The Tailor Versus the Menswear Designer

Recently, custom clothier Jon Green mentioned me and my film in the Off The Cuff blog. Here’s what he said:

There are those who believe that to be a credible custom clothier one must actually be a tailor and make the clothing …. To me it is impossible to be a great craftsman responsible for making the clothes and a ‘front’ man responsible for sales, marketing, and administration. Artisan craftsmen have very special skills, but they are not all encompassing. However, there persists a tradition in New York of custom tailors who “do it all.”

That got me thinking — so I asked menswear writer Bruce Boyer, my friend and adviser on all things sartorial, to contribute this guest post with some background on the topic:

Ever since the early 1960s, when the Designer Movement in menswear began with Pierre Cardin, John Weitz, and Bill Blass, there has been something of an ongoing discussion about the true custom tailor versus the haute couture menswear designer. As the price of high-end designer gear escalated over the years to approach — and in some instances eclipse — the price of a bespoke suit, that discussion has only intensified. I’ve had this discussion often over the ensuing years with both real tailors and designers (who can be thought of as haute couture “front men”). Each usually feels the other is unnecessary. The designer feels the tailor is merely a technician and has a minimal taste level and therefore can offer no style guidance to the customer. The tailor, on his side of it, feels the designer has no training or technical ability and therefore is more like a hemorrhoid: a needless, painful addition.

Writer Bruce Boyer (care of The Sartorialist)

The old tradition in tailoring was that the tailor simply did what the customer wanted. This was an acceptable modus operandi because most men who frequented tailors knew exactly what they wanted. But as the tailoring firms grew in size and reputation — particularly on Savile Row (at the end of the 19th century, Poole’s alone was employing 300 tailors) — and as those in the middle classes got a bit more money, the “front man” came into his own. Usually these were young, sophisticated men just down from Oxford or Cambridge where they had a wide range of friends whom they were expected to steer to their tailors). The firms employed these young fellows because they were well connected, charming, chic, and spoke well. They worked the front of the shop, and the technicians were called in after the cloth and styling had been chosen.

I don’t mean to obfuscate, but I tend to agree with both sides of this issue, not because I’ve got the world’s greatest diplomatic skills, but because both sides are right. Tailors are highly trained technicians with great skill and craftsmanship. It takes more years of training, apprenticeship, and practice to become a credible journeyman tailor than it does to become a physician. But many (either tailors or physicians) have no sense of taste or style because they simply don’t travel in the same circles as their illustrious clients or understand their lifestyles, interests, or point of view. On the other kid-gloved hand, most haute couture men’s designers couldn’t even sew on a button if you stuck a Berreta up their nose. But they may well have a high level of taste, go golfing with their clients, or be invited to dinner, and have their own exquisitely developed sense of style.

A suit by Anderson & Sheppard

So, what to do? The solution taken by many men interested in the more rarefied heights of accoutrement is to rely on those tried-and-true tailoring firms (Anderson & Sheppard, Caraceni, Poole’s, Nino Corvato, Leonard Logsdail, etc) because the styling is a known commodity, is already “set” (i.e., there’s a house style, and both the customer and the tailor know what this is, which avoids misunderstandings all around). There is a carefree certainty: neither the customer nor the tailor has to make any but the smaller decisions of detailing. When a man thinks about going to a new tailor, what he must know is merely what the preferred house style is.

But, again, should a man need real guidance, he must understand that most tailors will not deviate from their accustomed house style, regardless of what they may tell a prospective customer. They’re accustomed to cutting their cloth a certain way, fitting their customers a certain way, seeing their customers in a certain silhouette. The customer must find a tailor who agrees with him, because the tailor will undoubtedly not be persuaded to change the habits of a lifetime.

Designers are more given to experiment and often more concerned with styling. They also may be more sensitive to aesthetic concerns: does the shade of that blue worsted fabric you’re eying really suit your complexion? Might not a slightly longer or shorter jacket give you a better line and thinner appearance? Should you, at 5′ 4″ and 260 lbs, really be wearing that large a plaid pattern?

Master tailor Nino Corvato

I wouldn’t want to make a case for one or the other. It may simply come down to this: if you know exactly what you want, find the tailor who can do it for you. If you need guidance, you may want someone with a highly developed sense of style. I’m sure this will not endear me to either camp, but there you are. It’s like going to church, isn’t it? Many people attend and there’s a lot going on — but that doesn’t mean everybody understands it all.

