Can a Shirt Made in India Beat Savile Row?

Can a Shirt Made in India Beat Savile Row?

PUNJAB, India — Sunita Devi, an embroiderer at 100Hands, was working on a shirt, her stitching so beautiful that it prompted a compliment from this reporter. Ms. Devi acknowledged it with a smile, before turning her attention back to the task at hand.

Were these floral patterns a nod to commissions by maharajahs who once ruled this state? Or was this regional phulkari embroidery (a form of cross-stitch), made for a bridal trousseau and treasured for generations?

Neither, it turned out. Ms. Devi was sewing a buttonhole with nearly invisible stitches. Each one takes 40 minutes and has more than 100 stitches per inch; other shirtmakers that specialize in this kind of clothing would likely have 40 or 60. Each shirt takes up to 35 hours to make, and tailoring aficionados who obsess over the most exacting details in a cuff, a button-down collar or a hand-stitched hem have described 100Hands shirts as some of the finest in the world.

The burning yellow fields of Punjab are not where you might expect to find master patternmakers, cutters, tailors and embroiderers making the rarefied men’s wear usually associated with Savile Row or renowned shirtmakers of France and Italy. Yet, at 100Hands’ spacious, well-lit production facility on the outskirts of the North Indian city famed for its sacred golden temple that narrative is changing, one shirt at a time.

“Over eight years ago, we started with 20 artisans and five staff members,” said Akshat Jain, 40, who with his wife, Varvara Jain, founded 100Hands. “Today, we are 265 full-time employees.” They are also planning to expand further, with a new space.

Mohammad Samiriddin, a master pattern cutter, has been making shirts for more than 45 years and has been with 100Hands since the beginning. “I could retire, but I don’t have any desire to do so,” he said. Instead, he prefers to spend his days cutting precise patterns and training a new generation of artisans.

“He is a true master of his craft, able to see how the nuances of a pattern should be adapted to fit a customer perfectly,” Ms. Jain, 38, said.

Paul Fournier, a contributor to The Rake, a men’s style magazine in London, describes himself as “merely a craftsmanship and tailoring enthusiast who tried quite a few makers.”

“Obviously, craftsmanship isn’t the only factor, and fit is paramount,” Mr. Fournier said. “An ill-fitting beautiful garment doesn’t make anyone look good.”

Simon Crompton, who writes about classic tailoring for the Permanent Style website, said that what makes 100Hands unique is the amount of handwork that goes into each shirt.

“Handmade shirt skills have died out in North Italy, France and the U.K.,” he said. “There is still some hand-sewing in Naples, but the vast majority is not at the same level as 100Hands.”

He added that those skills don’t stop at decorative buttonholes. They also mean the collars and cuffs, crucial functional aspects of shirts that determine a good fit, and are better made when initially cut and sewn on a circle by hand rather than by a machine. The shirts cost $345 to $450 and up depending on whether the shirt is custom and the extra handwork in certain details.

The 100Hands founders are based in Amsterdam. Mr. Jain’s family has owned a cotton spinning and yarn trading business in Punjab for more than 160 years, and it seeded the idea for a shirt-making company of their own. The Jains worked at an investment banking firm in the Netherlands but gave up their high-flying careers.

“There were two options,” Mr. Jain said. “Make a generic-quality product and compete on prices, or make something so wonderful that the ‘where it is made’ tag has no relevance.” They didn’t know that the “made in” tag was sometimes more important than the product itself, he said. “We were just focused on making something special. So knowing less about the competition turned out to be a good thing here.”

Mark Cho, the founder of the Armoury men’s stores in New York and Hong Kong, which stocks 100Hands shirts, noted that other countries had far more experience in this particular shirtmaking craft and its marketing. “British, Italian and French clothing has had decades, if not a century, of global respect and admiration, whereas Indian brands simply don’t have that history.” he said.

He added: “It is a shame since if you go further back to the 1700s and 1800s — India was one of the most important producers of cotton and cotton cloth both in terms of quantity and quality. Also, fine handwork has been in its culture for a long, long time.”

The Jains have encountered prejudice, including one potential buyer who abruptly ended a call and unfollowed the company on Instagram (the ultimate modern slight) after learning 100Hands made its shirts in India. There is a widespread perception that “Made in India” often means fast-fashion supply chain practices, including child labor and sweatshops.

In fact, 100Hands is audited by Fair Wear, which is known for its in-country team of independent experts who measure not only working conditions, but also purchasing practices, a factory’s management systems, and worker-management communication. Ms. Jain said that wages at 100Hands are well above what the state mandates, and that employees get benefits such as health insurance.

“Their work is good by anyone’s standard,” Mr. Cho said. “People will eventually come to realize that.”

But can a small Indian company compete with Savile Row, with French savoir-faire and Italian flair, with their storied histories and branding power? Many consumers cling to the idea of European provenance, yet there is also a sense that things are breaking apart and coming together in new formations.

“There is a lot of snobbery about the Row and Britain in general, but they invented snobbery, after all, and they’re quite charming at it,” Mr. Fournier said.

Savile Row persists as the epitome of men’s tailoring, tied up in the exclusivity of bespoke work and ideas of English heritage. But many legacy Savile Row tailors have been snapped up by Asian conglomerates or — in one case, a Belgium-based hedge fund — and some are expanding into ready-to-wear lines that go far beyond their original remit of bespoke suiting.

In addition, the pandemic led some Savile Row tailors to close their shops, including the 140-year-old Kilgour, which now operates only online. And rumors swirl about a Marks & Spencer buyout of the 250-year-old Gieves & Hawkes.

But 100Hands isn’t just competing with Savile Row; it’s also a partner. For six years, it has been supplying shirts to Chittleborough & Morgan that attract a cultish loyalty. “We are just gentlemen’s tailors, and the same is true for Akshat,” said Joe Morgan, a founder of the shop.

But why doesn’t Chittleborough & Morgan make its own shirts?

Mr. Morgan said that it was a distinct skill from tailoring, “so we specialize, as 100Hands does with their shirts,.”

“The hand skills are different, the machines and irons are different,” he said. “In tailoring, we bully the fabric to mold it to a body we are creating. It is about illusion and manipulation of materials. Shirtmakers don’t create a body but rather work with it. It’s a softer discipline.”

“We are not a pompous company we are just a gentlemen’s tailors, and the same is true for 100Hands, there are no bells and whistles,” he added. “It’s just a very finely crafted garment.”