The Genteel
February 24, 2021


A street tailor at work. Photograph by Nita Jatar Kulkarni.

Darjis are to India what tailors are to the rest of the world. They're the go-to people when a garment needs stitching. These men are never in the limelight, but they're responsible for the beautiful clothes hanging in the windows of some of India's most fashionable stores.

Imagine attending a fashion show by a top designer. The garments look amazing in the look book, but are not fitted to the models' bodies as they march down the runway. Even the most stylish clothes by the best designers lose some of their value if they are not properly fitted to the wearer. This is the role of the darji: guaranteeing the perfect fit.

A pile of clothes waiting to be stitched at
Ramesh darji’s shop

It's not just designers who benefit from the expertise of these tailors. Homemakers throughout India take advantage of their services. For many years, my mother in Mumbai has crafted beautiful garments for me with the help of darjis. She designs a variety of clothing for friends and us, her family. She carefully crafts salwar kameez, a traditional South and Central Asian dress; kurtas, a type of loose shirt worn by both men and women; and ridas, the religious attire of Islamic women of the Dawoodi Bohra community. She creates the designs before taking them to a darji to be stitched. She has often told me of their impeccable work.

While darjis are popular across the country, they are especially important in Mumbai because of their deep ties to one particular industry - Bollywood. The sarissalwar kameez and other clothes in these Hindi movies may be conceptualised by well-known designers, but they are shaped into reality by darjis. Here too, costume designers get most of the credit, while darjis patiently toil behind closed doors to ensure that the actors and actresses look their best onscreen.

The darji often has a small, unassuming setup, and can even be one-man shows. One man known as darji kaka ("tailor uncle") has run a business sewing curtains and pillowcases for years. However, darji kaka barely makes ends meet. There are many others like him in the city, which speaks volumes about the state of these artists and their unacknowledged work.

There are those, like Kishore Champak, who manage to do well for themselves. Champak and his two sons manage two thriving shops in the city. They cater to a very niche set of clients - ladies who wear the rida. And the demand for fashionable ridas is growing. "By god's grace, our business has grown. The demand for ridas keeps growing, and therefore our business continues to do well," says Ashok Champak, the younger of the two sons.

On the other hand, the main reason that darji kaka and others like him face difficulties is the reduced patronage of customers. While fashion designers continue to depend on them, it is only those darjis who are popular in such circles that are lucrative. For those who cater to the average Indian, the mall and ready-made clothes have overcome hand-stitched garments.
However, darji kaka barely makes ends meet. There are many others like him in the city, which speaks volumes about the state of these artists and their unacknowledged work.

"Nowadays, people rarely have time to go to a tailor, give their measurements, explain what kind of design they want, and then wait until the dress is ready," says Priya Jain, a journalist who writes frequent fashion features. "If I make an impulse decision to go out, I can't wait for a tailor to make me a dress; I just go out and buy one." Darji kaka, who stitches curtains and pillow cases, adds that, "I used to have many clients. They would bring me the material and ask me to make curtains for them; now they just buy ready-made ones. They come to me now only if they want to make, say, pillowcases out of old curtains."

But Ramesh darji offers a different view. He says that during important religious months, he has enough work with ridas and salwar kameez to sustain himself. "People need to come to me well in advance, otherwise I can't take up their work. There's too much to do. But in spite of having a lot of work, the profit margins are not that great and therefore we have to sew a lot of clothes to make a decent income."

It's true; for the average darji, low fees combined with incurred costs (which include the wages of employees), means smaller profit margins. "It's not possible to give a figure; profits vary from day to day, month to month," says Ramesh. "Our prices vary; for instance, if a customer wants a rida made urgently in two days, then we would charge them a little more as opposed to someone whose work we take longer to complete," adds Ashok Champak. "This is because we need to put in that much more time and effort into finishing their work."

Darji at Lonavala Market

Some darjis are designers. After years of sewing, they understand trends, materials and what looks good on particular body types. Some even keep pattern books for customers to flip through and select a design that they can then make accordingly.

A darji is thus a true embodiment of hard work and dedication. While fast-paced city life may persuade some people to go the quicker route and buy ready-made clothes, those who like a good fit and something unique continue to choose the darji. I often think of my mother's creations when I see the same store-bought top on different people throughout the day. As she says, that is the problem with mass-produced clothing - there is simply nothing new to offer.

A wizard with a needle and a pair of scissors, this oft-underappreciated man is a saviour for those constantly hunting for "the perfect fit."



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