A group of Chennai tailors, who had lost their livelihood in the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, have found work at the most unusual place - Savile Row – the London street famous for bespoke tailoring for men.
Traditionally, all suits (from the Row) are to be sold within 50 yards of its London setting. It is not uncommon however, for stores to outsource the sewing of their cut suit to craftsmen in other countries. Mahesh and Suresh Ramakrishnan, brothers and owners of Whitcomb & Shaftesbury—a store on the Row—have employed this method, sourcing some of their stitching to their hometown, Chennai. Since 2006, they have been providing a lifeline to the hundreds who lost everything in the tsunami. The brothers also work to provide employment to underprivileged rural women in their home state.
Today, the duo has trained over 300 people and employed over 130 workers in Tamil Nadu.
Bespoke tailoring caters to a clientele who want their clothing made to individual specifications. The buyer has the ultimate say in all aspects of a bespoke suit, including its cut, fabric and features.
The Chennai project in Mahalingapuram took shape when Frenchman Jean-François Lesage walked into the Whitcomb & Shaftesbury store in London for a suit and struck up a conversation with the brothers. Lesage, who has been involved with charities such as the Children Of The World project, recommended that the identical twins help provide employment to these victims.
Whitcomb & Shaftesbury has a dream clientele that includes Richard Gere and Mick Jagger to the late Michael Jackson, and Vijay Amritraj, among others.
“A famous rock musician had us create a secret pocket in his suits to stash certain chemicals that would then survive airport pat-downs,” reveals Mahesh.
“A business tycoon wanted the name of his company in 22-karat-gold woven into a pinstripe for his suit.” The Chennai workers have accommodated these unusual requests flawlessly into the exacting standards of Savile Row.
“We were one of the sponsors in the Children of The World, and looked at rebuilding life through food sustenance and education, amidst other facets,” says Mahesh. “From there we set up the workshop, and we covered village by village till we realised we needed to pull out, or do something else.” The brothers then started the Rehabilitation of Destitute and Abused Women’ Programme in Tada, Andhra Pradesh.
A team of tailors from London is sent every six weeks to train the Mahalingapuram-based workforce. “All our tailors also undergo a 2-3-year training programme, and are only allowed to join our workshop once they have been certified by our master tailor, Robert Biggs, after a rigorous test,” says Mahesh.
The women’s programme is slightly different: the training is run in three-month shifts and graduates from basic skills such as sewing buttons to fixing collars and shirts. If willing and capable, they are also moved to the Chennai-based outfit.
19-year-old Yellama is one of the 900 women that have been trained here (over the course of time, the brothers have employed over 140 women and have 65-70 currently, most of whom are between 17 to 20 years of age). The sole breadwinner for her family of three sisters and one brother – the youngest in her family – she has been working here for two years.
“I am very comfortable here and will continue work for three years,” she says. “Earning Rs 4,000 every month has helped support my family immensely and I know I can survive through whatever I have learnt here.” V. Suresh, the manager at Tada, says that a lot of women leave to get married, and cannot return if their villages are far away. “The ones who live close by, come back. But the others set up their own little outfits from home to help tailoring shops: of course the quality of our work is matchless, so it is easy for them to find work.”
“These people, most of whom have never even held a needle in their life, have developed their skills at an extraordinary rate,” says Mahesh. “Even though only a tenth of the trainees stick on to become master craftsmen, which is no small cost to us (the operation costs £250,000 annually and is fully funded by the brothers), it is a rewarding experience as most of them go on to open their own outfits.”
The brothers would like to train and employ 7,500 women over a 15-year period, but find it challenging, given the monetary constraints and the location of the villages from the main outfit.
Even the Mahalingapuram outfit lies 60-70 kilometres from the outskirts of Chennai, and Mahesh who oversees the operations would drive there every day and back. “We’ve found that women in rural India are heavily discriminated against, particularly ones who have children,” says Mahesh. “It is much easier for the men and youngsters to find work, whereas these women are regarded as a huge burden on their families that leads to domestic abuse and violence, as well as other social ills.”
The project also aims to empower women, not just through employment, but also by taking care of their accommodation, food and transport and counselling them when necessary.
These employees have designed suits for stars such as Surya and Rajinikanth, a story that they are never tired of telling.
E Kasinatham, 34 and Tamala Selval, 24 have been working with the outfit for the last 6-7 years.
They are both fishermen who lost their homes and their boats in the tsunami, and were absorbed by the company. “When we came, we knew nothing,” says Tamala.
Today, these two men are the best coat makers in Chennai, drawing a stipend of Rs 16,000 and are assured of a bright future wherever they go (although they have no plans of leaving). They have hand stitched clothes for Amritraj and members from the Buckingham Palace. They remember each of their clients perfectly. “Knowing that celebrities all over the world are wearing their clothes gives them a lot of pride,” says Mahesh. “And we never sell our products on the basis of it coming from a charitable programme – it is sold purely on merit.”
On an average, a suit from Whitcomb & Shaftesbury is priced at approximately £3,000 (Rs 2.97 lakh), and takes over 60 hours to make by hand. Suits crafted in London are categorised under Savile Row Bespoke, and ensembles stitched in Chennai under Classic Bespoke, are offered at roughly half the cost. But there is no difference or compromise in the finesse of the tailoring process. “Our premier offering will always remain a full Savile Row bespoke experience, whether or not the garment is partially or fully furnished in India, based on a customer’s personal preferences and budget,” concludes Mahesh.
Whitcomb & Shaftesbury is also available at the Bengaluru, Chennai and Delhi Evoluzione retail stores in India. Two months ago, the company collaborated with designer Tarun Tahiliani to stitch his designed outfits.