Postscript: In my humble opinion, Nino Corvato (a character in MEN OF THE CLOTH) is an exceptional tailor who doesn’t need a “front man” because he’s in the enviable position of not having to “market” his services. And while he has his own “house style” or expression, he’s always willing to try new things to please his clients (within boundaries of good taste and reason).

Writer Gay Talese on the Tailoring Craft

I wanted to share an article I came across not too long ago written by Italian-American writer Gay Talese for Vanity Fair magazine’s web site a couple of years ago. I met Mr. Talese several years ago when I first started working on MEN OF THE CLOTH and was researching my characters and the world they inhabit. I had read Unto the Sons, his immigrant saga of how his family came to America. In the opening pages of the book, I loved how Talese described his Calabrian father and his tailoring trade as “the reputable but precarious life of an artist with a needle and thread.” It’s a phrase I’ve often borrowed.

I also knew that Gay Talese favored Brioni suits and was interviewed for the book Brioni: Fifty Years of Style. I recently watched an interesting video interview with him online in which he maintained that one of the lessons he took from his father was to approach his work as a writer in a way that is “not done quickly or casually, because it had to withstand time.” Needless to say, I share that view, for I’ve spent a great deal of time getting to know my characters and their craft, and building a trust and rapport with them.

In the article for the Vanity Fair site, “The Scion, the Stitch, and the Wardrobe,” he reminisces about his father, and his father’s cousin, Antonio Cristiani, a successful tailor in Paris. Talese characterizes these craftsmen as “an endangered species” — and indeed they are. He writes, “I’m mainly interested in is the aesthetics of the tailoring profession, and my small part within it as a patron, a preservationist, and an advocate of the perfect fit— and the idea that measurements can alter the mind.”

And here he expresses a sentiment I’m trying awfully hard to get across in my film: “When I’m wearing one of my custom suits, I’m in harmony with my highest ideals, my worship of great workmanship.”

Glovemaker Keeps Dream Alive in New York

Another story that caught my eye a few days later had a more inspiring tone, if a bit bittersweet. The New York Times Style section ran a feature (Heir to a Glove Town’s Legacy) with  a Gloversville, NY dateline. The town in upstate New York was once the center of the glovemaking universe, home to countless craftsmen.  Now, virtually singlehandedly, glovemaker Daniel Storto is keeping the dream alive.

(Photo by Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times)

(Photo of Daniel Storto by Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times)

The president of the Gloversville Chamber of Commerce pointed out that “When the last of the old-timers retired, their skills went with them.” Then seven years ago, Daniel Storto, a Seventh Avenue designer (born to a family of immigrant Italian tailors) transplanted himself to Gloversville. Vogue editor Hamish Bowles calls him “the haute couturier of gloves.”

Storto worked for many years with the late legendary designer Geoffrey Beene, and with the likes of Dries Van Noten and smaller labels like Duckie Brown. The Times piece said that “He makes beautiful unlined lamb suede gloves that connoisseurs order by the half-dozen, apparently undaunted by prices that start at $450 a pair.” In 2007 his L.O.V.E. gloves were a cover feature story in American Craft magazine.

Here’s the emotional heart of this story: Storto said “I thought I was a glove maker, but I wasn’t a glove maker at all until I met the old-timers. Until I came here, I had no idea what you could do with the craft.” Those old-timers were  so “inspired by his efforts to elevate their craft” that “many of them made him a gift of their tools.”

And my favorite anecdote: “The maul he uses daily to make die cuts on leather once belonged to Joe Pagano, a craftsman from one of the Neapolitan dynasties that trace their history as glove makers to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.”

“I wanted to pay him, but he wouldn’t let me,” Mr. Storto told The Times. “He told me: ‘That’s the history. The tools get passed down from glove maker to glove maker, and you’re it.’ ”

And Storto apparently enjoys the laidback lifestyle in Gloversville. “There really are more important things in life” than making money, he said. Spoken like a true artisan.

French Artisans Struggle to Stay Afloat

A couple of stories in the news recently highlighted the state of craftsmanship on both sides of the Atlantic. One piece, in the Wall Street Journal, was titled “Couture Artisans Seek French Aid.”The lead paragraph stated that “France’s specialized embroiderers, seamstresses, tailors and hatmakers — once the backbone of a thriving fashion business–are today among the hardest hit victims of the global slowdown in luxury-goods sales.”

It’s sad to say, but the famous “petites mains” of the French luxury goods sector are struggling mightily and  the French government may have to step in to provide economic aid to these craftsmen. This sector is so intimately ties with France’s image and longstanding reputation as a fashion mecca, that it’s troubling to contemplate what would happen without the existence of these artisans. The number of “highly skilled” artisans employed in the country has reportedly dropped 80 %.

