By Mike Flaim
This article first appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Massachusetts Family Business magazine.
Very few people can say that their clothing fits them perfectly. For most people, “good enough” is the benchmark, and unless the garment binds like a rubber band or drapes like a car cover, they simply shrug and accept that as standard. Generally we can get by with jacket sleeves that hang a little long or a pair of pants with a hem that rides a little low. It’s only when people realize they need to look their absolute best that they suddenly remember the existence of a whole group of highly skilled craftspeople.
Tailoring is an industry that has existed since the middle ages, when high society conceived that the things people covered themselves with should do more to complement the human form. Ever since then, tailors have been working so that men and women can more easily make an impression; they help people get jobs, close deals and walk more confidently. Their work is essential to some of our most important occasions.
Tailor shops are almost universally small businesses, and many are family-run. The singular importance of referrals allows them to exist for generations without so much as spending the equivalent of a piece of Hancock’s chalk on advertising, while other businesses on the same block can fail despite the best laid promotional schemes of computer mice and admen.
Tailoring requires a keen eye and a high level of dexterity. This, coupled with a latent emphasis on customer service, allow the profession to transcend national and cultural borders in a way very few vocations can. This article features just a few of them, three shops in Boston owned by families whose backgrounds vary immensely, but are united by an entrepreneurial spirit and the uncommon knowledge of a highly technical skill. Beyond that, however, they share the fact that the seed of their entrepreneurship found purchase in another country, and the transplanted roots have taken hold here. Despite their variegated origins, these people have a common thread.
Joining the Family Business – Despite Objections
Binh Tran is a young, second-generation tailor. She and her mother opened the doors to All Fit Tailoring in 2010, but they were adept at working with clothing long before then thanks to Binh’s mother, The Tran, who began sewing at the age of 12. Binh was born in Vung Tau, Vietnam, and spent her childhood there until the family emigrated to the Boston area in 1992. Then in fourth grade, she accompanied her mother on her job searches; at the time Binh was the only one in the family who spoke English.
She helped her mother secure a job in a Boston garment factory as a patternmaker, where she made templates for pieces of fabric, which would then be assembled into clothing. Patternmaking is among the most technical tasks of the fashion industry, and the knowledge of garment construction would allow her, and later her daughter, to approach tailoring from a perspective few have.
Despite Binh’s interest and familiarity with the industry, her mother didn’t want her daughter to be a tailor. “She went through a lot, and she didn’t want that for me,” said Binh. “It’s too hard to make a living because the industry is shipping more and more things overseas. That’s why my mom wanted me to go into nursing. But I always wanted to go back to it.”
Armed with first-hand knowledge of the way clothing is constructed, Binh and her mother opened All Fit Tailoring seven years ago. They sold the patternmaking machines and invested in alteration equipment. They decided to focus on bridal gowns because they saw a void in Boston’s market; there were places that sold gowns, but hardly any that had an on-site tailor. Their first location was a small storefront on Newberry Street, but they quickly outgrew it. Binh began to search for a more suitable space, and her standards were exacting.
She wanted a space large enough to accommodate very long trains on dresses. She needed abundant natural lighting so brides planning outdoor weddings would be able to see how they’d look come the big day. Finally, if such a place could not be found on ground level, then they needed an elevator.
“There are often elderly people who want to be there for their granddaughter’s first fitting, and I didn’t want stairs to prevent the bride’s grandmother from being here with her,” she said.
After two years the Trans found such a spot. 138 Newbury St. checked all the right boxes, and as soon as they signed the papers they began a three-month conversion process. With help from Binh’s husband and his contractor friends they turned the shop into a clean, pearlescent space.
Binh took great care to coordinate the look and function of her shop. For example, instead of practical but unprepossessing metal bars to hold the considerable weight of a dozen or so wedding gowns, she had her husband reinforce the ivory crown molding of the ceiling. With the help of a hooked pole she can raise a gown up among the soft, recessed lighting and place it onto the specially-built lip of the molding. It joins the other gowns hanging there, festooning the ceiling like opulent trim.
It is a place where “the gown can be treated with respect,” she said. “It’s very hard for a bride to trust someone with their dress. You have to give them that sense of comfort, the confidence to leave a dress here and know it’s in good hands.”
There are dozens of dresses between the front and back halves of her business – what brings all these brides through her doors?
“Referrals,” she said. “Yelp and Google reviews definitely help, but it’s only between 5 and 10 percent of business. We don’t pay for advertising.” A person may only see Binh and The Tran once in their life, but that bride has sisters, friends, nieces and coworkers. That’s why they don’t advertise; their effort is their advertising. “I refuse to do things the fastest, cheapest way possible,” she said. “If it doesn’t look beautiful on you, that’s my reputation on the line.”
A Willingness to Educate
Bill Kopellas was born in Boston and has fond memories of growing up in his father’s tailor shop (the eponymous Frank). They’ve been at 58 Winter St. for over 40 years, but Frank has been a tailor for much longer. Born on the Greek island of Peloponnesus, Frank became a tailor’s apprentice at the age of 13.
Like many others before him, Frank saw opportunity in America. He emigrated and opened up a shop on Winter Street, on the second floor of an old building with an unprepossessing sign hanging in the corner window. With a good location, as well as the fact that he’s a master tailor, Frank had little difficulty building his clientele in a new city and a new country. His wife worked by his side as a seamstress, and eventually his son and daughter joined him. Today, Bill and his sister work with their father alongside two other full-time tailors.
