Tailor shops forgotten by time - but not by loyal customers

Maryland journal

October 16, 2006|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,Sun reporter

Johnny Newman is just too big for ordinary britches.

The mass-produced clothes sold today refuse to stretch over his 6-foot-7-inch basketball-player's frame. So every few months the former Dallas Mavericks forward leaves his Richmond, Va., home and takes a trip back in time.

His destination is a quiet, tree-lined stretch of Baltimore's North Eutaw Street, where tailors in two small shops make clothes the old way - from scratch.

In two brick buildings, just two short blocks apart, Nicky's Tailoring and Shimba Inc. carry on the sartorial tradition - a remnant of a Baltimore that once hummed with thousands of sewing machines.

During his latest visit, Newman parked under the maroon-stained maple trees outside Nicky's. It was a sunny day, but a crisp breeze blew.

Inside, he walked to a shelf stacked with bolts of wool - solids, pinstripes, windowpanes and plaids - and went through them as if he were searching a deck of tarot cards for an auspicious fortune. "Sometimes I find one so good," he said, "I've got to have it."

He pulled out a gray fabric with blue pinstripes and handed it to Clifton "Nicky" Hutchinson, 42, the shop's owner.

Hutchinson, a measuring tape hanging around his neck and scraps of thread clinging to his pants, appraised the selection. "Put that with a white or blue shirt," he told Newman, "it'll look nice."

The decor of Hutchinson's shop, like his vocation, is a blend of times and cultures. On one wall hangs a vintage ad showing two men in 1940s-era suits, their waists so thin and shoulders so broad as to be anatomically impossible. On the opposite wall, a Bob Marley poster displays the tailor's Jamaican roots.

Hutchinson learned his craft in Kingston, Jamaica, as a tailor's apprentice. He started out sewing on belt loops and hemming pants, then moved on to pockets and zippers. "Before you know it," he said in his round Caribbean accent, "you're putting a pair of pants together, then a suit."

In 1990, Hutchinson moved to New York and set up shop in his apartment. Seven years later, he moved to Baltimore and opened a storefront.

While tailoring was his calling, his secret to survival in a world of big-box stores full of clothes from China and other bastions of cheap labor was versatility. "If you come in and you want a button sewed on, we can do that," he said. "If you want a church robe made, we can do that, too."

Earlier that day, Crystel Harrilal had dropped by to pick up head wraps for a future church outing.

Hutchinson has made several dresses for Harrilal and her sister, members of the Spiritual Baptist faith, a fusion of African traditions and Christianity that originated in the Caribbean.

She explained that the dresses she and the other women wear on church trips have long collars and lots of pleats in the skirt. "You can't go into a store and buy them," she said.

Hutchinson finished the wrap while she waited, carefully folding over the edges of the fabric and pushing it through his sewing machine in swaths.

`Tailoring is nice," he said as he sewed. "The only thing is, it's time-consuming. But when you make something real nice and they really like it. ... It's like hitting a three-pointer at the end of the game."

Six years ago, redevelopment on Saratoga Street forced Hutchinson to relocate. He eyed Eutaw Street but didn't want to crowd the owner of Shimba Inc., a custom tailoring shop already on Eutaw.

When he mentioned the idea to the older tailor, he not only got his blessing but the temporary use of a button-hole machine, an expensive device that spared him the tedious task of reinforcing the holes by hand.

Gary O. Stubbs, 58, learned his craft at the old Granville T. Woods Junior-Senior High School, one of several Baltimore vocational schools that taught tailoring.

At the time, area clothing factories still seemed numerous to Stubbs, but they were holdouts from a period prior to the Great Depression when there were hundreds of menswear factories.

Stubbs spent much of the '80s tailoring uniforms at the Naval Academy, which employed onsite tailors. He opened Shimba's in 1992 along with two others. The plan was to focus on Afrocentric fashion, clothing designs originating from Africa.

"That lasted about two weeks," he said. Business was slow and his partners left within months.

But Stubbs held on by taking whatever business came his way. Like Hutchinson, he accepts a mix of alterations, repairs and orders for custom-tailored clothing of both Western and African styles. Prom season is the busiest.

Over the years, he said, he also has made costumes for movies and tailored clothes for Baltimore comedian Mo'Nique and Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.

On the same sunny day that Newman had made his way to Baltimore, Stubbs was getting a suit ready in his shop. Narrow but long, it was crammed with sewing machines, fabric samples and spools of thread. A plaque on the wall read, "You sew Special."

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