When walking down Church Street, people rarely look above street-level. If one did stop and allow his or her gaze to wander for a moment, they might spot an artist. Separated from the honks and cries of cars and pedestrians by a pane of glass, tailor Joe Calautti can often be found deeply entrenched in his work, creating heirloom-quality clothing from scratch.
Looking out from their store windows, Boston’s few remaining traditional tailors —including Joe Calautti, Christos Soillis, Jack Papazian, and the Kopellas family —have watched people shed tradition and old styles along with their formal dress. In the 50s and 60s, any young American man would wear, at minimum, a shirt and tie, likely with a jacket and hat. Watching any film from the 60s, one can see that the default of dress was set a bit higher than where standards rest today. However, within some small workplaces tucked away in the city, the old respect and complete understanding of clothing are kept safe and well in the hands of a few talented artisans.
For those who are nostalgic for the time of the everyday jacket and tie, walking into Rizzo Tailor at 66 Church Street is a something of a holy experience. The fitting area is covered in jackets and suits that are at various stages in the bespoke’s process; each garment is handmade for an individual customer. Books upon books of fabric samples line the window overlooking Church Street. Swaths of fabric are spread out over an aged wooden table covered with thousands of pockmarks from a needle piercing cloth and indented where a hot iron sat for years. A glance to the left reveals the heart and soul of the shop, the workshop itself. Spools of thread line the walls, half- and quarter-finished garments hang all over, and a gorgeous, old Singer sewing machine sits beside a wide work table. It is in this room that Calautti demonstrates his skill time and time again, outfitting the likes of Senator John Kerry, President Drew Faust, and more than a few other Harvard professors.
Calautti has been working at Rizzo for 46 years, and he is the current owner of the business. When it comes to the world of tailoring, he is the genuine article, born and raised in Italy, one of the capitols of the art. “I was eight when I started going to the tailor’s shops. We were the little guys watching the big guys and learning what they were doing,” Calautti says. He demonstrates how the older tailors used thread to tie the boys’ middle finger in a certain position to make it flexible and quick enough to properly work a needle.
There is a real romance in the way Calautti talks about his pieces of custom work. Each suit is introduced as a reflection of the person who ordered it, and I learn as much from Calautti about the fabric as I do the customer who chose it. He looks at a cashmere sportcoat and launches into a detailed account of each small aspect of the jacket, “You see this wide lapel? And how many jackets do you see these days with a peak lapel? And the slash pockets,” Calautti says. “I do all this because this is how the gentleman likes it.” Calautti delights in sharing the stories behind every garment hanging in his shop, and not once does he need to stop to check a tag to know which item belongs to whom.
Calautti’s enthusiasm for his work is apparent from moment he greets each customer. A jovial, middle-aged Italian man in a crisply pressed shirt, he is as eager to hear about his customers’ day as he is to hear about their clothing needs. He wears a small black workbelt, filled with needles, pins, and other tools of the trade, which he uses to deftly pin and adjust fabric as he explains his vision for the garment to his customers.
Calautti’s workshop still does all of its work by hand. Calautti executes most of the custom work entirely by himself, investing between six to seven months to create a custom suit. Rizzo Tailor’s process presents a stark contrast to the new changes in tailoring brought by advanced technology. Many online made-to-measure services have sprung up in the past few years, including Indochino, which started in 2007. Most of these work by simply plugging values into an algorithmic, mechanized operation. These services offer a degree of customization in suiting at a fraction of the price of a true bespoke item, but the difference in price is not without a difference in quality.
The key technical distinction between made-to-measure and bespoke tailoring is that made-to-measure services use a customer’s measurements to adjust an existing pattern, altering small details such as sleeve length or waist size, while a true custom tailor will cut an entirely new pattern for each customer. Most made-to-measure services will still produce machine-made clothing, while custom tailors such as Calautti work almost exclusively by hand. Details such as hand stitching in the lapel of a jacket create an irreplaceable, rounded quality, and the overall drape of a handcrafted garment will almost always surpass that of a machine-made piece.
Unhurried by production schedules or assembly lines, Calautti works over a long process with a first and second fitting, creating a garment that bears his handiwork like a proud signature. Each of Calautti’s items is created to the specifications and unique silhouette of an individual customer. In this sense they are unequivocally the customer’s, but every stitch and feature of the item carries Calautti’s talent and philosophy. He gives intense attention and uses a finesse born of years of practice to something as simple as attaching a button to a jacket, making sure that the stitches are all the precise tension and the shank, a device for providing enough space in between a garment and a button, is done properly to preserve the drape and integrity of the fabric. “To learn this trade, it’s an art. You have to know everything,” Calautti says. “To say you’re a professional tailor you have to know from A to Z. Otherwise I could never call myself a professional tailor.”
VISION TO VESTMENT
Discussing clothing with a tailor and with a salesman are fundamentally different experiences. A customer’s interaction with a salesman is limited to an hour, maybe less. A salesperson sells a finished product to the customer, usually one made by a third party. When the customer has paid for an item, his or her relationship with the salesperson ends. Many tailors, on the other hand, maintain clients over decades and through multiple generations. What they sell is trust and an ongoing relationship. “We’ve been here since 1974, and we have some third generation customers now,” says Bill Kopellas, son of Frank Kopellas of Frank’s Custom Tailoring. “We build relationships with the customers.”
A tailor’s relationship with a customer is built over years of service and communication, dressing their clients for some of the most important events of their lives, such as weddings and graduations. Jack Papazian of Jack’s Tailoring in Porter Square has worked at his shop since 1986, and his family has in the tailoring business for over 65 years. “I’m a good listener. The first thing I do is simply listen to a customer to try to learn their psychology and how they like their clothes,” he says. “Then I explain everything to them, A to Z, to make sure they understand exactly what I am thinking.” A tailor must have all the communicative skills of a salesperson, but also the fine skills of an artist. He must listen to the desires and vision of a customer, and then translate those ideas with a needle and thread into a piece of clothing.
Maintaining their shop’s reputation rests squarely on the shoulders of the tailors themselves. Papazian works completely by himself, doing all of the alterations in his shop with his own hands. “I’m a one-man operation; I don’t trust this work to anyone else. Anytime I don’t see the nicest work on a finished job, I can know exactly what I did, and I know how I can fix it to make my customer happy,” Papazian says. “At the end, it is me facing the client. It is my reputation.” After a customer leaves the tailor’s with a suit, any opinion of the garment is also a judgment of the craftsman behind it.