What sets Frank’s shop apart from other tailors is that they also sell suits. This was a lot more common years ago, but tailors today typically focus on altering outside garments. Outside garments are of course welcome, but the benefit of selecting a suit from Frank’s, Bill said, is the education that comes with it.
“We pride ourselves on honesty to customers,” he said. “I don’t want to sell you one suit and get you out the door – I want to sell you 30 suits over the course of your lifetime. I will tell you when something doesn’t look good.”
One of the biggest challenges facing the industry is a lack of understanding from customers about how much work is involved in skilled alterations, Bill said.
“People don’t really understand what they’re paying for,” he said. “They buy ill-fitting suits at department stores or worse, online, where the salesperson will give them bad advice and say it will only need $15 or $20 worth of work because they want them to get out the door. In reality, that suit might need $100 worth of work.”
Men may come in wearing a brand-new suit two sizes too big and expecting to pay $20 to have it fit perfectly after tailoring, he said. “I will tell people, ‘I want your business, but I don’t want you throwing your money away. Go get your money back; get a different suit – either from me or another place – that’s your size, because in the end it’s going to be better.”
Bad information and a fundamental misunderstanding about the way a piece of clothing should fit, combined with the skewing of price perception thanks to the rise of fast fashion in the past decade, makes life harder for people like Bill and his father. Still, Bill believes that 90 percent of people understand the time and effort it takes on his part: “it could be a thousand-dollar suit or a hundred-dollar suit; for me it’s the same work,” he said. As for the other 10 percent, he refers back to his willingness to educate; he can show them the difference between quality tailoring and shoddy tailoring, and why Bill and Frank’s approach will always have a place for as long as clothes need to fit.
Four Generations of Maestros
Like Frank Kopellas, Emilio Mauro of Mauro’s in South Boston is also a master tailor. These days the title is not so much a formal accreditation – the process of reaching that level of professional accomplishment and recognition has become less formalized over the years, particularly in America – but when masters like Emilio and Frank were in their salad days it required years of apprenticing and fastidious testing.
Emilio isn’t the only Mauro who can call himself “maestro;” his younger brother is a master tailor, who occasionally works with Emilio in his shop. His late brother Luigi was also a master tailor, as was their father, who followed in the footsteps of his father, who took after his father. The Mauros have four generations of tailoring expertise, all of which was honed just outside of Naples. The latest generation, Emilio and his brothers, emigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s.
Tailor shops and Tokyo high-rises are some of the best places to observe impressive economy of space, and Emilio’s shop is no exception. Tucked at the end of a long corridor in an old commercial building in South Boston, what the shop lacks in square footage it makes up for with the proprietor’s personality.
He’s so focused on the garment he’s working on that he doesn’t notice someone entering his shop. A visitor stood for a moment, afraid to startle anyone whose hands are near a needle moving so fast you can’t see it. After a minute or so Emilio looked up, beamed, and asked how he can help. He speaks with a very heavy Neapolitan accent.
In the middle of a question about what makes his profession unique, he interrupts in the most genteel way possible and says, “My father used to say, ‘How great was it to be a tailor? You could meet the most important people in the world – everybody needs a tailor.’” Well into his seventies, it’s clear his father’s rhetorical question still resonates.
“My father told us when we were kids, ‘Don’t forget; this is the best job in the world,’” he says, seizing his open-sided thimble and flicking it onto the middle finger of his right hand. “He said, ‘You put your thimble on your finger and you can go around the world. You don’t have to carry heavy tools or anything. And everybody, if you are a good tailor, they’ll be looking for you. You can travel the world with a thimble.’”
Along with his trusty thimble and a soft tape measure draped around his neck, his shop contains a few other tools of the trade: a garment press, several sewing machines from the 1950s, one of which has a marked patina by the dial thanks to years of dutiful service, and, of all things, his smartphone.
Emilio is adept with technology. As he speaks about how essential good communication is, he draws out his phone every time he thinks an example would help punctuate his point. With a few quick taps, he’s found the website, the picture or the email he’s referring to. The man insists he’s old – too old to be featured in this article, as he’s afraid it will drum up his business when he’s winding down to retire – but his quick mind and deft fingers betray that idea.
He emails, he texts, he’s on Yelp and he has opinions about things like Google’s reported pay-to-appear search algorithm (a scheme which he dismisses with a wave of his hand and a shake of his head). “At 75,” he says, “you don’t need to advertise. You have your own customers, and if you don’t you’re no good as a tailor. Advertising for us comes free. If you’ve been here for 45, 50 years and you have to advertise to get the business, you are no good.”
When asked if things like Yelp and Google reviews can be traced to a sizable chunk of his business, it is, like the other tailors featured here, not a seismic effect. The recognition heaped upon him online certainly doesn’t hurt, but his industry has worshipped at the altar of customer service for so long that to attribute his esteem to the internet is irreverent.
Like everyone featured here, Emilio came to America to build his future. He loves his home country deeply, as expected – he served faithfully in the Italian army as a young man – but he also loves his adopted country for its ability to allow someone like him to practice their trade, raise a family, and give his progeny opportunities unfathomable to his younger self.
Emilio may well be the last master tailor with the surname “Mauro,” but he’s not in the least bit saddened by it; in fact, he’s elated to have laid the pattern for his family’s success in a country that welcomed him, all while using the talents that were developed over generations in an ancestral home.
Mike Flaim is an associate editor with The Warren Group, publisher of Massachusetts Family Business. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.