The Italians and the British rule the world of luxury shirts. The likes of Kiton (founded in 1968, in Naples) and Turnbull & Asser (1885, London) have been dressing powerful, wealthy men for decades. ‘Made in Italy’ (or ‘in England’) carries the same branding power in the luxury menswear world as ‘Made in Switzerland’ does in the horological world and ‘Made in Japan’ once did in manufacturing. So, when Akshat Jain and Varvara Maslova began pitching their ‘Made in India’ luxury shirt brand named, 100Hands in early 2014 to stores in Europe, they didn’t make any headway, despite perhaps provoking a derisive curiosity. Here were two former Amsterdam-based investment bankers, who claimed that their shirts made in Amritsar were better and more distinctive than Italian and British handmade shirts. The husband-wife duo simply couldn’t get appointments. It was always, says Jain, a straight, “No”. “Then we started walking into stores uninvited — we knew that the job would be done once they saw the shirts, and saw what we were capable of,” says Jain.

And they were right. 100Hands is now available in 192 stores across the world. When I first spoke to Jain in November of 2020, the company employed around 170 people, including 40 tailors, 20 manual stitching experts, 10 cutters and pattern masters, and produced 80 shirts a day. Today, with several more tailors, hand sewers, and cutters, its staff strength has increased to 260, and their factory near Amritsar makes about 40,000 shirts a year, which would possibly make it among the world’s biggest high-end specialised shirt companies. Not surprising that it is a rare Indian menswear brand that gets invited to exhibit at Pitti Uomo, the world’s most prestigious men’s clothing trade show, where the participation is by invitation only.

100Hands patrons include former cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, actor Farhan Akhtar, the Dutch football executive and former professional footballer Edwin van der Sar, and, for the purpose of this article, this writer, who is test-driving the company’s MTM service with a ‘Deep Structured Indigo Shirt’ made of Japanese Dark Chambray from its top end Gold Line range (Rs 38,000; prices for the company’s wares range between at Rs 25,000 and Rs 100,000). Jain is the scion of a 150-year-old, Amritsar-based cotton spinning and yarn business. While he always had a feel for fabrics, he says no one in his family would have expected him to launch a luxury shirt brand. “My father dresses nattily, very classic, very British, very finicky. As a family we had this atelier of five brilliant tailors. They became the foundation of 100Hands,” says Jain.

Maslova and Jain benchmarked their shirts against the likes of Kiton and Lorenzini, and the idea was to surpass them in quality and fit. Most of the big-name Italian and British shirts, says Jain, are pitched and sold to stores only on the basis of their heritage; no one actually went into the depth of the product. “Working with us was a big learning experience for a lot of the stores. A shirt is a simple product to make, but there is a lot that can go into its making. They could finally see that.”

Each 100Hands shirt takes anywhere between 16 to 34 hours to make, and the company is named after the number of hands that each shirt passes through. Distinctive features include a high stitch per inch count of 25, hand-rolled bottoms, and rotated sleeve attachment for more comfort and better fit. Each buttonhole takes 45 minutes to make, and every element of the shirt is hand-attached and handmade — from the bodyside side seam to the patterns. 100Hands has two product lines: Black Line and Gold Line, which features more hand-sewing. They are available in ready-to-wear, made-to-measure, and bespoke. The ready-to-wear line accounts for 65 per cent of its business, with MTM and bespoke constituting the rest. Most of the fabric is sourced from Switzerland and Japan and from companies such as Loro Piana, which is among the world’s largest manufacturers of high-end shirt fabric.

A typical shirt is ready between eight to 12 weeks. For the MTM service, I sent 100Hands photographs of me wearing my best-fitting shirt along with a bunch of measurements before them couriering the shirt itself. Based on a customer’s input, a master tailor at 100Hands creates a specific pattern to improve on the original shirt and, depending on its complexity, at times also sends the customer a trial shirt. Once the final shirt is sent out, the company seeks photos of the customer wearing it, and if needed, makes more adjustments. “Everything depends on the pattern. The MTM business is very simple. If you perfect the pattern, the customer doesn’t look elsewhere. Men are easy that way,” says Jain. India is not a focus area for 100Hands yet, though customer enquiries have been increasing over the last couple of years.

“Some people from Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore fly to Amritsar for a day or two, and we accelerate the process for them. They visit the factory on the first day, enjoy the city, and the next morning, we have the raw garment ready so that work on their orders can begin,” says Jain. A few years ago, 100Hands released an unconstructed traveller’s jacket in collaboration with Swedish influencer Andreas Weinas. But it has no plans to deviate from its core competency, despite requests from customers to extend its repertoire. “We keep getting requests for trousers, but we don’t want to do that or a classic suit. There are companies that do a much nicer job, and it will take us another four years to show them what we can really do. I don’t have the kind of patience I had back in 2014,” he says.

100Hands succeeded, Jain says, because it was able to convince stores and customers that a shirt made in India could actually be better than an Italian or British shirt. “It took time to create a distinct identity as a top quality non-British, non-Italian brand, but even today, if I were to start another similar venture in the luxury space, it would take me a similar amount of time to achieve something. A lot of people still perceive India as a producer of cheap, sub-standard stuff,” he says. Some people, of course, don’t, including those on Savile Row.

100Hands also has white label associations with several tailors on Savile Row, including Chittleborough & Morgan, which informs customers of their tie-up with the Indian company. Then, there is Paris-based Camps de Luca that sells 100Hands along with their suits. “Camps de Luca makes only suits, so we work together on their shirts,” says Jain. The company’s white label associations across the world sees it produce about 25,000 shirts a year.

“It forms a smaller part of what we do, but it is valuable because we keep learning from our experiences,” says Jain. My elegantly boxed MTM shirt arrived in about six weeks. As Jain promised, the fit is better than any shirt I have ever worn. It has felt like second skin from day one and over time, I’m beginning to appreciate the details such as the hand embroidery on the edges of the buttonholes and the non-fused collars along with the restrained lustre of the Japanese Chambray. Most importantly, it has changed the way I look at shirts — suddenly, a handmade shirt seems like less of an extravagance.