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Custom Work


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Beneath five rows of buzzing fluorescent bulbs, custom tailor Fred Mazzei is cutting a suit. He moves his five-pound pair of ironclad shears with amazing accuracy, making his way through two layers of fabric at a time with a succession of sharp snaps. He stacks the pieces on an adjacent wooden table in two piles, pants pieces and coat pieces; the pants will be sent out to be made, but the coats will all be sewn together in-house.

After Mazzei finishes cutting, he'll pick out the trimmings: canvas and shoulder pads for support, lining for comfort and durability. He'll fold both stacks as meticulously as a housewife with clean laundry, and then he'll tie each bundle together with an extra scrap of cloth. There'll be just a bare minimum of scraps left, but they'll get saved; Mazzei's 88-year-old assistant Martin Klein still remembers how scraps sold for 20 cents a pound during the Depression.

Though by now he's taken off his jacket, Mazzei is dressed well, in tan from tie to toe. Mazzei is a bit of a showman, and even when he's cutting cloth his tie stays in place, his sleeves buttoned. He estimates he's made over 15,000 suits in his career, all cut and sewn by hand, and he wears his product proudly. Together with assistants Klein and Frank Perri, Mazzei turns out an average of five to seven suits a week for the shop's 300 or so regular customers.

Mazzei's custom tailoring shop, on the second floor at 625 N. Michigan, is a bit of an anomaly. Mazzei, who turned 69 in January, opened here 16 years ago. Back then, he still had about a dozen colleagues in the city, but there aren't many custom tailors around anymore; Mazzei's main competitors are stores like Burberry's next door and the men's departments at Neiman-Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue a few blocks away, where the store tailors will take up the hem or let out the waist of a ready-made suit. There are also places like Le Suit, which specializes in made-to-measure suits, made from a standard pattern altered to individual measurements before the fabric is cut. Ready-to-wear stores like Bigsby & Kruthers and Kuppenheimer also do made-to-measure suits as a sideline. But these days hardly anyone does what Mazzei does: design and hand cut an individual pattern for each customer.

Mazzei's first job was as a 16-year-old delivery boy for Chicago's Albert Conforti, who then owned a tailor shop at 53 E. Jackson. "I always had an interest in clothes as a youngster," he says, in his distinctly Calabrian Italian accent. "I was always dressing up for dances at the ballrooms." Mazzei worked his way through the ranks as a cutter and presser both with Conforti and at the John Harper clothing company before his career was interrupted by World War II. Upon his return after an honorable discharge, he attended the now-defunct Chicago Stone Design Institute on the GI bill. He took night classes, working for John Harper during the day. Fresh out of school, Mazzei met a Chicago podiatrist who was interested in opening a tailor shop on the side. In June 1948, they opened at 127 N. Dearborn. After a year, the doctor lost interest and wanted out. "I said to him, Nate, this is a full-time job," Mazzei recalls. "He left the business to me, and I've been on my own ever since."

Mazzei has spread his business between four Chicago locations. Ten years after his beginnings on Dearborn Street, he moved to 203 N. Wabash. In 1968 he moved to 6 S. Michigan, in 1975 to his present location. "Each step was a step forward," he says. "It's been for location and prestige, but this is the ultimate."

In Mazzei's large front room, where the finished suits hang, customers come and go throughout the day for fittings and to place new orders. Three walls, which hold hundreds of virgin bolts of woolens, lead through an L-shaped labyrinth to the fitting room, which leads into both Mazzei's office and the production room. The many yards of materials are displayed like classic novels on an English professor's shelves. Rows of spotlights direct white light on the fabrics, dramatizing sky blue and grass green summer polyesters, gray flannels, a dark burgundy Indian silk, blue and brown wools for winter, and striped sharkskins (tightly woven wool fabric with a marbled finish) for interviews.

The walls in Mazzei's shop are covered with tailoring and civic awards--from the Sons of Italy, the Custom Tailors & Designers Association of America, Inc., the Joint Civic Community of Italian American War Veterans, and the Columbian Club of Chicago. There's a 1978 photograph of Dr. Theodore Fuxa, then the Italian consul general in Chicago, presenting Mazzei with an Italian order of merit. Walls of framed photos serve as testimonial to his clientele: customers have included former governor Richard Ogilvie, baseball's Charlie Finley, violinist Franz Benteler, and capitalist Henry Crown; Mazzei has dressed Irv Kupcinet, Milton Friedman, Flip Wilson, and Richard J. Daley.

