Lenin’s mausoleum, Saint Basil’s cathedral, and the gigantic GUM department store: Nestled in the shadows of these landmarks on Moscow’s Red Square sits a tailor’s store, which, quite literally, cut the cloth of modern Russian history. Former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s sons-in-law, Leonid Kuchma, Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and his arch-enemy, Russian president Vladimir Putin, agree on little — except the virtues of an Imperial Tailoring Co. suit.
The owner won’t discuss his customers: “Can’t say anything,” mumbles Sammy Kotwani.
In the course of three decades, Kotwani built a bespoke-tailoring empire, with stores in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan, Almaty, Astana, Baku, and Kyiv — the last, temporarily shuttered because of war. The story of Imperial Tailoring stitches together the tumult of the post-Soviet Union era with the perseverance and enterprise of diasporic India.
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Africa to Russia
From Ethiopia and Kenya to Congo and Angola, Kotwani began his career selling suits across sub-Saharan Africa. A customer, he recalls, gave him an advice that changed his life. “Move to Moscow,” he was told, “There is a big diplomatic community there, a much bigger market than here. And they need suits all twelve months of the year.”
“I made that decision to shift on very little knowledge and just a feeling — call it an impulsive roll of the dice — and it seems to have worked out,” Kotwani says.
Kotwani reached Moscow at the twilight of the Soviet empire. The economy was in shambles and businesses weren’t doing well. He recalls the times with something of a wistful nostalgia undergraduates have for their wildest college revels. “It was a wild, wild era. You could not leave anything in your car. The problem for me was, being a luxury tailor, I had to always be well-dressed — so I stood out and became a target”.
He was robbed at gunpoint on his doorstep in 1991, and his car was stolen the day he bought it in 1993.
The client’s advice, though, was spot-on.“I learnt my tailoring in London,” Kotwani explains, “I’m a master cutter. Very few people are master cutters.” That meant he could provide top-quality suits to the city’s diplomats, but at competitive prices. “It was very cheap for them to buy from me.”
After securing a loyal base among diplomats, Kotwani slowly expanded his business to serve expatriate businessmen.
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Banking crash, business boom
Things were moving along well and business was growing when the Asian financial crisis of 1998 hit. The Ruble collapsed, and many foreigners left the country. Almost overnight, Kotwani lost his customers. The businessman was undeterred and reoriented his business. “From 1998,” he says, “we began selling mainly to locals. We have had customers coming back to us since then. Our quality and service ensured our success.”
Kotwani’s reputation grew among Russia’s elite and led him to expand his business into Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. As the new millennium dawned, Kotwani set up the company’s flagship store at Gostiny Dvor, right next to Moscow’s Red Square.
President Zelenskyy, then a famous actor and comedian, shot scenes for his 2011 movie Sluzhebnyy roman, Nashe vremya at the flagship store. In the movie, Zelenskyy is seen jovially trying different suits and neckties looking for the best fit. The movie was a remake of the 1977 Soviet comedy, ‘Sluzhebny’.
A former Indian diplomat who served in the region recalled that Kotwani’s Astana store stitched suits for Kazakhstan’s president, as well as a host of senior region dignitaries. The shop was aptly called ‘The President,’ recalls the diplomat. Later, Mikhail Gorbachev’s two sons-in-law also had suits made from the Red Square store. So did the former presidents of Ukraine, Kuchma, and Yanukovych.
Kotwani will neither confirm nor deny he’s also tailored at least some of the impeccably-cut dark suits President Putin customarily wears. He is, however, open about his most famous Indian client. “We have always kept a connection to India,” Kotwani says. “I made clothes for Prime Minister Narendra Modi from 2009-11. The fabric for some of his iconic half-kurtas was supplied by us.”
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The diaspora connection
Kotwani has maintained links with India through his interactions and engagements with the Indian diaspora in Russia. The President of an Indian cultural centre in Moscow, he regularly hosts events for Indians living in Russia. “We organise a Holi Mela, Diwali celebrations and do a function on Independence Day. Before Covid-19, we had nearly 1.5 million people attend our Independence Day celebrations at Moscow’s Sokolniki Park.”
Even though his business caters mainly to Russians, Kotwani says, “we do make an exception for our Indian clients. I offer them suits at a small discount.”
The suit-maker is also the president of the Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party chapter in Russia. Describing this as a “non-political” affiliation, Kotwani insists that the organisation “does not engage in politics.”
“My only goal is to promote Indian culture”, he claims. “I haven’t visited India since 2020. The trip was right before Covid-19 struck us all. I hope I can make a trip soon,” says Kotwani.
Even though the Russian economy has been hit with a raft of sanctions since Russia invaded Ukraine, Kotwani is still bullish about the country. “Today the country might be in crisis,” he says, “but business is booming for me. I have not faced any setbacks, yet. Thirty-two years of catering high-quality products to the people matter. We will be fine.”
Kotwani says he is focussing his energies on helping Indian students who left Ukraine after the war broke out. “I engaged with people at the Russian Ministry of Education, and they have now agreed to help students who fled Ukraine to complete their degrees in Russia instead,” he says.
The suit-maker is also optimistic about India-Russia relations. “India and Russia have always enjoyed close ties, and I’m sure this will continue. There is scope for far greater economic congruence between the two countries in the future.”
A mad gamble? Perhaps. But, in Kotwani’s case, they’ve always paid off.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)