April 27, 2013 by Ville Raivio
Tom Junod’s article ‘The Last Tailors’ was published on the pages of Esquire’s September issue in 2005. Junod, the ten-time finalist and two-time recipient of National Magazine Awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors, the most prestigious award in American magazine writing, has written for Esquire since 1997. Well-known for his profiles, the article below depicts the peculiar inner vistas of two New York master tailors, Vincent Nicolosi and Salvatore Ragusa, who embodied this old-world profession in the age of mechanized apparel.
The Last Tailors
‘The men I go to see do not lie. But I have to tell a lie in order to see them. Which just goes to show: What a man expects of himself has very little to do with what he expects of other men. The most honest men expect to be lied to.
The men I go to see are tailors, which means they are very old men. There are no young tailors. They work at 510 Madison Avenue, a building of tailors, in New York City, which used to be a city of tailors. Not anymore. There is talk that 510 is being sold and that it will be knocked down to make way for a bigger building, one not intended for the work of human hands. The tailors who work inside 510 will have to move on, or else retire, knowing either way that the day will come when no one will do the work they do.
The tailors I go to see are Salvatore Ragusa, who works on the sixth floor of 510 Madison Avenue, and Vincent Nicolosi, who works on the third. Although they each make a living with their hands, they are formal men whom I address formally, as Mr. Ragusa and Mr. Nicolosi. I never think of addressing them any other way. The lie I tell them, however, is not a lie often spoken to other men. It is a lie one tells women, namely, that there are no others. To Mr. Ragusa, I never say that there is a Mr. Nicolosi. To Mr. Nicolosi, I never say that there is a Mr. Ragusa. They are each of them men, each of them formidable and proud, but they are tailors, in the business of feeding male vanities, so they are as suspicious as women.
They are, in some ways, the same man. They are both Sicilian. They are both nearly eighty. They have both been tailors all their lives, since they were little boys. Mr. Nicolosi started when he was five years old. A master tailor made his father a masterful suit. The father wanted his son to work indoors, so he asked the tailor, Can you make my son a tailor? The same thing happened to Mr. Ragusa. His father was a shoemaker. The tailor in the town was a figure of great respect, a big man with a great dark mustache; indeed, a man afforded more respect than the shoemaker. Mr. Ragusa’s father wanted his son to enjoy that kind of respect.
“I have no choice,” Mr. Ragusa says of the decision that determined the course of his life. “My father make a me a tailor. I am a tailor. That is my life. I put my heart in it, my passion, because it is my life, because I want to be better than the other tailors. But it is not my choice.”
Mr. Ragusa started his apprenticeship when he was six. Before school he went to the tailor shop and put the irons in the fire. He is old enough to have worked with irons that had to be filled with hot coal. He is old enough to have lived in a time when men, if they owned a suit, had the suit made by a tailor. A man, if he was a man, owned two suits, one for summer and one for winter, and each suit had two pairs of pants. A man could not buy a suit in a store, off the rack. “I don’t know sizes until I come to America,” Mr. Ragusa says. “No such thing. Small, medium, large: no. Each man his own size where I learn to be tailor.”
They are not the kind of tailors who make alterations to clothes bought off the rack. “I refuse,” says Mr. Nicolosi. “I do not touch these things. It is insult.” Some people would call them bespoke tailors, after the tailors of London’s Savile Row, who are famous for making suits to fit the English gentry. Really, though, they are bench tailors, who need nothing more than that–the table they rent, the old cloth-covered pressboard they prop on top of the table, the needle, the thread, the thimble, the hot iron–to make a suit in the same way suits were made when they first started, which is the same way suits were made in the Renaissance, with exceptions for fashion. Ask them what they do and they will both answer, “I make a suit.” Ask them what they know and they will say that making suits is all they know how to do. What distinguishes them, what makes them the last of their kind, is the belief that this knowledge is sufficient, that a suit is a vessel capacious enough to accommodate a man’s highest aspirations, that everything in a man’s heart and head can find its way into his tailor’s hands, which have the knowledge, which do the work.