France is now considering tax breaks and new labeling rules that would highlight “the origin or artisanal nature” of a product (which  I think is a great idea). And then there’s Chanel, which has wisely been buying a number of these artisans in an attempt to preserve its ability to create those most elaborate couture gowns.  It’s interesting that Chanel actually requires that its own products be sourced in France.

HBO’s “Schmatta” Film is a Must-See

The opening scenes of “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags,” are set to George Gershwin’s incomparable “Rhapsody in Blue,” as the screen fills with a visual symphony of spinning spools of thread and images of a once-glorious garment industry that was the biggest single employer in New York City.

dress forms_web

Airing on HBO tonight (with repeat broadcasts through November) this HBO documentary directed by Marc Levin is filled with a nostalgia for a bygone era of American clothing manufacturing, sidewalks crowded with workers pushing racks of clothes down Seventh Avenue, showrooms bustling with department store buyers and garmentos driving a hard bargain….kind of how I remember it all when I was a men’s wear market editor.

The black and white archival footage of sweat shops, Ellis Island and the Lower East side neighborhood of countless immigrants is unforgettable. And listening to Stan Herman (past president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America) recount how all the tailors would literally stream out of 530 and 550 Seventh Avenue is hard to imagine when they’ve now been reduced to the barest trickle.

Against the backdrop of unprecedented losses in U. S. manufacturing jobs, Bruce Raynor, the former General President of the labor union UNITE HERE, reminds us in “Schmatta” that “the garment unions provided for an entree into the middle class. So many lawyers and doctors and politicians and Supreme Court justices — they’re one generation out of the garment factories in New York.”

Ladies Union_web

And as we find ourselves in the middle of the Congressional debates on health care reform, Raynor tells us that “the garment industries were really precursors to many of the programs in the New Deal. Social Security, pensions were adopted by the New Deal on a societal basis. It was the lifting of those workers from poverty to the middle class that revolutionized America.” Indeed.

Even though I worked for years at Fairchild, the media company covering the fashion industry, watching this film is the first time I’ve seen a history of the U.S. garment industry that synthesizes so many major turning points: the the strides achieved by the labor union movement; the beginning of the government’s move toward deregulation and the breaking of unions in the Reagan era; the uproar over the conditions in sweat shops abroad; the signing of NAFTA during the Clinton years (and the devastating effect on domestic clothing manufacturing); the rise of celebrity designers; and the financial meltdown of recent memory.

Waterford Crystal Artisans Lose Their Livelihood

I noted that yesterday a major exhibition celebrating the 250th Anniversary of Wedgwood (founded in 1759) opened at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington, D.C. (it runs through Feb. 27, 2010). As you may or may not know, Wedgwood (of the famous china) is part of Waterford Wedgwood plc, the brand’s parent company.

Waterford maintains that it is “the leading brand of premium crystal.” Its web site has a page that features the artisans who create Waterford products (its engraver and master cutters who have worked there for decades). One of those artisans is master cutter Tom Power who began his career there in 1969. His bio says that “One of his great works includes the Waterford Crystal Ball, lowered at the Times Square New Year’s celebration in New York.” Waterford was founded in 1783 in the port town of Waterford, Ireland.

What the site won’t tell you is that on January 5, 2009, parts of the company, including the main Irish and UK operations, were placed in receivership after the heavily-indebted firm failed to find a buyer. The Waterford crystal factory in Kilbarry, Ireland ceased operating and 480 people lost their jobs. But guess what? Those workers continued going to their “jobs” and literally occupied the factory for months, hoping for a solution.

The New York Times reported that “The crystal company has posted huge losses in the past few years, and much of its manufacturing is already done in factories in cheaper countries abroad. The workers fear that all their experience and all their expertise, not to mention the long history of crystal-making in Waterford, are in danger of disappearing.”

“If it’s mass-produced, the craftsmanship we have here could be lost forever, so we’re fighting for that as well,” one worker told the Times. Sean Egan was an engraver “who had been an apprentice at the factory for a decade, from age 15 to 25, before he was allowed to wield his tools unsupervised. He is 50 now. ‘It’s extremely hard to learn, and machines can’t do it,’ he said. It’s like playing the piano. You can learn three chords and get away with it, but if you want to learn classical piano, you have to practice all the time.”

“When Mr. Egan heard that he had lost his job and came to find the doors locked, he was filled with an outrage similar, he said, to that felt by people thrown out of their homes during the Irish famine. ‘That is no way to treat people, to stop them from coming into their own factory,’ he said.”

