Anjali’s new assistant was entirely as her uncle had advertised. Anjali’s new junior partner, Panya, quickly asserted herself, managing the varying workload and even finding two capable part-time assistants to cover weekly and annual business cycles: the windy weekends, the private functions, the festive celebrations, the parties of the early spring.
The pressure and worry displaced by Anjali’s new and capable assistant provided further opportunity to design her own garments, rather than rescue the remnants of someone else’s.
‘I need to construct garments from a scribble on paper to the complete structure that enhances the human form and presence,’ Anjali pitched to herself as she sat at the shop’s kitchenette table, a tap dripping effortlessly in the background. ‘Threads will not thrive unless we can offer a comprehensive tailoring service.’
This thought was attractive to Anjali and, being attractive, seemed correct.
Such a statement is no sooner released into the world, than it is seized upon by doubts and misgivings. A succession of barriers and blockages surfaced ahead of her. She could not conceive of a realistic way through all of them. The demands of the growing business, the watchful presence of her uncle, the clients that wanted no more than a precisely defined alteration or repair, all seemed to confirm that building a business designing garments in this damp and unfashionable valley was a hapless pursuit.
When mired by the drag of willow branches, and obstructed by obstinate boulders, the river will still wind its way through to the sea.
The way through, for Anjali, came one morning before the shop was open, when the two ladies were reviewing the growing list of things that needed to be addressed. Panya, at the same time, was unpicking some stitches on an embroidered dressing gown.
In a rare moment of frustration Panya remarked, ‘I think it is always better to make smaller stitches than bigger stitches. You can adjust as you go along with small stitches, whilst the occasional errors, that are inevitable when I try to save time by using larger stitches, often need to be unpicked.’
She gasped in exasperation and set the garment down on the shop counter. ‘I find this a most painful process – tiptoeing backwards when there is so much work in front of us.’
This statement of Panya’s returned to Anjali’s thoughts, as she stared at the ceiling of her bedroom that night. The clarity of flowing thought to be found in the early-morning hours caused her to reason in this way.
‘Consecutive alteration is like a river that flows finally into design. Every alteration is an act in the fashioning of a garment but broken down into smaller steps. Alteration would be a worthy ambition for a fashion designer. Small steps should be taken towards a tailored look and feel to a garment. Clothing should be fashioned by alteration. It will become a far better fit for the role it is playing, through the refining design of each consecutive alteration.’
She wrote in her bedside notebook by the light of a pocket torch.
‘It is the business of the fashion designer to extend the capability and reach of a garment, making it supportive of the widest needs of its wearer. A progressive measure has always delivered a more creative and practical solution than the leap of blind faith that is the new fashion collection. It is surely better to provide what people need by reason of the challenges they face in their all-to-real lives, rather than try to convince them of what they should wear – in order to satisfy off-the-shelf presumed requirements – for one transitory season.’
Each day that followed brought Anjali a new idea. It became a flow of small alterations to her thinking which, when tacked together in a new notebook, established the structure of a surely successful business. She explained her ideas to Panya over the hum of a sewing machine and the insistent hiss of a commercial iron.
‘The type of clothing that one takes to a tailor for alteration or repair, is the type that has accompanied one through the difficulties of life,’ Anjali said to Panya on the first day. ‘Any piece of clothing that has provided such comfort and support, for such a period of time, is bound to show its scars. People are no different to their clothing; they are creased and become misshapen and torn in the same way. The successful tailor can see beyond the hemline and the cuff. If you begin by addressing the person – understanding the situation of the wearer – you will grasp what it is that will make the client feel good in a garment and, from this, the garment that is best suited to look good on them. I cannot look at a summer dress that reaches and hangs handsomely, and then see a head that is strained, faded or snagged sitting above it.’
On the second day, as a customer left the shop with a newly waterproofed coat folded neatly beneath his arm, Anjali said to Panya, ‘I want garments that, like their wearers, are durable and do not easily unravel during the most abrasive of occasions. Given the right level of attention a garment will speak generously about a person and will wear comfortably enough to obscure the occasional imperfection. But you cannot expect a garment to lie, it is beyond its capability. You cannot expect to exploit a garment, it will protest, and it will do it loudly.’
By the third day it was clear to Panya that Anjali was allowing herself to be distracted from the work needed if they were ever to check the growing backlog of distressed garments hanging in the workroom of Threads. The main thing that they lacked, in Panya’s view, was enough time. It was therefore unfortunate that Anjali, whose thoughts were, in Panya’s view, not helpful at this moment, chose to remark:
‘We have to find the time to understand what it is that our customers must face in their lives. There may well be a need for the alteration of a garment, but only when the fault lies with the garment.’
Panya continued working, her sewing machine cutting out the end of Anjali’s sentence.
‘I am listening,’ she assured Anjali.
Anjali waited until Panya’s sewing machine had settled itself.
‘We can advise what alterations will be needed, so that a garment offers a fitting level of support given the customer’s situation. But we must be honest with the customer. Sometimes – often I think – the customer needs time to catch up with the garment.’
‘We are tailors,’ said Panya. ‘We improve garments. We cannot rectify the failings of people.’
‘I have known people who could pour sophistication out of a flour sack,’ replied Anjali. ‘We alter the clothing to suit the needs of the person and alter the person to more neatly fit the real potential of the clothing we alter for them. It is a question of neither the clothing nor the person being stretched beyond the capability of the material from which they are made.’
‘And how do you expect a simple tailor to do that?’
‘One alteration at a time. The right cut, the right confidence. The right colour, the right attitude.’
Over the next two weeks Anjali continued to spin her thoughts together until they formed a long and profitable yarn.
‘I remember,’ said Anjali to Panya, whilst slowly and steadily typing an invoice into the computer, ‘what my uncle told me on one of his many visits. He said the wealthy tailor adds value to every alteration.’
‘So, we should encourage a person to understand what is realistically achievable from a single alteration. Then we go further, and we reveal to that person what the next alteration can achieve. We give the customer the time, and the support that customer requires, to catch up with the altered capabilities of that garment.’
The screen Anjali was working on disappeared and, instead, Anjali could at last see the end of this long thread of ideas coming into focus.
‘Alteration becomes a journey, Panya, and not just a service. Clothing design becomes a process of successive alteration, consecutive steps in the dance of what the designer can create and what the customer will wear. The customer and the garment will blend like cotton and wool, each promoting the performance of the other.’
Anjali pressed the return button on the keyboard with the flourish of a difficult job at last completed.
‘I think you need to do this Anjali,’ Panya said suddenly through the steam rising from a commercial iron. ‘If your suggestions work, we are both better off. If they don’t, I will at least have managed to press more trousers.’
Later, with the evening’s saucepan of masala chai heating on the gas cooker, Panya voiced her considered and final view on Anjali’s scheme.
‘Your plan needs to be given some time, but not too much time,’ she said with Panya preciseness. ‘There are opportunities and there are distractions. We need to find out quickly what we are fashioning here. This little business will not survive for long if it miscalculates. Remember Anjali; you need to think this project through carefully. Always measure twice, and cut just the once.’