You cannot hide from these men. They take your measure without ever producing a tape. At a glance, they know if your neck is short, if your arms are uneven, if your shoulders stoop, if your back lists, if you are, in your posture, only semi-erect. Tailoring, true tailoring, is remedial: It makes you look better. These men who make your clothes are in the habit of seeing what’s underneath, so that slight shoulders can be padded, a sunken chest bowed, a defeated back given definitive shape. They are also in the habit of seeing what’s on the surface: the clothes on your back, what you like. They are intimate, if not with you, then with your jacket. The first time I rode an elevator with Mr. Ragusa, his hand shot out and fingered the lapels of my sport coat. “Okay,” he said after a second. “Okay?” I asked, for the coat was silk and linen, and I’d paid a lot of money for it. “Okay,” Mr. Ragusa said definitively, though with a note of forgiveness.
Not that it really matters what you like when you go to see Mr. Ragusa. When he says, “I make a suit,” he means exactly that, an elaboration of the male ideal, an augmentation, a thing that retains its shape like a suit of armor. “I like a full lining in a suit,” he says. “I like a double vent. I like a pleat in the pants. It gives a man room to sit down.”
He is a craftsman, and therefore a fatalist. His hands are beholden to the succession of hands that have done the same work, long before he was born; he aspires to nothing more than to live up to their example. A pattern is made, a die cast, a fate fixed, all in the dimensions of a suit.
This is where Mr. Ragusa and Mr. Nicolosi diverge, for all the similarities in their history. Mr. Nicolosi aspires to more. He aspires, indeed, to art; says, indeed, what Mr. Ragusa would never say, that he is an artist, that when a customer comes to see Nicolosi, he comes for more than what Nicolosi’s hands can make–he comes for what Nicolosi’s eyes can see, his imagination. He cultivates the allegiance of famous men and sees tailoring in terms of the world rather than the world in terms of tailoring. He is temperamental, whereas Mr. Ragusa is simply stubborn, standing on a fixed point of principle. It’s one of the things you learn hanging around with tailors: that every man has a characteristic gesture to which his body returns for comfort. Mr. Ragusa’s is a shrug of the shoulders, a gesture of acceptance to the choice that was made for him when he was six years old, and all the responsibilities that choice entails. Mr. Nicolosi’s is different: an appeal, grand and somewhat operatic, made with upturned palms, a plea for understanding. When either man crosses his arms, however, the gesture is final, and the arms are likely to stay crossed for a long time, a tape measure looped over their shoulders.
I went to see Mr. Ragusa first, and so it was to him that I told the lie. He asked, after all. He asked if I planned to visit any other tailors, and as I started to answer, another tailor, Frank Shattuck, mouthed the word no–shook his head no, cringing in emphatic pantomime. Frank Shattuck works at a table next to Mr. Ragusa. He sublets the table from him but is equally conversant–like a diplomat or a spy–with all the tailors at 510 Madison Avenue, including Mr. Nicolosi. He is a young tailor, which is to say he is a middle-aged tailor, forty-five years old. He is Irish and appears to have apprenticed himself to the methods and the example of Italian tailors as an act of existential will, but he has not yet decided if tailoring is sufficient–for he is also a boxer and an actor and a poet. Frank–he is not yet “Mr. Shattuck” and knows he may never be–goes to work in a T-shirt and a driving cap; all the other tailors go to work in the suits their own hands have made. Frank collects–and sometimes purchases, at considerable price–tailoring antiquities, such as 150-year-old German shears; such as bolts of old tweeds, runic in their arcane symbolism; such as a twenty-five-pound iron, collected from a tailor at a building around the corner–another doomed building of tailors–who lost his lease. Mr. Ragusa looks tolerantly but askance at such tokens of sentiment: “Believe a me,” he says after he picks up Frank’s prized iron, “you don’t need a that to make a suit.”
You take an elevator, operated by an elevator operator in a navy blazer, to get to the sixth floor of 510 Madison Avenue. You walk into the shop shared by Mr. Ragusa and–all right, all right–Mr. Shattuck, and through the open windows you hear the squealing brakes of the buses trawling Madison Avenue. It is the same elevator tailors have used to go to work since tailors started renting space in the building, and the same sound they have heard once they got there. Mr. Ragusa does not play a radio when he works. He sews and cuts, standing at his wooden table, at least eight hours a day, listening to the music of the buses, occasionally teaching his Irish apprentice a Sicilian curse word, such as rompicoglioni, for ball breaker. The shears he uses are not antique, but they are the same shears he has used since his arrival in the States. They bear the scars of a terrible wound. Years ago, he had an accident at his sewing machine, and he had to use his shears to cut the electrical cord. The cord took a bite of steel off the honed edge of the shears, and though a tinker repaired them–for seventy-five dollars–they emit a faint grinding noise when Mr. Ragusa cuts fabric, a discordance to which his ears are tuned. “Not as good as before,” he says, “never as good”–but still he insists on using them, as though in expiation for the ancient sin of doing them harm.
