MOUNT AIRY — When Julio Lalli was 10, growing up outside Rome, he wanted to be a mechanic "with all my passion."
He had watched his cousins rebuilding car parts and engines and wanted to get his hands on the metal and grease.
But he was destined for softer, cleaner pursuits. He was to spendhis life fingering wool and silk, not wrenches and screwdrivers.
At about the same time, Mariette A. Paiement, was a young French-speaking girl in Montreal whose mother sat her down in front of a sewing machine to keep her busy.
Paiement took to the craft and went on to study fashion design in college. She eventually moved to New York City and worked as an assistant cutter and pattern maker for Arnold Scaasi, the designer of one of first-lady Barbara Bush's inaugural gowns.
Eleven years ago, Lalli and Paiement met when both worked at a coat manufacturing company in upstate New York. They married and moved here six years ago. Two years ago, they opened a dressmaking and tailoring shop.
"We were tired of moving around and looking for the best position. We thought 'why not work for ourselves? We have talents,' " Paiement said.
Lalli calls his part of the business "Julio'sTailoring." Paiement calls hers "Private Studio of Haute Couture."
Both are in their 50s and wear glasses that sit low on the nose forclose work. Both speak with rich accents and are perfectionists.
"If it's not right, I rip it," Lalli said. "Even when we fix jeans, they've got to be right. I refuse to do cheap work."
One of his customers, Larry A. Van Sant of Mount Airy, said he hadn't worn custom-made clothes before coming to Lalli, but always has a hard time finding suits to fit because one of his shoulders is lower than the other.
"I'm rather a perfectionist when it comes to my suits," said Van Sant, who owns a plumbing and heating business.
He also said he doesn't like to show up at a gathering to find that two other men are wearing the same jacket, as happened recently.
"That doesn't do a lot for the evening," Van Sant said.
Lalli said he enjoys "spoiling"his customers. One of his special touches is silk-lined pants.
"They never wore a pair of pants like mine," he said.
Van Sant couldn't exactly describe how it feels to wear a pair of Lalli-made pants,but said, "If you wear them lined, you'll never wear them any other way."
Customers choose the fabric for their suits from swatches. Lalli then places an order with a company in New York, which often sends to London or Italy for the material. Suits usually cost about $1,200 and take a week and a half to make, he said.
Lalli trained for years to reach the level of master tailor.
While still a young boy, his mother decided he should be a tailor and sent him to learn witha master. Lalli worked as an apprentice for years in Italy, learninghow to stitch men's pants and jackets by hand. If the sewing wasn't perfect, the master would throw the piece of clothing up in the air and make the apprentices start over, he said.
"He was very picky," Lalli said.
When he was 24, he moved to Brooklyn, N.,Y., and learned the American way of machine tailoring, which was faster and more efficient than the Italian method, he said.
Paiement has also had long years of experience. When she worked for Scaasi, she said she didcustom work for the "rich and famous," including Barbra Streisand.
It's very exciting to work for a big designer, but very demanding,"she said.
Paiement also worked for Simplicity in New York City, drawing illustrations and writing instructions for patterns.
Her specialties are wedding gowns and dresses for special occasions, such as beauty pageants and proms. She doesn't use patterns, but works frompictures and ideas customers give her.
She also accompanies her customers to fabric stores, such as G Street Fabrics, a large store inRockville, Montgomery County, to choose the yards of material they'll need for their gowns.
Paiement said she usually spends months creating wedding dresses, many of which have detailed patterns of beading and lace on the bodice. She does all the beading by hand.
"It'slike an art project," Paiement said.
The typical wedding dress costs about $1,200, she said.
But her talents are widespread. She made Joanne Eyre of Lisbon, Howard County, a poodle skirt she wore to a'50s party recently.
"Their work is expert, really exquisite," Eyre said.
Eyre also said she brings outdated clothes to Paiement, who can transform them by adding shoulder pads or realigning the neckline.
She said some friends she's told about the couple's work havebeen surprised the shop is on Main Street here.
"They'll say, 'Mount Airy?' They think you have to go to Baltimore or Washington to get good work," Eyre said.
Paiement said her customers come from surrounding counties, the Washington area and Pennsylvania.
Lalli laments that the art he and his wife have spent years perfecting is dying out. Most clothes are manufactured now, and most people go to the dry cleaners for alterations, he said.
"This trade is gone. It's finished. We're the last of the Mohicans," he said.