He's amassed more than 400 clients, and he knows what each of them will or will not wear. "I develop such intimate relationships that sometimes I know more about them than their families do," he says.

"The fabrics I find here I can't find anywhere else," says Lee W. Jennings, the owner of Chicago's Jennings & Associates strategic family consulting firm and a former partner at the Big Eight accounting firm of Peat Marwick. Jennings has come for the second of three fittings on an oatmeal beige suit. "I'm hard to fit, especially in the jacket. With off-the-rack suits, the collar stands away from my neck. A Mazzei suit fits me better because he understands my body."

The making of a Mazzei suit is a detailed and lengthy process. After a customer has chosen a fabric and a style from the hundreds of possibilities on display--often heeding Mazzei's suggestion--Mazzei pulls the tape measure from around his neck and starts taking measurements. If it's an old client, he'll update his files. After discussing amenities, Mazzei goes to "the bench" to design the pattern. He recently raised his prices--to a $1,500 minimum for suits, $1,200 for sport coats, $2,000 for tuxedos--to help pay the rent on his new lease. "Like everything else, when the rent goes up, I have to move my prices accordingly." "You used to be able to buy a two-flat house for what he charges," jokes 20-year customer Ira Colitz, an insurance man and longtime associate of George Dunne.

After Mazzei has finished designing and cutting, he hands the parts over to Frank Perri, his head man for 25 years, to piece together. Perri prepares the coat for an initial fitting in two weeks. He bastes the coat together with thick white thread almost like string, using stitches big enough to be ripped out easily later. A grid of stitching lines covering the front and back of the coat holds a support layer of canvas in place; later the canvas will be reattached to the coat with tiny invisible stitches. After the first fitting, Perri takes the coat apart again, re-marks it, and reconstructs it with necessary alterations. A Mazzei suit leaves 625 N. Michigan only for Perri's wife, Antoinette, to finish, a three-hour process of inspecting the garments and doing fine handwork on the buttonholes and pockets. Mazzei guarantees delivery in six weeks.

Many of Mazzei's customers--like Jennings, who has been a client for 15 years--first came to see him after seeing his window display in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton. It's a second rent to pay, but the display has more than paid for itself over the years, says Mazzei.

Jennings says buying custom-made clothes became essential after he had a kidney transplant a few years ago. His stomach got bigger, his shoulders rounded out, and his chest got thicker from medication. "Fred relaxes me," he says, trying on a suit coat. "I come in and we'll sit and talk, and if I'm not interested in buying, that's fine. I do the buying. Fred doesn't have to do much selling anymore. I've been sold on how well his suits fit."

Mazzei is molding Jennings's oatmeal suit to his body by pinning, pinching, and re-marking where necessary. Mazzei starts with collar and shoulders and moves down, inspecting the sleeves and checking the arm swing. Jennings went through a raw-basted fitting two weeks ago, when his coat was mostly canvas and the thick white basting stitches made his suit look like a nighttime aerial view of O'Hare's runways. Mazzei has also made Jennings two tuxedos. "I've worn his suits for so long that other people can identify his special lapels and buttons. They tell me that Fred must have made me another one."

The majority of early Chicago shop owners were Jews, and the workers were mostly European immigrants who came to America to practice their trade. "In Italy you did two types of work," Mazzei explains. "Either you were a tailor and a musician or a tailor and a barber. You always did more than one in case you needed it." Mazzei, who commutes from Melrose Park, is proud of his Italian heritage. He's never forgotten sailing the Atlantic from southern Italy as a six-year-old boy and reuniting with his father, a construction laborer who immigrated and sent for his family after becoming a citizen.

Mazzei's assistant Frank Perri, 59, learned the craft in Italy, in the small southern village of Cosenza. "What they did over there was to get a thimble and tie it up on your finger as soon as possible, then bend your finger so you'd get used to it," Perri says, wrapping basting thread around his thick, worn fingers. After 18 years as a tailor in his homeland, Perri became dissatisfied with customers who continually failed to pay their bills. Many Italian craftsmen were emigrating to the U.S. hoping to find new opportunities; Perri came to this country in 1964. He started working for Mazzei in September of that year after making a suitable demo jacket, the only certification he needed.