Like all tailor’s shears, they are seemingly out of scale–massive and heavy in the hand–but this is the paradox of tailoring: the most enormous shears, the tiniest of cuts. “Why so big?” Mr. Ragusa says, snipping a piece of thread. “So they don’t a move. You cut what you want to cut, no more.” Of course, he doesn’t have to use the wounded shears; he has another set at home. But the shears in his hands have become partners in his own affronted dignity. Of the unblemished set at home he speaks dismissively: “You know what a my wife a use them for? To cut a chicken.”
He came to the United States in 1966 with his wife and his three children. He had gone from Sicily to North Africa, where at the age of fourteen he worked for Mussolini’s army, tailoring the uniforms of preening soldiers; then he had gone to Rome, and from there to Naples, where he opened his own shop. He was very successful in Naples, a master in a city known for its master tailors. But he had to leave. In the primal wound of his life, he was ordered to leave by the Mafia. “I make a mistake” is all he says in explanation. He was thirty-nine when he had to start over in New York City, with his germinal English. Still, on the wall between him and Frank, there is a black-and-white photograph of him from 1972, at a fashion show, receiving the attentions of two models–a man and a woman–wearing clothes he made, and his lips are clasped in an attitude not simply of dignity but of pride, even vanity: In the photograph, he is very much il maestro. Now the shock of silver crossing his black hair in the picture has grown pervasive, and the dark, unforgiving eyes are magnified by reading glasses to such an extent that they make his body look small. He used to be able to cut a suit freehand, without a pattern, and “never make mistake.” Now he struggles to see, even with his glasses, and even the elementary act of threading a needle becomes a drama acted out under a spotlight. The eye is so very small, and after he pokes at the needle for a while, he wets the end of the thread and tries again, with an exacting and mortified patience. Finally, he says, “Now you make a me nervous,” and I have to go to the open window to watch the buses.
He is in the middle of making a customer a pair of pants. Or, more accurately, cutting a pair of pants, with shears, from a pattern described in chalk on a bolt of worsted wool–black, with a pinstripe–so that he can send the cut and measured fabric to a pants maker for sewing. Mr. Ragusa doesn’t generally sew pants–no bench tailor does. It takes too much time, and the long seams are better handled by a specialist with a sewing machine. He doesn’t make buttonholes, either; his wife does. The suit, for him, is the jacket, that assemblage of body, basting, sleeve, lapel, facing, lining, and pocket that gains in complication once you see its inner workings. Mr. Ragusa is down to six or seven customers, but, as in any tailor’s shop, there are pieces of suit jackets, in various stages, strewn everywhere. Most are missing sleeves, so that the padding in the shoulder–its puffery–is visible, as is the stitching, the insane expenditure of thread, which is as lavish as footprints on a crowded beach. Tailored suits are meant to cover imperfections, so there is something terribly exposed about them in their unfinished state. Suits made by Mr. Ragusa start at $3,000 and often cost considerably more, depending on the price of the fabric, but there is nothing grand about seeing a suit being made by hand: Indeed, because hands have been all over them, the suits look sort of grubby until they come together and assume their final and–if Mr. Ragusa has done his job–nearly permanent shape. He will sew a label into the lining–DESIGNED BY SALVATORE RAGUSA–but his real signature is in the stitching, in the traces of his fantastic labor, which will still be visible to the eye in the finished product and could be counted by those accustomed to buying suits off the rack as imperfections. Which is just fine with Frank Shattuck: “One day,” he says, “you will have to pay a million dollars for a suit with human imperfections, and you still won’t be able to get it.”
