PUNJAB, India – Sunita Devi, an embroiderer at 100Hands, was working on a shirt, her stitching so beautiful it drew a compliment from this reporter. Mrs. Devi acknowledged him with a smile, before returning her attention to the task at hand.
Were these floral designs a nod to the commands of the Maharajahs who once ruled this state? Or was it regional phulkari embroidery (a form of cross stitch), made for a bridal trousseau and cherished for generations?
Neither, it turned out. Mrs. Devi was sewing a buttonhole with almost invisible stitches. Each takes 40 minutes and has over 100 stitches per inch; other shirt makers specializing in this type of garment would probably have 40 or 60. Each shirt takes up to 35 hours to make, and sewing aficionados who obsess over the finer details of a wrist, button-down or hand-stitched hem has described 100Hands shirts as some of the best in the world.
The scorching yellow fields of Punjab are not where you might expect to find master patternmakers, tailors, tailors and embroiderers making the rarefied menswear typically associated with Savile Row or the renowned blouses of France and Europe. ‘Italy. Yet in 100Hands’ spacious, well-lit production facilities on the outskirts of the northern Indian city famous 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 together with his wife, Varvara Jain, founded 100Hands. “Today, we are 265 full-time employees. They also plan to expand further, with new space.
Mohammad Samiriddin, master pattern cutter, has been making shirts for over 45 years and has been with 100Hands since the beginning. “I could retire, but I have no desire to,” he said. Instead, he prefers to spend his days cutting precise patterns and training a new generation of artisans.
“He’s a true master of his craft, able to see how the nuances of a design need to be adapted to suit a client perfectly,” said Ms Jain, 38.
Paul Fournier, contributor to The Rake, a men’s style magazine in London, describes himself as “simply an avid craftsman and tailor who’s tried quite a few makers”.
“Obviously craftsmanship isn’t the only factor, and fit is paramount,” Fournier said. “A beautiful, ill-fitting garment does not make anyone beautiful.”
Simon Crompton, who writes about classic tailoring for the Permanent Style website, said what makes 100Hands unique is the amount of handwork that goes into each shirt.
“Handmade shirting skills died out in northern Italy, France and the UK,” he said. “There is still some hand tailoring in Naples, but the vast majority is not at the same level as 100Hands.”
He added that these skills don’t stop at decorative buttonholes. They also refer to collars and cuffs, crucial functional aspects of shirts that determine a good fit, and are best made when initially cut and sewn on a hoop by hand rather than by machine. Shirts cost between $345 and $450 and more depending on whether the shirt is personalized and the extra handwork in certain details.
The founders of 100Hands are based in Amsterdam. Mr. Jain’s family has owned a cotton milling and yarn trading business in Punjab for over 160 years, and it was they who pioneered the idea of their own shirt-making business. The Jains used to work in an investment bank in the Netherlands, but gave up their high-flying career.
“There were two options,” Mr Jain said. “Make a generic quality product and compete on price, or make something so wonderful that the label ‘where it’s made’ is irrelevant.” Little did they know that the “made in” label was sometimes more important than the product itself, he said. “We were just focused on creating something special. So knowing less about the competition turned out to be a good thing here.
Mark Cho, the founder of Armory men’s stores in New York and Hong Kong, which sell 100Hands shirts, noted that other countries had much more experience in the shirtmaking business and in marketing it. “British, Italian and French clothing has had decades, if not a century, of respect and admiration around the world, while Indian brands simply don’t have that history.” he said.
He added: “It’s a shame because if you go back further to the 1700s and 1800s, India was one of the largest producers of cotton and cotton cloth, both in terms of quantity and quality. Moreover, fine manual work has been part of its culture for a long, long time.
The Jains encountered prejudice, including a potential buyer who abruptly ended a call and unfollowed the company on Instagram (the ultimate modern affront) after learning that 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 national team of independent experts who measure not only working conditions, but also purchasing practices, factory management systems and communication between workers and management. Ms. Jain said salaries at 100Hands are well above those mandated by the state and that employees receive benefits such as health insurance.
“Their work is good compared to anyone,” Mr. Cho said. “People will eventually realize that.”
But can a small Indian company compete with Savile Row, with French savoir-faire and Italian flair, with their historical histories and brand power? Many consumers cling to the idea of European provenance, but there is also a feeling that things are falling apart and coming together in new formations.
“There’s a lot of snobbery about The Row and Britain in general, but they invented snobbery, after all, and they’re quite charming,” Mr Fournier said.
Savile Row persists as the epitome of menswear, tied to the exclusivity of bespoke work and ideas of English heritage. But many Savile Row legacy tailors have been taken over by Asian conglomerates or – in one case, a Belgium-based hedge fund – and some are expanding into ready-to-wear lines that go well beyond their mandate. bespoke suit initial.
Additionally, the pandemic has led some Savile Row tailors to close their shops, including 140-year-old Kilgour, who now operates solely online. And rumors are circulating of a Marks & Spencer takeover of the 250-year-old Gieves & Hawkes.
But 100Hands doesn’t just compete with Savile Row; it is also a partner. For six years, she has supplied shirts to Chittleborough & Morgan that attract cult loyalty. “We’re just men’s tailors, and so is Akshat,” said Joe Morgan, one of the store’s founders.
But why doesn’t Chittleborough & Morgan make its own shirts?
Mr Morgan said it was a separate skill from tailoring, ‘so we specialize, as 100Hands do with their shirts’.
“Hand skills are different, machines and irons are different,” he said. “In tailoring, we abuse the fabric to mold it to a body that we create. It’s about illusion and manipulation of materials. Blouses don’t create a body but rather work with it. It’s a discipline more gentle.
“We are not a pompous company, we are just men’s tailors, and the same goes for 100Hands, there are no bells and whistles,” he added. “It’s just a very finely crafted garment.”