(The article was first published in Jul-Aug 2014 edition of Aurora.)
Despite being the CEO of Cotton & Cotton, and the President of Just White Shirts (JWS) and The Shirt Store (TSS), which are located in the US and Canada respectively, Alam Najiullah is anything but a stuffed shirt.
In fact, he is witty, candid, likes to laugh and attributes his foray into the world of shirt making to a “darzi’s challenge.”
The story begins in 1992.
Najiullah returns to Pakistan after working in Dubai, and orders a dozen custom-made shirts at a well-known men’s tailoring store on Tariq Road. He supplies them with the fabric as well as cut-outs of the shirt’s cuffs and collar. To his dismay, all 12 shirts turn out to be “a disaster”, prompting him to say to the person in charge: “It was such a simple job; I gave you the pattern, and told you what lining to use and you manage to ruin them?”
Back came the reply... “If it was such a simple job, then why didn’t you do it yourself?”
The encounter made Najiullah realise that there was a gap in the market for well-tailored shirts, and with the help of two partners, he set up Cotton & Cotton in a small shop in Defence after purchasing two sewing machines and hiring two tailors whom he trained. His colleague, Ayaz ul Haq (who works at Cotton & Cotton even today), took on the role as salesperson and solicited custom shirt orders from professionals such as bank executives and lawyers.
“We would walk into their offices carrying samples of the shirts we had made in our briefcase; it was a rare thing at the time.”
Slowly and surely, and primarily due to word-of-mouth, business grew. “People realised that we were making the best shirts in Pakistan.” Najiullah then decided to broaden his reach and made contact with the leading brands on London’s Jermyn Street, “which has the reputation of making the best shirts in the world.” Eventually, Cotton & Cotton became a supplier for Hilditch & Key, whose shirts are worn by the likes of “Karl Lagerfeld and YSL”.
Having lived abroad for so long he says has taught him that good times come and go. “The global recession was a bad time for JWS and TSS” and “if I lose money, how will I buy a cigar?” Success hasn’t gone to his head, and Najiullah is extremely down to earth.
Four years later, in 1996, Najiullah moved to Canada for personal reasons and ever since he shuttles between Pakistan and Canada. During this period he opened 12 branches of Cotton & Cotton in Pakistan. He also owns three branches of JWS in Canada and one of TSS in Manhattan. The latter was founded by Carol Knop, the author of The Shirt Book (according to Najiullah, Esquire’s editor once said that “anyone who hasn’t read the book, doesn’t know anything about shirt making”).
Najiullah is clearly very passionate about clothing and he has recently ventured into tailoring bespoke suiting. Although he maintains that shirts made in Pakistan (even those made by his competitors) are at par with high-end international brands, suits are a completely different story. “Nobody but nobody in Pakistan can make a suit, they don’t know how to do the felting and lining, or the difference between constructing a full canvas and a half canvas suit.”
To demonstrate the quality of suits that Cotton & Cotton makes, Najiullah takes a suit jacket off a mannequin, squashes it into a ball and straightens it out; the jacket despite all it has endured, does not look too crumpled, thereby proving the quality of work that has gone into “constructing” it. Najiullah then provides a rationale as to why suits made in Pakistan are not well made. “People here don’t know how to measure a suit, because they or the people making them do not wear suits and the artisans are not trained. They wear sherwanis or shalwar kameezes, which require a different kind of construction; they don’t understand the style and cut of a suit.”
Najiullah says that the fabric used to make shirts at Cotton & Cotton is imported, and not made in Pakistan because “Pakistani cloth is not ideal for shirts. The fabric is made for shalwar kameezes and when you wear a shirt made from the same material it looks as if you are wearing a papad (papadum) and papad mai crease par jata hai. That is why I travel to the Far East and Europe to procure good quality cloth.”
He adds that his wife and his newly born child accompany him on his trips, as this is the best way to ensure that they spend as much time together as possible.
Ultimately, for Najiullah, providing good quality products is of the utmost importance. “I don’t do what I do to make money, my objective is to put out quality work, and Cotton & Cotton is now synonymous with nafees kaam.”
Najiullah is fascinated by “things that are crafted, be it furniture, speakers, buildings, interiors... anything that requires design and detail... and when you acquire a taste for such things, it is important to share it.”
When I comment that he hasn’t done too badly for himself, given that Cotton & Cotton is said to make the most expensive shirts in Pakistan, and that his other two companies are probably worth millions of dollars, he shrugs and says: “Allah ka shukar hai, koi disaster nahin.” Given his success, and given that he still spends a substantial amount of time in Pakistan, I remark that his photographs do not grace the society pages. He retorts by saying: “I don’t know how to pose with a cigar in my mouth.”
He adds with a laugh that he thinks that the people who appear on those pages are a tad pretentious. Having lived abroad for so long he says has taught him that good times come and go. “The global recession was a bad time for JWS and TSS” and “if I lose money, how will I buy a cigar?” Success hasn’t gone to his head, and Najiullah is extremely down to earth.
“I have no problem driving an Alto,” he says, which brings us to another one of his passions – cars. In another life, before his foray into shirt making, Najiullah studied car design and even built a car, which brought him to the attention of a local publication and then led to a job at a leading automaker. Although due to reasons he doesn’t want to get into, his tenure there didn’t last long, his passion for cars has not waned.
After much prodding, Najiullah admits that he owns several cars in Canada, including a couple for racing purposes only, and that he participates in racing tournaments there. He is also a member of the Royal Canadian Auto Association, although being a bit of a workaholic poses a hindrance in pursuing this passion on a regular basis. Still, the fascination for cars is apparent in the fact that he primarily reads car magazines (in addition to “boring stuff like Forbes”) and for him, the best way to unwind is a long drive.
I am curious about the gap between his two passions – shirts and cars. To which he says something to the effect that “the curves on a Ferrari require the same precision as the curves on a suit.” Ultimately, what comes across is that Najiullah is fascinated by “things that are crafted, be it furniture, speakers, buildings, interiors... anything that requires design and detail... and when you acquire a taste for such things, it is important to share it.”
He clearly has an eye for aesthetics, and isn't afraid to share it.
Mamun M. Adil is Manager, Business Development & Research, DAWN. email@example.com