How Indian Madras Cloth Became Menswear’s Latest Fabric Du Jour
The Original Madras Trading Company helped popularise South India’s signature plaid fabric in the states. Now, it’s making its own covetable clothing.
For a brand that released its first collection just three years ago, the Original Madras Trading Company seems to be everywhere these days. From its own-label clothing, which can be found on its website or on the shelves of over 40 independent retailers across the globe, to its collaborations with the likes of Sid Mashburn, WM Brown, and Bergdorf Goodman, the New York-based firm is on a roll.
The secret to its success? The original Original Madras Trading Company has been in the game for five decades, since the grandfather of present owner Prasan Shah emigrated from Chennai to New York City to sell the lightweight, handspun cotton fabric to major American names such as Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren. (The fabric has been produced in India for centuries, but OTMC can be credited with popularising it stateside.)
Madras, which could be easily identified by its colourful checked patterns, quickly became a prep staple—it even appeared on the cover of The Official Preppy Handbook. But its associations with the blue blazer set obscured the fabric’s rich, international history, a story that Shah hopes he can finally tell now that the business proudly makes wares under its own name.
“In over 400 years, madras cloth has never been out of fashion,” Shah tells Robb Report. “Madras cloth has circled the globe countless times and continues to be appropriated by different groups as their own,” he continues, citing such disparate examples as Nantucket preppies, the residents of the Caribbean island of Martinique who consider it a feature of their national dress, and the Tamils of Southern Indian who wear it as a sarong-like garment called a lungi.
What matters most, to Shah’s thinking, is how madras is made. His business continues to produce madras on traditional handlooms in the Indian city of Chennai (which was founded in the British colonial period as Madras). It now manufactures it into clothing on the same site. Gaining control over the manufacturing process has allowed the Original Madras Trading Company to break out of the fabric’s preppy mould and experiment with such styles as band collar popovers, short-sleeved Cuban shirts, jumpsuits and its own, hooded take on the kurta, a loose tunic typical to South Asia.
While the company is finally giving the fabric’s native origins their due, it hasn’t shied from putting out summertime classics like short-sleeved button-down shirts and unstructured sport jackets. And it’s opened up its extensive fabric archive to collaborators, which has yielded an exclusive collection for Bergdorf Goodman based on archival patterns modified by its men’s fashion director Bruce Pask, and a capsule for WM Brown magazine featuring three-button sport jackets, shorts, and even lungis in archival patterns selected by its editor Matt Hranek.
The Original Madras Trading Company remains in the business of weaving exclusive cloths for other clothiers, but now finds itself being name-checked in the process. This season saw the firm weave four exclusive cloths for Sid Mashburn, and it also supplied proprietary fabric for a new line of shirts set to be released by The Armoury in June. Looking to the future, a collaboration between the Original Madras Trading Company and Nigel Cabourn is in the works for spring 2024.
“Madras is a fabric I grew up with—it just makes me feel good all over,” Mashburn tells Robb Report of the partnership. “This is the first season we’ve partnered with OMTC, and it feels to us like they have preserved that sense of tradition and handcraft and modernised it in the right ways.”
Importantly, such relationships also help the Original Madras Trading Company keep the craft alive. “Madras through our collaborations gains a wider audience and allows us to keep our looms busy through the year and continue to employ those generations of madras weavers who are slowly becoming fewer and fewer,” says Shah, who adds that the business has begun a program to train new weavers to work on its handlooms.
It’s a mad(ras) world out there, and the Original Madras Trading Company intends to keep it that way.
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