One aspect of classic menswear that’s better left in the past is the industry’s outdated attitude towards provenance. For decades, heritage brands have leaned on “Made in England” and “Made in Italy” messaging to sell product, implying that clothes made anywhere else are somehow inferior. This is reductive. Our globalized society celebrates the diversity of different cultures and ideas in almost every aspect of modern life—the idea that only certain parts of Europe make ‘luxury’ clothing is misguided, to say the least.
Independent shirtmaker 100Hands proves the point. The brand was founded in 2014 by a husband and wife team, Akshat and Varvara Jain, who met in the corporate finance world and both wanted to do something different. “Akshat’s family has run a cotton spinning and trading business in northern India for over 160 years, and his father added a small shirtmaking facility to the company around 20 years ago,” Varvara explains.
“Akshat had a vision to build this little workshop with six seamstresses into a business creating the very best shirts on the market. We knew nothing about retail or manufacturing, but we both felt that it would be an exciting new challenge for us.” Skip forward to 2020 and 100Hands has a cult following on the menswear scene, known for producing some of the highest quality handmade shirts in the world.
In this light, 100Hands is an international success story in the truest sense of the term. Akshat and Varvara live in Amsterdam, where they met and founded the company, but 100Hands’ shirts are made in a state-of-the-art workshop in Punjab and stocked in boutiques all over the world. The atelier employs over 165 craftspeople, all of whom are highly trained. In fact, the facility has its own training program (even experienced makers who join 100Hands have to be put through their paces) and this dedication is apparent in the final product’s quality. The clue is in the name: a single shirt will pass through 50 pairs of craftspeople’s hands on its way through the company’s workroom.
100Hands offers two quality levels for its shirts: Black Line and Gold Line, both of which can also be made-to-measure or bespoke. A Black Line shirt takes around 16 hours to produce, while a single Gold Line shirt averages just over 30 hours. The latter are particularly impressive (and yes, I have tried one) with a huge amount of precise handwork therein. Each buttonhole takes 45 minutes to stitch by hand, most of the shirt’s seams are turned and felled by hand and each sleeve, too, is inserted by hand, ensuring a consistent finish. The philosophy behind this extra work is simple: “We don’t use handwork for the sake of it,” Varvara says. “We use it where it allows us to be more refined than machine-stitching—it’s all about keeping control over the quality of our shirts.”
Moreover, Akshat and Varvara also lead the way as fair and ethical employers. In the US, factory staff are generally classed as ‘low skill’ workers and paid in line with shelf-stackers at the mall. By contrast, 100Hands pays well above the average wage for skilled labor in India, offers all its staff pensions and the families of workers’ are given medical insurance too. Scholarship funds are available for new applicants and the company also pays for the housing of employees from outside of Punjab. Factory staff even have the option to commute to work on a dedicated bus service.
Despite their top-of-the-line practices, it’s been a hard-fought battle for the Jains to overcome prejudiced assumptions of what “Made in India” means today. “We’ve had to deal with a lot of manufacturing snobbery over the years,” Varvara says. She explains that many retailers rely on European labels “as the primary selling point for shirts, regardless of their cut, stitching or fabric. Thankfully, this is starting to change, customers are looking beyond these preconceptions to the quality of what we offer.”
Now, you have the chance to do this for yourself. As of this week, 100Hands is available in the USA thanks to the efforts of Matt Hranek and Yolanda Edwards (of WM Brown magazine and Yolo Journal, respectively) who have curated a holiday pop-up at Bloomingdale’s, featuring an exclusive ready-to-wear capsule collection from 100Hands, among other choice indie brands. “It’s an exciting moment for us, particularly during a tricky year,” says Varvara. “We’re offering one of our signature traveler’s jackets, plus some shirts that work well with the jacket as a capsule collection.”
Quite apart from the quality of its shirts, 100Hands deserves plaudits for the way it has chosen to operate—putting its people first and planting a flag for ethical made-in-India craftsmanship. It’s a heartening story, and it shows in everything from their shirts’ delicate topstitching to those lovely hand-sewn buttonholes.