On Buying a Suit in India

One of the best things about living in the developing world is that custom tailoring is incredibly cheap. On my last visit I had three shirts and two pairs of pants made, for a total cost of around US$35. My fashion sense and tastes have evolved considerably in the two years since, so when I moved back to India a couple months ago I knew I wanted to take even better advantage of this opportunity, including getting suits made.

Aside from the fact that custom clothing simply looks better on everyone, I am particularly drawn to custom tailoring because I find it very hard to find retail clothes that fit well. I am 6’3″, long-legged, and rail thin. I like having this body type, and I like showing it off, but getting shirts and jackets that I’m not swimming in also tends to mean showing a lot of wrist.

After a few aborted attempts, I finally began looking for a good tailor in earnest. With the help of my friend Joseph Lepcha, I scoped out two high-end suiting places in Gangtok’s main commercial strip, MG Marg: OCM and Raymond’s. OCM is a fabric brand as well. My Nepali is still pretty spotty, but with Joseph’s assistance I went in and looked at their fabrics and asked about prices. They quoted me Rs. 3500, or about US$77, for quality wool and tailoring, but when I asked to see a catalog the best they had as an advertisement card with a lot of suited men on it, too small to make out the details of their cuts. After checking the prices on different fabrics at Raymond’s, I found I could get a suit their for Rs. 3000, or about US$66, and they a full catalog of different styles. Though I wasn’t interested in most of the cuts in this catalog, the variety reassured me that they could make the suit to my specifications. I had heard of Raymond’s before and knew that they were a national chain. They also have a retail outlet not too far down the road, near Deorali, but when I had poked in I didn’t find anything that caught my eye.

So I went with Raymond’s. I wore my best fitting pair of pants (bought at Uniqlo in New York), a slim fitting white collared shirt from H&M, and my slip on leather dress shoes. I picked out a plain gray wool. I had been doing a lot of research on suits the past few weeks, on their components and how they are worn, and I decided that gray would prove to be the most versatile with the wardrobe I have with me here, at least for this first suit. I brought in a picture of Ted Danson in a fantastic gray suit from one of GQ’s online suit guides, and used that to explain what I wanted: two buttons, low button stance, slim in the body, narrow lapels, one pleat on the pants. Ted Danson is about my height and closer to my build, so he seemed a good model to look to.

Once I was confident that the tailor understood what I wanted, he took me back and measured me. This went as expected, with one catch. He seemed very frustrated that my shoulders were much wider than was appropriate, in his mind, for my scrawny body. Apparently this was going to make it very difficult to cut. I didn’t have much sympathy for him on this. That is, after all, why one gets bespoke clothing: so it will fit you, no matter how unconventional your body shape might be.

When he finished the measurements and seemed to know what I wanted, paid and left. My suit would be ready in about a week, when I could come in for a fitting.

A week later I returned in the same outfit, though this time also wearing a thin dark tie from H&M and carrying a pinstripe jacket I got on the cheap at H&M. When I saw the suit, I was rather nonplussed. It was definitely too wide in the body, to start, and thought the lapels were not large, they were not as narrow as I had asked for. The pants were not as slim as I liked either, but the tailor claimed this was a consequence of the single pleat I had asked for. The pleated look was good, but I think in the future I’m more interested in have the slimmer cut that flat fronts allow. The shoulders also seemed to be a little too wide, though the tailor, tapping my bony shoulders, insisted that they fit properly, and Joseph agreed. I checked the shoulders on my H&M jacket, but the tailor pointed out that they were too small, actually, and I could see what he meant. Perhaps the shoulder pads were thicker than I was used to, or perhaps it was just a difference in opinion of how a suit should fit, but I didn’t press the point. I did demand that he take it in at the body, and he agreed.

When I came back two days later, the suit looked much better. I don’t think he changed much besides slimming it up in the body, but doing so made a big difference. It looked pretty good! The dull silvery lining inside looked good with the gray. This time I noticed that it was maybe two or three inches too long, though again this may be a cultural difference in how a suit should fit. The shoulders looked okay, but I think they could be taken in about half an inch or so. Still, not bad for US$65 and a first try.

There are a few other problematic details that I only really noticed when I got home. First, the buttons are pretty lame, dull gray. Second, it doesn’t have a proper button hole on the lapel! Instead there was a loop of thread that could pass for a button hole from afar. I don’t know if this was a mistake, something the tailor accidentally left unfinished, or a deliberate bit of styling, but I don’t like it.

Let us say that I am about 80% satisfied with the suit. It isn’t perfect, but it fits me better than any non-custom suit I’ve had. Given how expensive suits can be in the West, and custom tailoring especially, I think an 80% great suit is pretty good for just US$65. I’ve also learned a great deal about how to get a suit cut here for the next time: what to ask for, what to be pushy about, perhaps get my own buttons, etc. I think I’ll try again next month. I have not decided whether to try a new tailor, who hopefully will better execute my wishes, or stick with Raymond’s, where I have developed some rapport and understanding.

It is unfortunate that summer is on its way; it will be too hot to wear the fairly heavy wool I picked for this first suit. Still, it will be a good staple of my wardrobe when I return to the states. For my next suit, I’m going to try to get something more appropriate for the climate: unlined, thin shoulder pads, perhaps linen?

Overall, I think getting custom clothes made on the cheap in the developing world is great. Between the language barrier and cultural differences, however, it is a good idea to go in knowing exactly what you want on all components of the suit/shirt/whatever. I suspect if I had gone into Raymond’s without doing much research and planning beforehand, I might have ended up with some baggy, wide lapel, four button monstrosity. Unless you get a really great, foreign trained tailor in a major city, you probably aren’t going to end up with anything Savile Row quality, but it is a great way to go if you have a budget and want clothes that fit an uncommon body type.

Check out the pics below. Thanks to my friend Pema Lepcha for help with the photo shoot.

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