THIS IS WHERE the power elite in Russia routinely strips down to its bare minimum―The Imperial Tailoring Co. There are a few secrets to power in Russia―the right connections, work ethic, ability to drink vodka and a Sammy Kotwani suit. And, it is located close to the most powerful address in Russia―the Kremlin. Inside, it is a gentleman’s den: dark red walls, plush leather chairs, a gleaming piano under the arches, a sewing machine and glittering gold chandeliers.
The three Kotwani brothers―Sammy, Andy and Jimmy―have been tailors to diplomats, politicians and seven heads of state.
So, there is Nursultan Nazarbayev, former president of Kazakhstan; Serzh Sargsyan, former president of Armenia; former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev’s sons-in-law as well as Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. “I have been dressing Mishustin for 18 years,” says Sammy. “I have lucky hands, or whatever you may say, all my people have grown.” Mishustin came to the Kotwanis when he was in a financial company in St Petersburg, before rising to power.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the shop when he was a comedian. “From the day he became president and after the special military operation, I have told myself that I am not going to dress any more comedians,” he says, “because I don’t want to make any other comedians president.”
Even Sadhguru can claim to have a Kotwani outfit―golf pants―offering a glimpse of the access that the Kotwanis have even in India. They made short kurtas for Narendra Modi during his 2008 visit as Gujarat chief minister. “The fabric we chose was exclusive―only two metres available and only for him,” says Sammy. “People still don’t know what fabric it was.”
The Kotwanis swear by their fabric―the best, most expensive and extremely rare. “When you stitch for a prime minister, it has to be exclusive,” says Andy. “You cannot use the same fabric for other cabinet ministers.” Everything is hand-stitched. A suit takes a month to make.
With 10 branches across the region―as far as Baku, Astana and even Kyiv―the Kotwanis have stitched a success story through grit, determination and the Indian entrepreneurial spirit. “I am the first Indian to get a passport without marrying a Russian,” says Sammy. His red passport arrived in 2012, courtesy President Vladimir Putin. Very much a Putin admirer, Sammy does not list the most powerful man in Russia as his client, but rumour has it that for the Kotwanis to have an outlet in the location it does, the president’s measurements must be very much in their books.
Sammy is the president of the Indian Business Alliance, and wants to become the bridge between India and Russia to boost trade. A textile engineer, he grew up in a Mumbai chawl, he claims. He first joined his uncle’s business, went to London, trained in Hong Kong and worked across Africa, where Manoj Kotwani became Sammy. “Manoj was too difficult to pronounce,” he says. He arrived in Moscow in 1990, just in time to see the Soviet Union break up. He knew no Russian and had just $300 and yet rose to find his feet.
The shop is open seven days. And, no visit to the shop is complete without samosas―crisp, hot and homemade. The Kotwanis have a fix―achaar from Manipur. “My grandfather was from Sindh and he had 470 acres and more than 1,000 cattle,” says Sammy. “Each day, even though there were only five people in the house, food was cooked for 40 people. If more than 40 were expected, he would tell my grandmother. People say customer is king. But, for us, customer is god. You can’t go back from my shop without eating.” And, there is masala chai, always.