The customer for whom Mr. Ragusa is cutting the pants is the only person who calls Mr. Ragusa “Sal,” who treats Mr. Ragusa as a servant. Not that Mr. Ragusa complains: “He good customer. He buy a lot of suit.” Indeed, the relationship between tailor and customer is a complicated one. On the one hand, a tailor needs a customer the way an artist needs a patron. On the other, the customer is a ball breaker. A heartbreaker, ultimately. “I see a lot of crazy guy in this business,” Mr. Ragusa says. “One man, he own a lot of buildings in New York. Very rich man. He always buying buildings. But when he come to me, he ask fordiscount. I say, Why you want a discount? You very rich man. I very poor. You come here because you want a suit. I make a suit. You understand. You pay me. He get mad at this. He want discount. Finally I say, Okay, no more suit for you.” It is the last line of many of Mr. Ragusa’s stories about his customers and an indication of why he is at the end of the line, as a tailor: “No more suit for you.”
He has not passed his trade on to his son; he wouldn’t, because he doesn’t want his son to suffer the indignities he has and because, in his words, “With a stitch, you never get rich.” Mr. Ragusa’s son is rich, and Mr. Ragusa has made many suits for him. A few years ago, however, Mr. Ragusa’s son grew out of his house on Staten Island, just as he had grown out of the suits that Mr. Ragusa made him. “He buy bigger house in New Jersey. But when he move, he have . . . yard sale. He sell my suit. Five, ten dollar. A man come, he buy them all. Because he know the work. Ten, fifteen suits. Now my son, he want me to make him more suit. He beg me. ‘C’mon, Dad, make me suit.’ No more suit.”
He does not keep a lot of finished suits in his shop. “You see tailor with a lot of suit, get another tailor,” Mr. Ragusa says. “It mean he can’t sell them.” On one of his hangers, though, there is an overcoat made of wool, in black-and-white herringbone. “This one I don’t finish,” he says. “I make a mistake. See? Pockets too high. I don’t go back, correct mistake.” Why does he leave it in the shop? “I make for my son. Now I don’t finish.”
I tell Mr. Ragusa that I have to leave in order to attend to other business, and then I take the elevator down to the third floor, where I visit Mr. Nicolosi. His shop, in comparison to Mr. Ragusa’s, is like the Smithsonian: On one mannequin is a tweed topcoat for Eddie Hayes, the noted attorney; on another is a white suit, single-button, with turned lapels that open like the petals of a flower, for Tom Wolfe. Signed copies of Wolfe’s books stand in racks; portraits of Wolfe and Hayes and Nicolosi, by the painter Richard Merkin, hang on the wall. Mr. Nicolosi is wearing glasses of the same magnification as Mr. Ragusa’s, so that he is dwarfed by his own appraising eyes. But his deeply colored lips fit together like an elaborate seam, and in them there still survives what is now missing from Mr. Ragusa’s: the sustaining sneer of an artist’s vanity. He shows me something on the wall, a framed sketch called “Art and Fashion,” signed by Vincent Nicolosi. He drew it more than thirty years ago, after a lifetime of contemplation. It is a study of a man in a suit, with concentric circles radiating out from the man’s head to the peak of the lapel, to the shoulder, and then along the sleeve to the cuff, and then out into the world–and because it is clearly meant to establish some universal proportion, it is reminiscent of da Vinci. It is also completely inscrutable. Many men, including tailors, have studied the sketch, trying to understand it. None has succeeded, though for Mr. Nicolosi the sketch holds the key to all of tailoring, and life itself.
I wind up trying on several suits at Mr. Nicolosi’s, wearing the clothes he has made for other men. The life of a man is in his suit when the suit has been cut and sewn for him and for him alone, and so there is something terribly invasive–and revelatory–about putting your body where another man’s body is supposed to be. It is like trying on his wife. When I put on Eddie Hayes’s long green tweed topcoat, I want to dance a jig of tragic Irish vanity, and when I put on Tom Wolfe’s trademark white jacket, I understand, maybe for the first time, how bulldoggy the man is beneath the veneer of dandyish effrontery–that his back is bigger than his chest, that he works out, that his suits have absorbed his own bantam resilience. Then I try on a floor-length topcoat, belted and elaborately sewn, made for a man taller than me, out of pure cashmere, camel hair in color. It is transforming; not only do I feel taller, I feel, well, seigneurial, as though I should be wearing it to a duel.