Perri's hair, mostly gray, is brushed straight back, and a sleeveless T-shirt shows through his white shirt. The gray flannel apron around his waist is worn where it rubs against his workbench day after day. "Most days I get satisfaction," he says, with a heavy accent he's clearly self-conscious of. "But every day can't be smooth like oil. What matters is when a customer tries on his suit and is satisfied. I use my brain and my hands to get a suit out of it."

Diagonally across from Perri, Martin Klein sits on a wooden stool with a blue gray jacket in his lap. "I like it," he says of tailoring. "It's all I've ever done." Klein--who calls himself the oldest functioning tailor in the country--still free-lances for friends from time to time. "There's a few left that know I can still thread a needle and see a little bit," he says. "I have cataracts in both eyes, but when I sew they don't bother me at all." Perri says his coworker "can go 24 hours a day."

Hungarian-born Klein, who fought in World War I, has only been with Mazzei since April 1989, but he's been in the trade for 60 years. During the Depression he sold his scraps, and people used them to make blankets. "I averaged $50 a year from that," he recalls; Mazzei jokes that Klein used to bury a brick in his bags for added weight. About 8 years ago, after 40 years on his own--Martin's Tailoring, Inc., was first at 32 W. Randolph and then at 1 E. Wacker--Klein closed up shop. Doctors had warned him to slow down after his wife died, and he suffered a heart attack in 1983. But he shared the now-defunct Armando's Tailors at 25 E. Washington until semiretiring in August 1988. "I got older and so did my customers," he says, barely looking up from his work. "I didn't want to quit. I knew I'd go crazy, so I kept working." So he went back to work, spending some months with Montopoli Tailors at 8 S. Michigan before coming to work for Mazzei. "Now I help with whatever comes along. There's nothing in this line, ladies' or men's, that I can't do."

Perri and Klein sit in the production room in the back of the shop, among patterns, pincushions, thread, irons, canvases, sewing machines, and needles, all within arm's reach. The room might look cluttered to an outsider, but Perri and Klein know where everything is. An ancient EMVD radio plays in the background, but there's no lunch whistle here. "I go if I feel like it," Perri says. "I don't have to punch a card."

The word tailor actually comes from the French tailleur, meaning "cutter," and Mazzei does his share with the scissors. "Years ago, this is how we learned," he says, moving a paper pattern into place and holding it down with two 100-year-old lead paperweights inherited from Cumner Jones and Company, a longtime Chicago manufacturer of tailors' trimmings. "It was rare for an old-timer to let anyone watch completely. Now that I'm a senior citizen, I'd like to demonstrate, but there's no one to show it to."

Frank Perri is slower now. "Twenty-five years ago I had a lot of energy, but I've gotten old fast," he says, working over a red-striped blue woolen coat designed for a Mazzei customer from Kentucky. "I need another pair of glasses and I have arthritis in my back. I can only do my part. Before, I made six or eight suits a week, but now it's only three or four."

Mazzei has become fond of his many customers, but they are a shrinking lot. "Years ago, it was a disgrace if you didn't have custom clothing. It didn't matter how poor you were; you went to the area tailor. But today, we estimate that only 2 percent of the buying public wears such clothes."

Twenty years ago there were still 1,000 bench tailors remaining across the country, estimates Irma B. Lipkin, executive director of the Custom Tailors & Designers Association of America, Inc. Today there are maybe 500 left. "We can't stop the decline," Lipkin says. "No one is trained as a [bench] tailor [tailors who make clothes from scratch, not just alterations]. It's not taught in school."

The decline began in the 1960s, not long after tailoring businesses reached an all-time high in this country after World War II. "When I joined the association, we had 200 Chicago members," says Klein, CTDA national president from 1962 to 1964. "Now, there are maybe 30 left. They predicted this 30 years ago, but it's only in the last 10 years where we've really seen it. Today the people calling themselves tailors don't know how to sew a stitch."

A look through the yellow pages reveals the names of dozens of tailor shops, of course, but most of those only do alterations. And the Hong Kong tailors--the newest group of bench tailors--mostly ship the work back to the home country for construction. "They'll take your measurements and they'll send them somewhere else," says Mazzei. "There are none that really make the garments on the premises." Le Suit on Adams, with its made-to-measure system, operates the same way, sending customers' measurements to factories in France.

