Taking the measure of a tailor's life

At Al Qarveen Tailoring and Textiles in Abu Dhabi, sartorialists expertly cater to a vast array of personal preferences and international and regional styles.

August 21, 2010/  Abu Dhabi / Dellus Asirvatham manages the Al Qarveen Tailoring and Textiles in Abu Dhabi August 21 2010. This men tailoring shop can make custom suits ranging in price from 500dh to 800dh. (Sammy Dallal / The National)

As the city streets swell during the Ramadan nights, glinting scissors and unfurling tape measures can be seen through the windows of Al Qarveen Tailoring and Textiles.

This humble storebehind the Madinat Zayed Gold Souq in Abu Dhabi is in the vanguard of a contingent of about 15 tailoring shops in the neighbourhood. Dellus Asirvatham, 30, is the manager of the small store - one of two outlets in the area that bear the name Al Qarveen. He quickly assesses his customers needs, speaking in Hindi, or smatterings of Arabic, English and Urdu. "Three piece or two piece?," he says. "Two buttons or three? Pleated? I'll give you a good deal."

Al Qarveen, which caters to men only, makes 100 tailored suits a month, more than three suits a day. At about 20 measurements a suit, that adds up to some 24,000 measurements in a year. In quick motions, Mr Asirvatham takes the tape measure from around his shoulders, applies it to his customer and reads off the numbers. He does not miss a measurement, including those that your average buyer of off-the-rack suits does not even know are relevant.

"It must fit perfectly," says Mr Asirvatham. When possible, he makes small talk and sends one of the team out to buy orange soda or tea to make the process seamless. The store's second in command, Lyttus Asirvatham, 34, is a trouser specialist. He jots down the measurements in a kind of tailor's code that includes measurements and small illustrations. These suits are not just tailored to a customer's shape, but also to his minuscule preferences about pockets and cuts.

Indeed, the style choices tell a story about the working men of the city. As the economy overheated in 2008 and money was sloshing around the Emirates, tuxedoes were in higher demand. Sales of suits in general plummeted early last year, when companies laid off staff and pared back their growth plans. Meanwhile, in a sign of a shift towards public-sector employment, demand for business uniforms increased.

During Ramadan, there is usually a dip in sales, but Al Qarveen says business is up compared with a year ago. "Now things are picking up after a long time," says Mr Asirvatham, the manager. "More suits." Getting a suit just right is more of an art than a science, says Mr Asirvatham, who figures he can assess a man's size down to a centimetre or two, but for safety he takes all measurements. And no challenge seems beyond his scope. A semi-serious question about a finely tailored fedora was met with a serious nod.

"Neck ties, hats, jackets, vests," he says. "We can make them." The confidence comes in part from dealing with a range of nationalities and their respective styles. Requests vary widely, even including princely Jodhpuri suits with gold embroidery for weddings. The cost of a suit can range from a few hundred dirhams for a uniform to thousands for a three-piece suitfashioned from expensive imported material.

The store is a textbook example of specialisation. Each of the 25 workers hailing from India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan has a particular skill that is developed over years. One man focuses on shirts, another on trousers and a bespectacled Indian with a moustache standing at the window is an expert at cutting cloth with a giant pair of scissors. "You have to be very careful," he says. "Very steady."

A trainee may start off running errands before graduating to ironing and basic sewing on trousers. Then he would move up to shirts and eventually to jackets. A veteran can construct a full suit in less than a day, but an amateur would be doomed to a week of failures before producing a slipshod set of threads. Al Qarveen has 18 Juki sewing machines, some in plain view and others tucked into corners of a small workshop above the sales room or a larger space at the second store.

Some of the workers are responsible for buying the material, sourcing their best product from Dubai's fabric district in Deira. There, traders bargain over cloth shipped mostly from India and Europe for the finer garments. Mr Asirvatham the manager and Mr Asirvatham his deputy, who are not related, hail from the Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu state in south-eastern India. The district, formerly known as Cape Comorin, has two major cities, Nagercoil and the denser Thiruvananthapuram, which has a vibrant textile trade.

For these two, tailoring is a vocation inherited from their forefathers. Both men arrived in Abu Dhabi about six years ago after a recruiter interviewed them in India. They say they could stay as long as 25 years, enough to support their families back home at a salary higher than they could get in the textile trade there. So, do Al Qarveen's tailors all have tailored suits? They tailor their own collared shirts but tend to make suits for themselves only when they are about to get married.

An alteration specialist who gives his name only as Manoharan looks up from his sewing machine. "Hopefully, soon I'll need a suit," he says with a smile. Life in the tailoring shop is fast-paced, and there is little room for mistakes. Customers do not respond well to ill-fitting suits, and one wrong measurement often means a time-consuming alteration. For Mr Asirvatham, the manager, this job, with its demands for care and precision, is well worth doing.

And someday, he might even have saved enough to return home and open his own store. "But that's just dreams," he says. bhope@thenational.ae