for an anarkali kurta, almost the price of a designer separate.

For many of the female clients interviewed, the sari blouse once just a necessary part of the Indian woman’s wardrobe, is now the star. Women from cities and small towns no longer want just a blouse—they want a garment that connects them with the latest rage in Bollywood, Hindi television and designer stores. They are willing to spend as much as, if not more than, on the blouse as on the sari.

So smaller private boutiques, like the one run by Seyam Siddiqui in Bandra in Mumbai, charge 2,500 onwards for a choli, while Kannath charges 3,000 and more for what she calls “designer" blouses. Some specialized tailors in Mumbai charge up to 5,000 for one.

To assume, therefore, that all tailor-made bespoke garments would be too simplistic. At stores like Aasif Bespoke, Sabri says bespoke shirts could cost 3,500-30,000, while full suit ensembles could be over 1 lakh, depending on the luxury fabric and the style a client chooses. Fabrics from brands like Zegna, for instance, cost more than 20,000 per metre.

“Rates depend on the kind of masterji you employ, your embroiderers, investment in the finishing of garments, iron pressing, spotting guns (white petrol or solvent ejecting guns used to clean stains), overlocking machines (that lock stitches to prevent ripping), fine hemming, etc, to compete with the ready-made market," explains Kirpal. She says the most expensive garment stitched at her tailoring unit cost the client 45,000. It was a corset and sarong set for the mother of a bride from Singapore.

Designers say tailor salaries have changed enormously over the years. They are now influenced by the city they have worked in, experience, loyalty, dexterity, and whether the masterji has worked with a well-known designer. While small tailors who work from residential localities with a single sewing machine only make 7,000-10,000 a month, mostly through alterations or domestic work, the salaries of those employed in stores and boutiques range from 14,000 a month for juniors to 60,000 and above in cities, and even more for those with experience. A talented masterji working with a top designer could even get 1.5 lakh a month, or more. “Masterji politics", once just a sliver of concern in the worker unions of fashion units, is today a prickly subject—frequent poaching has made designers both insecure about, and protective of, the tailors who work for them.

But barring designers themselves, few admit on record that tailors are greatly sought after because plagiarizing fashion or recreating designs seen on retail websites itself has become a trend. Armies of tailors multiplying in the metros are dependent on copying.

Sabyasachi and Manish Malhotra copies available in the smallest city markets are a saga in themselves; they have launched many a career. Technology aids this process. “WhatsApp has single-handedly changed the tailoring business. Clients send requirements virtually while I can be in touch with my tailors who update me with work-in-progress photos," says Siddiqui.

Sabri, who created a full wardrobe for actor Shatrughan Sinha for a Bhojpuri television show, agrees that there are clients who bring a Burberry or Boss suit to replicate, but is non-committal when asked if he copies designers who are sought-after names in men’s fashion. However Jeetendra Chauhan, 40, a small tailor from Mumbai’s Kandivali area who has worked with designer Deepika Gehani in the past, accepts that his customers primarily ask him to rip off designs from designer websites or magazines.

Kannath says she often gets requests from clients asking her to replicate designer-wear, of Sabyasachi particularly, but she tries to give them variations of the look instead of an exact copy.

The tailor tale has many labyrinths. If one diverges towards innovative business strategies, another offers a cultural commentary on middle-class wardrobe trends. Consider these: “Ever since stretchable tights for women entered the Indian ready-to-wear market, there is very little demand for fabric churidars and salwars," says Sharma. As one tailor told us, they now offer to make two kurtas for the price of what was until not long ago called a “set", since most customers don’t want sets any more.

“Very few want the traditional Punjabi salwars now. It is all about long Pakistani-style kurtas, with deep slits and straight, pencil trousers as bottoms," adds Kirpal. The anarkali too is flourishing across towns. Middle-class girls from small cities, particularly, rate this as their favourite garment.

Tailors emphasize that their business is brisk because the middle class now wants more “occasion-wear". Those who can’t afford designers depend totally on the tailor for formal or ethnic-wear. The urge to socialize frequently, even in small towns, and the increased number of functions at weddings fuel this need.

Finally, as Sabri says, no men’s tailoring store, certainly not his, is oblivious to the growing clout of the Modi jacket. “What was always the Nehru bandhgala has been given a new name. Last year we were flooded with orders for the Modi jacket," says Sabri. He glances involuntarily at a section of his store where pre-stitched Modi-style waistcoats are ready for sale.

Prerna Makhija, Rachana Nakra and Karthika Nambiar contributed to this story.

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