KPS Capital Partners, a private equity company based in New York, purchased Waterford Wedgwood in March, but the Kilbarry factory was not part of the sale. The irony is that the factory is one of southeast Ireland’s biggest tourist attractions, drawing about 350,000 visitors a year.

About a week ago, the remaining 170 Waterford workers were given their notice, the Irish Times reported. A spokesman for trade union Unite, which represents the staff, said it was a “sad day for the area and for Ireland.” Indeed.


Renewed Attention on New York City’s Garment District

In the last month I’ve noticed a string of New York garment center-related news. First the New York Times reported that NYC’s garment district “is in danger of extinction,” which many designers say could jeopardize the city’s status as a world fashion capital. The biannual Fashion Week shows “generate hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity.”

And here’s a sobering statistic: it’s estimated that only 5 percent of the clothing sold nationally is made in the U.S. (mostly in NYC and LA). But because those products are more high-end, they represent 24 percent of total national sales.

“If you don’t have production in the garment center, there would be no reason for designers and suppliers to cluster in the district,” said Barbara Blair Randall, executive director of the Fashion Center Business Improvement District. “We’re down to 9,000 jobs.”

The Bloomberg administration is now considering designating one or more large buildings in the garment center solely for clothing production, the Times reported. And a group of “industry shop owners” have formed a group called Save the Garment Center. Designer Yeohlee Teng summed it up: “Access to manufacturers is profound. After all, fashion is about timing.”

save-the-garment-center

CNN joined the chorus with a feature on NYC’s garment district and the loss of American manufacturing jobs. As in the Times piece, it credited the recession, rising rent and cheap labor overseas for destroying jobs in the garment district. And it cited an even lower percentage (3 %) of clothing sold in the States that is made here. The conclusion: “Manhattan’s apparel manufacturers see their future in high-end small batch production that designers don’t want to send overseas. It’s work that would preserve the 9,000 manufacturing jobs in the garment district.”

And then earlier this week I attended a panel during Independent Film Week here in Manhattan that was titled “Made in America: Putting a Human Face on a Changing Economy.” It featured the filmmakers of two HBO films: “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant” and “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags.” The latter film (airing October 19) covers the decline of NYC’s garment industry. One of its subjects is Joe Raico, a fabric cutter who is president of Local 10, the cutters’ union. He reiterated that “the garment industry was once one of the biggest employers in New York City. Most of those jobs are gone….How do I compete with someone who makes $5 a week? It’s impossible.”

036_52_Garment_District Needle & thread

Regarding his involvement in the film, Raico said “I was very happy to be doing something for working people.” Director/Producer Marc Levin added: “We used to admire working people…there were movies about them…We’ve got to redesign and refashion our values.”

Designer Nanette Lepore echoed Levin’s sentiment in a passionate piece she wrote last spring for The Huffington Post (which I wholeheartedly endorse) titled “Save the Garment Center.” Here’s an excerpt:

“I often think about the impact my family craftsmanship had on me. It gave me the tools I need to create and be fearless without limitations. Knowing that one has the potential to build something from a pile of raw materials is empowering. It’s a gift that our children might not receive.

Eighty percent of my products are made in America in a 10 block radius from my office in New York City’s Garment Center. They are assembled by skilled craftsmen who also immigrated here with a trade just like my family. I treasure being able to watch my product develop from a roll of fabric into a beautiful garment hanging in a shop. That garment was designed in my studio on 35th street, the pattern digitized on 38th street, then passed to a cutter around the corner, then bins of cut work trundled to a factory on 39th street, to then be sewn together. All the while each step being closely monitored by my staff.

036_52_Garment_District

My company alone keeps about 10 factories busy. Those factories make up about 300 jobs in New York City. However, the landlords, the restaurant and hotel union, and the developers want to annihilate our 100 year old Garment Center. Their vision is one sprawling, mall-type maze, from Time Square to Macy’s. The homogenizing and “mall-i-fying” of our city continues. The landlords are pushing hard against the city to free up the New York City Garment Center zoning.

But what of the pride of a nation that can create its own goods? What of the fate of the designers, manufacturers and tradesmen who set up shop in the Garment Center? Who decides these businesses are not important? Fashion and its spin offs are important to the NYC economy. There has never been a more critical time to buy American made products.

Let’s show the politicians that we are invested in saving our country’s manufacturing system! Send your comments to Mayor Bloomberg’s office. Take a stand!”

