Ladies' tailors: In Chennai

Elizabeth Mathew | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on July 03, 2015

Sahul Hamid, owner of Nisha Tailors in Chennai, holds his own against readymade blouses with his perfect fitting creations   -  Bijoy Ghosh

Two days before her best friend’s wedding, Kaavya Kumar landed in Chennai with a newly bought sari and an unstitched blouse.

Armed with unshakeable faith and rumours of one-hour tailoring services, we accompanied her to Chennai’s Ranganathan Street in T Nagar. Barely had we stepped into the notoriously crowded street than we were accosted by young men touting the services of the scores of tailoring outfits in the neighbourhood. Adroitly spotting the sari in Kumar’s bag, they descended on us, muttering, “ Sari-aa, madam? Blouse venuma (looking for a blouse), madam?”

We fended off three or four of them as we determinedly made our way towards the first sign that promised “one-hour tailoring” and walked into Nisha Tailors, fingers crossed. Sahul Hamid peers at us above his glasses, measuring tape draped around his neck, and laughs outright when we ask if we can get a blouse tailored in an hour. “That’s only for salwar kurta,” he says, “It will take me one hour just to cut the pattern for the blouse!” While the minimum delivery time is four days, with a bit of pleading he agreed to give it to us in 36 hours, just in time for the wedding.

Midway through the discussion a couple stops by to ask Hamid where they could buy readymade blouses, and he readily directs them to the nearest shop. Asked whether the readymade blouse business had eaten into his profits, he dismisses my question with a hearty chuckle. “Readymade blouses fit terribly,” he says, “and those who want quality will always come to a tailor like me.”

And their numbers are legion, going by the fully computerised system in place for taking orders and recording measurements, and the 20 tailors employed at the shop. Kaavya is customer number 29890, Hamid shows us on his computer, and he takes her measurements himself, keying them rapidly into the system. Nine inches at the back, he says, and when she suggests a deeper cut, he raises an eyebrow in disapproval. Nine and a half, he finally concedes. When she suggests a sleeveless blouse, he shakes his head in refusal. Three inches minimum, he insists and, left with too few options, Kaavya hurriedly agrees.

This ingrained conservatism is nothing new, says Lavanya Mohan, a sari enthusiast who long gave up trying to get her family tailor to stitch the modern styles she wanted. “In Chennai, getting a sexy blouse is hard because tailors often say ‘no’ to experimenting with styles, and end up doing things their own way,” she adds. Tailors who have known customers for a long time treat them like family, and end up raising necklines and extending sleeve lengths, she laments.

Like Mohan, many younger women have deserted the local masters in favour of newer blouse designers who charge a premium but are more receptive to the stylish blouse patterns in demand today.

Radha Rajakrishnan, who started her tailoring boutique Amrita Custom Elegance in 2003, says Chennai is no longer the conservative, kanjeevaram-only kind of place that outsiders perceive it to be. “I have had customers coming to me with explicit instructions about what they want, while complaining about their tailors who balk at backless styles and refuse to go beyond decorous lengths,” she recounts. Over the years, she has observed that it is not just necklines that have dropped and backs that have disappeared, but textures too have changed and women want to experiment and don’t mind taking a risk or two. “My customers have worn my designs for weddings in Mumbai and Delhi, and the standard response they have gotten is ‘Oh, you dress like this in Chennai?’” she says.

Blouse-making charges today go up to ₹400 for a basic style and rise steadily as you add a lining, a dori (strings) at the back, embroidery, sequins, tassels and more. A wedding blouse with gold-thread embroidery and other bells and whistles can cost up to ₹20,000 — or even ₹1 lakh, if Hamid is to be believed.

At the other end of the spectrum is the tiny air-conditioned cubicle in which Vishnu Kumar of VK Tailors holds fort in Sowcarpet, a Marwari stronghold in the heart of Chennai. We arrive at the shop after winding our way through narrow bylanes, past the occasional cow, women with covered heads and shopkeepers bargaining in fluent Hindi.

Kumar says that growing up in Sirohi, Rajasthan, he learnt to stitch as a boy because he preferred working with his hands to studying at school. He set out to see the world, and found himself in Chennai doing odd tailoring jobs before settling down in Sowcarpet. “That was way back in 1979,” says Kumar, “now I can’t imagine going back; I have settled here. I used to do everything myself, but now I have 25 people working for me.” Blouses call for his special attention, though. “I still cut the patterns for every blouse myself,” he says, explaining that this is the most important part of the tailoring process. “That’s why customers have been loyal to me all these years!”

Published on July 03, 2015

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