For Mohan "Mike" Ramchandani, it's all about the look. No, he's not shallow -- he just happens to be one of New York's top custom tailors. For more than 30 years, Ramchandani has fitted the city's elite, from former mayor Rudy Giuliani to Knicks legend Patrick Ewing. His shop, located in a historic high-rise on 42nd Street, has grown into an impressively lucrative global operation, but has retained the personal relationship and quality that comes with handcrafted work. With his business jointly managed by his family, including his two children and nephews, Ramchandani has managed to preserve a craft largely lost to the mills of mass production.
Immigrating from India in 1972, Ramchandani took on the growing custom market, which involves a lengthy measuring process for each client. While most cases involve the same routine of measuring, photos and fabric choices, some clients over the years have required a little extra attention. "I once made a suit for [former NBA player] Manut Bol, who was 7-foot-7," Ramchandani recalls. "He was so tall I had to go down to the maintenance office in the building and borrow the tallest ladder they had in order to be able to measure him from head to toe."
From iPad pockets to "kosher" fabrics, Ramchandani has put a new spin on a decidedly old-school craft -- one that he was literally born into.
How did you get your start in such a storied profession?
My family is from India, and my father was a clothier. We used to sell fabrics and suits and shirts. I went to Hong Kong in 1969 when I was 20, where my family owns a factory that my brother was running. I picked up the family business, selling fabrics and learning to tailor. At the time, it was easy to get a visa to Hong Kong and it was closer to India. Hong Kong is known for custom tailoring and clothing. I was in Hong Kong for about three years and that's when I learned a lot of my skills.
I was told that in the Northeast, there are a lot of people and a big demand for custom suits. So, in 1972, I came to New York with the fabrics and started working in the hotels. I started in the Roosevelt Hotel with a small shop. I was at the Roosevelt for three years, and then I was in the Biltmore Hotel for three or four years, then in 1980, I came to this location.
Custom tailoring is obviously a higher-end offering, but in today's economy, is there as big of a market for true custom tailors as opposed to those who just do simple alterations?
There is a great market, and we specialize for people of all sizes. Someone who is tall and slim, or short and big, someone who has long legs or long arms. That's what attracted all of the basketball players. We specialize in the hard-to-fit customer, like people who have one shoulder lower than the other. That was the initial direction, but now, the custom industry is actually growing. People and more of our regular custom-fit clients, rather than going to buy off the rack, they'll have it made custom because there isn't a big difference in price. Plus, they don't have to shop and then find another tailor for alterations. We do everything. Plus, they come here, and they can by suits, shirts, overcoats -- everything. The industry is definitely growing and has been over the last 10 years.
You cater to a client with special sizing and style needs, so you've attracted a laundry list of celebrities and professional athletes. How did you start making suits for the stars?
When Walt "Clyde" Frazier knocked on our front door, I answered. He said, "Do you know who I am?" and I said "No." He said, "I'm Clyde. I’ve won championships with the Knicks," and from there we began our relationship and I’ve been making his suits ever since. I’m not a sports guy, so I don’t watch the games, but I know that Walt looks great. When I first met Patrick Ewing, it was the early 1980s and he was playing basketball at Georgetown University. I spent my own money and took a day off of client appointments to buy a People’s Express airplane ticket to go from New York to Washington, D.C., to measure him there in his dorm room. I had to stand on his bed in order to get the right measurements. It was well worth the money spent on the plane ticket, because he eventually was drafted to the Knicks where I continued to make many suits for him throughout his NBA career. All in all, it's fun and they like good clothes. I enjoy making it for them because they want to look good. They cannot find their sizes in a store, and we have all the fabrics and styles that they're looking for.
When it comes to a unique client like Frazier, how much of the creative process do you partake in?
For Walt, it's different, because whatever we have, he doesn't like. We have to go find unique fabrics, light colors or cow prints. We go out and seek the ones that he likes. The design always goes both ways, but he's very intelligent in what he likes and how he wants it put together but obviously our ideas all go hand in hand and usually the input that we give him, he likes it.