Now, Mr. Nicolosi does not like to talk about the specifics of his trade any more than the pope likes to advertise the cost of indulgences. He does not like to talk about price; he does not like to talk about the time it takes to bring a suit into being; he especially does not like to talk about the difference between a suit he has made and a suit bought off the rack–anyone who asks such a question risks dismissal, for he believes that anyone who asks such a question cannot possibly understand him or his life’s work. “I have good customer,” he says with a kind of Sicilian drawl, pronouncing the word so that it sounds like costume. “They come here because they want something. They see something. They have dream. They want something just for them. I make just for them. I make them happy. My customers, a lot of rich people. They understand. Poor people, they don’t understand nothing. Poor people, they come in, they say, I like a color. That’s what poor people understand. Color. Rich people, they understand the work.” While the camel-hair topcoat hangs from my shoulders, however, Mr. Nicolosi lets slip that it costs $11,000.
“Believe me, is not too much,” he says, taking the shoulders of the coat in his hands and relieving my body of its liquid embrace. “I have limitation, in a business. I do not charge what it cost me to make. Because it cost a me my life. You understand? I lose my life in this business. I bust a my ass. You see the work? You understand. I don’t lie. I take responsibility. You buy suit off a rack, it not made for you. Why do you want something not made for you? I make suit for you. You say, Too much bother. No. Life is bother. You say, Take a too much time. No. Life take a time. So I make a suit. I bother. I take a time. I make you happy. You not happy, maybe it is me. Maybe it is you. Maybe it is fabric. No matter. What good for me if you not happy? I try to cheat you on fabric, what I save in fabric I lose in sleep at night. So I don’t lie, and I sleep at night. You understand? Don’t listen to what I say. Look at what I make.”
The next day, I went back to Mr. Ragusa. Mr. Nicolosi had not been worried about the sale of 510 Madison because a customer had told him, “You go to the Bowery, I will find you,” and also because he could not contemplate an ending: “I no make a suit, I am nobody.” Mr. Ragusa had reached the same conclusion but, in his way, had accepted the edict. In the event he lost his space in 510 Madison, he had already decided: no more suit. He would go live with his wife in their home in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, he would go to his Sicilian social club, he would add a few careful miles to the thirty thousand he has put on the Cadillac he bought new in 1989, and he would, he says, “pray I die quickly. Because I no make a suit, I don’t know how to do nothing. I sit around a house. This is end of story.”
But it was not the end of the story, because I went back down to Mr. Nicolosi’s. He had already talked to me about suits, and now he wanted to talk to me about what went into them and what they represented. He took me back into the fitting room, past Eddie Hayes’s topcoat and Tom Wolfe’s white jacket and vest. “I want to show you something,” he said, and showed me about ten suits hanging on hangers, in many styles, many colors and kinds of fabric. He explained to me that the man who ordered them had dropped dead. He explained that he had called the man’s wife, looking to be paid, because, after all, he had done the work. He’d known the man for a long time, he said, and had watched him leave one beautiful family and beautiful wife for another wife, and then another. Now the man was finished, he said. “You know finished? He finished because he change. A man always stay same. I know, I am tailor. Only when he lie, then he change. His face change. He can’t look at you like before. Then he finished. One, two, three: It happen like that. A man drive down to Atlantic City, he lose all his money: He finished. A man get a girlfriend, lose his wife, lose his family: He finished.
“Stay with your wife. She make a mistake? A small mistake, not a serious mistake? What are you going to do? Divorce her? No, you stay with your wife. Your family brings you great joy. You lose your family, you are finished. Listen to me, I am telling you. Stay with your wife. A woman can make mistake; a man: no.”
I thanked Mr. Nicolosi and went into the hallway to wait for the elevator. The elevator door opened, and I saw a man with white hair standing behind the elevator operator. It was Mr. Ragusa. I got in. We went one floor in silence, then he glanced at me and said, “You see Nicolosi?”
“Yes, I see Mr. Nicolosi.”
“You write about Nicolosi?”
“Yes, I write about Nicolosi.”
“You write about two? Not one?”
“I write about two,” I said.
We were standing on Madison Avenue now. He was wearing a faint smile, that of a man whose bitterest suspicions had been confirmed to his satisfaction. “Okay,” he said. “I go now.” I followed him to the subway, but he didn’t say anything, even after I said goodbye, even after he shook my hand, measured me with a courtly and resigned nod of his head, and disappeared down the stairs of the subway station, on his way to Bensonhurst and the end of the story.’