The presidents tailor
George Bernard Shaw
What is common to presidents of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Yemen and some Russian Federation ministers? Well, all of them – and many high-profile businessmen, sportsmen and artists too – have had their suits tailored by the India-born, Russia-settled, Sammy Kotwani, 42. “Dealing with dignitaries is somewhat stressful initially, since I have to take extra care designing their suits,” says Kotwani. “But once they are satisfied, they remain friends for ever.”
Winning friends is Kotwani’s forte, and he serves them through his Imperial Tailoring Co. The firm manages six showrooms in Russia, three in Kazakhstan and one in Ukraine, manned by around 100 employees. It makes 250-300 suits and 1,000-1,500 shirts, jackets and other formal wear for men and 25-30 suits for women a month, using upscale brands like Dormeuil, Loro Piana, Holland & Sherry, Scabel, Charles Clayton and others. “I once made a suit worth more than $100,000 for a wedding,”
Kotwani chuckles. At current average charges though, Imperial’s annual billing could be anywhere north of $20 million.
Kotwani came to Moscow in 1991 after serving several bespoke European tailors. A Mumbai lad, he studied at sasmira (Synthetic & Art Silk Mills' Research Association) before moving to London to study fashion. “I was keen on London since it is the fashion capital, when it comes to men,” informs Kotwani. Post-studies, he worked in London, Paris and Belgium.
That would have continued, but for a chance 1990 meeting with a friend in Belgium, who advised him to move to Russia. That was the million-dollar advice. Kotwani moved to Moscow, set up Wintex and started hawking tailored suits to diplomats and overseas businessmen living in the Russian capital. Though a large chunk of Wintex clientele then was the fashion-conscious expatriates, the company also catered to the locals. However, the 1998 Russian financial crisis – with Russian government devaluing ruble and defaulting on its debt – changed all that. “After the crisis, the expatriate market was sluggish; so, we decided to re-draw our business strategy and focus more on the local clients,” recalls Kotwani.
Pitching to local bureaucrats and businessmen paid off, especially at a time when Russian fashion scene was on a swing. “Prior to perestroika (reforms movement), Russians gave more importance to things other than clothes, especially men,” reveals Kotwani. “These days more and more men want to dress well.” Moreover, since the neo-rich Russians were high-spenders and demanding, Kotwani changed his business strategy. Earlier, he used to source fabric from and stitch suits in Hong Kong. “Now our fabrics are sourced from Italy and the UK, and we have shifted our manufacturing base to London,” he says.
To reinforce the ‘transition’, Kotwani christened his new entity the Imperial Tailoring Co and renovated his tony Moscow showroom – situated a stone’s throw from Red Square and Kremlin – to resemble an elite and exclusive London club, full with wooden panels, decorations, heavy leather couches and chairs, brass fittings and antique paintings. “We spent $1 million to design it in ‘English Regency’ style,” he reveals.
What about the emerging English competition, with some London tailors making a beeline for Moscow of late? “There are many players here, but unfortunately none of them is in our league,” he asserts. To keep ahead of the competition, Kotwani offers unique lifetime guarantee for a suit, with all the alterations done free. Moreover, suits sold by Imperial are called back every six months for pressing and dry cleaning, and the stitching and buttons glitches, if any, are mended at no cost.
That has helped Kotwani dominate the bespoke business-suits market and remain the tailor of choice for many elite Muscovites. “Nothing comes easy in life”, reasons Kotwani, who is also the president of Indian Business Alliance in Russia. “There are huge opportunities for Indians wanting to venture here and succeed,” he reveals, “provided one is prepared for an extended innings in this market and ready to build longterm relationships.”