Speaking of innovative designs -- while in the waiting room, I overhead a client requesting the iPad pocket. Clearly you've changed the idea of the formal suit to cater to the modern man, from the iPad suit to the "no-sweat suit." You also offer a kosher suit. How popular are these special offerings?
We sell a lot of the special suits. The no-sweat suit is very popular in the summertime because it reflects sunlight and it's a very lightweight fabric. It certainly makes you sweat less than the traditional, heavier suits. The iPad pocket is a great idea for those who carry them, now that everyone has three or four mobile devices. For our kosher suit, there is a certain Jewish community that according to their religious obligations, can't mix wool with linen. Usually, you mix linen in the collar and in the pocket to make it stiffer. That idea came through demand from a customer. So we found that there was a canvas available at Jewish fabric shops with properties similar to linen. We use the kosher canvas fabric, and then we have it tested in Brooklyn. Once that is complete, the rabbi certifies it and we put a kosher seal inside guaranteeing that.
Now that you have help, how much do you actually take part in the suiting process?
Nowadays, I usually take the measurements, and the others show the fabrics. They are all well-trained and know about all of the fabrics, and they know the fashion well. I take about 30 to 32 measurements across every part of the body and every angle of the body. Sometimes one hand hangs lower than the other, so we take all of those measurements, and then we take three pictures to see how much the slope of the shoulders is, how much the waist is in. Also, we take in how the customer wants to look. We create that suit, whether it is a big or small customer, for his measurements and for his particular style. We do anything he wants, like hand stitching, handmade button holes, different linings, or name embroidering on the inside of the jacket. Not everything is made in Hong Kong. Half of the suit is made in Hong Kong and we do all of the finishing work here. It's a long process but as a team, we've got to take care of the client.
How do you stay competitive with others in this space?
Our prices are very reasonable. We have the same cloth, like Zegna cloth that everybody has, but everybody else wants around $5,000 for the top-of-the-line suit, while we want only $1,200. We save some money from manufacturing the suits overseas, but mostly it is because of volume. We do a lot of business with brands like Zegna, so we get very good rates. Like anything, when we buy more from them, they give us a good discount and we pass that down to the client. We also advertise with our celebrity clients, but it is mostly because of the customer experience. The way we take care of the client, other tailors do not do that. We provide them two, three fittings. So they can come in for a fitting when the suit is half-done and then again when the suit is finished and then once more to make sure everything is perfect. Other tailors like to make it and give it to you, that's it.
It is becoming increasingly more difficult to buy goods with old-fashioned craftsmanship. How do you keep it going?
I found the success because of my work -- how I fit them. Once a customer wears a custom-made suit, they won't return to the stores to buy a suit. My prices are even cheaper than the stores and mine is custom made. You can't beat that. Plus, they are happy. We keep their sizes and we make it easy for them so that when they return, they can just order the suit and avoid the fitting process if they want. We are improving the quality all the time. We try to improve every six months. We go back to Hong Kong, see new designs, new expensive suits, and bring the ideas back with us. The old-school process of one tailor making everything is dying, but this business is growing. We're modernizing the process but are keeping the quality of the product. I'm passing on my skills, also. I have a son, daughter and two nephews who work for me. They know everything, how to take the measurements and the fabrics, so anytime I retire, they can take it over.
For those in this trade -- and other entrepreneurs in general -- what advice would you share?
You have to know your trade very well. In our business, you have to work with the tailors, work in the stores where they are making the good suits. Only then can you learn. You really have to know your craft. You have to be willing to put in the hours and keep everyone happy. You should be able to satisfy the customer, because when one customer is satisfied, he will bring in three or four more customers.
You were born into this trade, but did you ever consider doing anything else?
Well, I wanted to become something else, but I like this. [Laughs] I didn't go to school, but I wanted to become a politician. But, then I came here, and now all the politicians come and buy from me. I am still serving the community -- like a good politician.
Name: Mohan Ramchandani
Company: Mohan's Custom Tailors
Location: New York City
Annual Revenue: $400,000