"Tailoring is in bad shape," laments Carmelo Spinnato, an all-purpose tailor in Morton Grove and the current Chicago CTDA president. "In 15 or 20 years it's going to be completely dead, because those who are 50 now are going to be 70." Spinnato, who replaced Mazzei as the local chapter president, complains that there are few newcomers, even in Chicago, which has historically been one of the organization's strongholds. The first CTDA national convention was held here in 1885; but now, of the maybe 50 members left in Chicago, no more than seven attend the bimonthly meetings. "Some feel they are wasting their time," Spinnato says. "Some say it's because they don't want to learn anything; some say they are too old, and others just don't want to get involved."

The six-year European apprenticeship never caught on here; the few tailoring and design schools--like the Chicago Stone Design Institute--closed for lack of enrollment. The old masters no longer even look to their homelands for relief. "The youngsters are not interested in learning the trade," Mazzei says. "They are not going to work in a factory unless they have no other choice. No one is coming from Europe today who wants to be a tailor, but there is no such thing as a good carpenter or plumber either. Today young men want to make something of a living as soon as possible. In trades you can't do that."

One solution may be to involve more women, but the seasoned Mazzei, past national president of the CTDA and current board member, is stumped for other remedies. Even women may not be the answer; the International Ladies Garment Workers Union has lost nearly 50 percent of its members since 1978, says Walter Mankoff, the organization's associate research director. "We are spinning our wheels," Mazzei says sadly. "The writing is on the wall. If there's not enough demand or people, custom tailoring will go by the wayside."

"I don't have to be a custom tailor to make my business work," says Jefry Weinberg, the 32-year-old president of Le Suit. Since opening four and a half years ago, Weinberg has filled orders for more than 1,200 suits, but he hasn't handcrafted one. "The public today doesn't have the patience for custom tailors," he says. "The majority of people today are of what I call the hamburger generation. They drive up to the window, order, and they're around the corner and out with it. This is the concept we are dealing with."

Le Suit customers choose from 400 to 500 imported wools, polyesters, and silks (in swatch books) and from three convenient cuts: the shorter, trimmer Italian cut, the looser, more traditional American businessman cut, and the soft-shoulder cut. Weinberg fits his suits and tuxedos, which range in price from $395 to $2,200, by trying silhouettes on customers in closetlike fitting rooms. He says hundreds of variations on the basic cuts are possible.

Weinberg modems the measurements overseas, tailors in France double-check them, and then laser beams cut the fabric into pieces in about four and a half minutes, following computer-controlled patterns, squeezing out the suit's pieces like a cookie cutter. The suit is produced in a factory and then shipped back.

Le Suit's delivery time is a quick three weeks. If alterations are needed once the suit comes back from the factory, Weinberg uses local handyman tailors. "I call it custom," Weinberg says. "You'll have a lot of debate as to whether it's custom or made-to-measure, but our suits are made to fit a single customer, so I call it custom. The way we are doing it is much more appealing. It's high technology; it's fast; it's filling a need."

Le Suit's use of computers is hardly unique; made-to-measure services have emerged as sideline businesses in major department stores like Neiman-Marcus and Marshall Field's, and automation of the rag trade is under way all over the world. In Massachusetts, scientists are reportedly building sleeve-making robots; in Japan, future technology might make it possible for bolts of fabric to enter one end of a robot assembly line and emerge at the other end as full suits, with a minimum of human assistance.

"Computers are only good for the business," insists Weinberg. "We are taking modern technology and adapting it to an ancient art to put a product in reach of more people. . . . It's still an art and we treat it as an art, but we've taken the guesswork out."

Mazzei calls the computer "a great sales gimmick. People think it can take a picture of you and it'll make the suit itself."

Although Mazzei disdains the thought of it, he has quietly begun the search for his replacement. "I'm looking," he admits, removing his black-rimmed bifocals. "Believe me, I'm looking. I have no qualms about finding someone who would have the integrity to relieve me, but the trick is to find him."

Unfortunately, success in this business usually rests on an individual tailor's reputation. Perri, Klein, and their predecessors have helped Mazzei sustain his business over the years, but he still has problems when he takes a rare half day to play golf. "If I'm not here, customers say they'll come back when I'm in," he says. "It's a compliment in one way, but bad in another, because unless I'm here the business of selling doesn't exist."

Mazzei's not anxious to retire--he'd like to think he could spend another 40 years making suits--but he's also realistic. That realism tells him that he needs to find a successor for his customers if not for himself. "If I find out he's going to retire," says Dr. D.M. Ameen, a cancer-therapy specialist, "I'm going to say to him, 'Freddie, after all these years, you have got to do me one favor: put me in touch with somebody who will carry on the tradition.' I will demand this."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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