Brioni’s First Designer T-shirt

Last month there was an extensive article in the paper of record about Brioni’s move to incorporate more casual clothing in its mix, in keeping with the global trend. The New York Times reported that the company decided to come out with its first T-shirt ($250), saying “it’s a telling sign of how both the financial crisis and changing consumer habits are forcing even the most conservative, family-owned luxury goods makers to adapt to a new world.”

While Brioni remains profitable,  unfortunately it has been “forced to reduce the shifts of its 1400 tailors, seamstresses and cutters in the Abruzzo region.”

Yes, every company has to make concessions to the economy and to the changes in the lifestyle of its clientele. But for me, here’s the important part: “Unlike such bigger rivals as Zegna, Brioni has refused to move any of its manufacturing out of Italy to cheaper locales like Mexico.” And for this, I have to commend the company’s management — because once you’ve toured the factory in Penne, Italy and interviewed its tailors and workers, you will never look at one of Brioni’s suits in the same way again. I’ve been there about four or five times and never tire of it. Plus, Penne is such a charming town located in a beautiful region of Italy.

Moroni’s Portrait of a Renaissance Tailor

One of my favorite images that I came across as I was doing visual research for MEN OF THE CLOTH is a painting of a Renaissance era tailor by Giovanni Battista Moroni, a portrait painter of the 16th century. I discovered this image at the New York Public Library’s research branch in Midtown. You may notice it as one of the images in the beginning montage of the Men of the Cloth trailer. It’s also featured on my film’s web site.  Check out the Wikipedia entry.

"The Tailor" By Giovanni Battista Moroni

"The Tailor" By Giovanni Battista Moroni

A couple of years ago, I discovered an article in London’s Guardian newspaper by art critic Jonathan Jones, who waxed poetic, calling this work of art in the National Gallery  a “masterpiece” and labeling Moroni “an obscure genius.” Jones said that Moroni gave his tailor “the same nobility of pose and countenance as his aristocratic clients” because he identified with “workers.” It’s fascinating stuff – and makes me think fondly of my Renaissance art history class at NYU!

Men of the Cloth Filming Locations

As you might imagine, making MEN OF THE CLOTH has entailed a lot of travel over the years – both in the U.S. and abroad in Italy. Usually my crew and I are running around all day until dinnertime filming our interviews and footage, with no time to sightsee. But when I can, I sneak in a few photos here and there.

Abruzzo & The Appenines

Abruzzo & The Appenines

One of my favorite places is the region of Abruzzo, which I’ve visited several times. Sadly, it was in the news this spring because of the powerful earthquake that devastated the area around L’Aquila – the base for the G8 Summit of world leaders held in July. Abruzzo is not as well known as Umbria or Tuscany, but with its rugged terrain and views of the Apennines, it’s spectacular nonetheless.

All over the region, I found the food and local wine in even the most humble trattoria to be absolutely amazing. There are so many Italian Americans from Abruzzo here in the U.S. But with regard to the characters in my film, master tailor Checchino Fonticoli hails from the region (the town of Penne), as does Joe Centofanti’s family, and Nino Corvato’s wife. Take a look at a snapshot I took:

Palermo, Sicily (where Nino Corvato is from) made a big impression on me, especially its dazzling mix of architecture — Norman, Arab, Byzantine, Gothic, Baroque, and Spanish. Many monuments in the city center are illuminated at night, resulting in a magical effect. Check out a couple of shots I took of the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi:

Facade of the Teatro Politeama in Palermo, Sicily

Facade of the Teatro Politeama in Palermo, Sicily

Sculptures on the roof of the Teatro Politeama

Sculptures on the roof of the Teatro Politeama

Ardmore, Pa, home of Joe Centofanti, is a charming suburb of Philadelphia with a wonderful mix of ethnic restaurants, beautiful homes and little boutiques. These are shots taken by my faithful intern, Victoria Lombardi:

Joe Centofanti's shop & a view of Ardmore, PA

Joe Centofanti's shop & a view of Ardmore, PA

And New York City is…well… it’s New York City! It’s the place where I grew up (after leaving Greece as a child), so it’s both familiar and constantly changing. When I first started filming Nino Corvato, his workroom was on 52nd and Madison, but the building is no longer there (it was torn down). He since moved to a new space on Madison between 48th and 49th Streets. My intern, Heather Brookhart, took these smashing photos of NYC in Midtown:

The Bergdorf Goodman store in Midtown & a view from The Plaza Hotel

[Read more…]


Join the Mailing List for Updates on the Film Make a Tax Deductible Contribution to the FilmSupporters of the FilmShare your Tailor StoryBackground Links