PUNJAB, India — Sunita Devi, an embroiderer at 100Hands, was working on a shirt, her stitching was so beautiful it earned a compliment from this reporter. Mrs. Devi acknowledged it with a smile, before returning her attention to the task.
Were these floral patterns a nod to commands from Maharajas who once ruled this state? Or was this regional phulkari (a form of cross stitch) embroidery made for a bridal trousseau and treasured for generations?
Neither, it turned out. Mrs. Devi sewed a buttonhole with almost invisible stitches. Each lasts 40 minutes and has over 100 stitches per inch; other shirt makers specializing in this type of clothing probably have 40 or 60. Each shirt takes up to 35 hours to make, and tailors who are obsessed with the most exacting details in a cuff, button-down collar or one with hand-stitched hem 100Hands shirts have described as some of the best in the world.
The scorching yellow fields of Punjab are not where you would expect to find master pattern makers, cutters, tailors and embroiderers who make the rarefied menswear usually associated with Savile Row or famous shirt makers from France and Italy. But in 100Hands’ spacious, well-lit manufacturing facility on the outskirts of the northern Indian city, famed for its sacred golden temple, that story is changing, shirt by shirt.
“More than eight years ago, we started with 20 artisans and five employees,” says Akshat Jain, 40, who co-founded 100Hands with his wife, Varvara Jain. “Today we have 265 full-time employees.” They also plan to expand further, with a new space.
Mohammad Samiriddin, a master pattern cutter, has been making shirts for over 45 years and has been with 100Hands since its inception. “I could retire, but I don’t feel the need to,” he said. Instead, he prefers to spend his days carving precise patterns and training a new generation of craftsmen.
“He is a true master of his craft, able to see how to adjust the nuances of a pattern to perfectly suit a client,” said Ms. Jain, 38.
Paul Fournier, a contributor to The Rake, a men’s style magazine in London, describes himself as “just a craftsman and tailor who has tried quite a few makers.”
“Obviously, craftsmanship is not the only factor, and fit is paramount,” said Mr. fournier. “An ill-fitting beautiful garment doesn’t make anyone look good.”
Simon Crompton, writing about classic tailoring for the Permanent Style website, said what makes 100Hands unique is the amount of handwork that goes into each shirt.
“Handmade shirt skills have died out in northern Italy, France and the UK,” he said. “Hand stitching is still done in Naples, but the vast majority are 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 machine. The shirts cost $345 to $450 and up, depending on whether the shirt is custom and the extra handwork in certain details.
The founders of 100Hands are based in Amsterdam. The family of Mr. Jain has had a cotton and yarn spinning business in Punjab for over 160 years, which led to the idea of starting his own shirt making business. The Jains worked at an investment bank in the Netherlands, but gave up their high-flying careers.
“There were two options,” Mr. Jain said. “Make a product of generic quality and compete on price, or make something so great that the ‘where it’s made’ label is irrelevant.” Little did they know that sometimes the “made in” tag was 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 good here.”
Mark Cho, the founder of the New York and Hong Kong men’s store Armory, which stocks 100Hands shirts, noted that other countries had much more experience with this particular craft of shirts and its marketing. “British, Italian and French clothing has had decades, if not a century, of worldwide respect and admiration, while Indian brands just don’t have that history.” he said.
He added: “It’s a shame because if you go further back to the 1700s and 1800s, India was one of the major producers of cotton and cotton cloths, both in quantity and quality. Fine handicrafts have also been part of the culture for a long time.”
The Jains have faced prejudice, including a potential buyer who abruptly ended a conversation and unfollowed the company on Instagram (the ultimate modern con) after learning that 100Hands made their shirts in India. There is a widespread perception that “Made in India” often refers to fast-fashion supply chain practices, including child labor and sweatshops.
100Hands is even audited by Fair Wear, which is known for its own team of independent experts who measure not only working conditions, but also purchasing practices, a factory’s management systems and communication between employees and management. Ms. Jain said wages at 100Hands are much higher than what the state requires, and workers get benefits such as health insurance.
“Their work is good by everyone’s standard,” said Mr. Cho. “People will eventually realize that.”
But can a small Indian company compete with Savile Row, with French know-how and Italian flair, with their storied history and brand strength? Many consumers cling to the idea of European origin, yet there is a sense 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 after all, they invented snobbery and they’re very charming about it,” said Mr Fournier.
Savile Row continues to be the epitome of menswear, anchored in the exclusivity of bespoke work and ideas of English heritage. But many longtime Savile Row 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 that goes well beyond their original job of tailor-made suits.
In addition, the pandemic has resulted in some Savile Row tailors closing their shops, including 140-year-old Kilgour, who now operates only online. And there are rumors of a Marks & Spencer takeover of 250-year-old Gieves & Hawkes.
But 100Hands doesn’t just compete with Savile Row; it is also a partner. For six years it has been supplying shirts to Chittleborough & Morgan that attract a cult following. “We’re just tailors for men, and the same goes for Akshat,” said Joe Morgan, a store founder.
But why don’t Chittleborough & Morgan make their own shirts?
Mr Morgan said it was a different skill than making clothes, “so we specialize like 100Hands does with their shirts.”
“The manual skills are different, the machines and irons are different,” he said. “When making clothes, we bully the fabric to mold it into a body that we create. It’s about illusion and manipulation of materials. Shirt makers don’t create a body, they work with it. It’s a gentler discipline.”
“We’re not a pompous company, we’re 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 piece of clothing.”