The Last Bespoke Tailor
b: dealing in or producing custom-made articles
— Merriam Webster Dictionary
Imagine a suit fitting so well, it is like a second skin. It makes you stand taller, feel more confident, and hides physical flaws like poor posture or a beer belly. Off-the-rack suits can offer style and elegance but the bespoke suit provides a luxurious experience that is truly custom-made.
Bespoke tailoring, like shoemaking, is an exact art which requires skill and talent that take a lifetime to master. While it is not a dying art, it is becoming increasingly harder to find. In Erie, there is only one bespoke tailor left in business and he is contemplating retirement.
75-year-old Roberto Angelone began learning the tailoring trade at the age of 10 in Forli del Sannio, Italy. Two factors drove him to choose this career. One, a tailor had a shop in his neighborhood. And second, most job prospects in his hometown involved getting dirty, which did not appeal to the young Roberto. He noticed the other boys who worked in construction or as blacksmiths always had grimy clothes and shoes.
“This for me was a very clean job which related to my personality,” Roberto says in accented English. “So, I went into the shop and asked the tailor to take me as an apprentice.”
For the next six years — without pay — Roberto toiled away, first watching, then cutting fabric for suits alongside older apprentices.
“Couple years later you start making a pair of pants,” Roberto says.
“You work on a pair of pants for a couple years. You learn to do pockets and put pieces together. After a while, you can make a coat.”
It wouldn’t be until Roberto reached age 19 that he could successfully cut and sew an entire suit. With his newly acquired skills, he packed up his shears and measuring tape for French-controlled Algeria, in North Africa, at the invitation of an uncle. A lack of trained tailors, and a passion for Italian clothing, meant he had plenty of work. The French Air Force gave him housing and a salary to customize military uniforms.
“They were paying me top of the line, more than everybody else,” he recalls, “because I was an Italian tailor and that was a big deal. The French were crazy for Italian tailors.”
The French government evacuated him, and many other Europeans, to France in May 1962 after the Algerians voted for independence. Soon after, he boarded the USS France for New York City. More family connections brought him to Erie, where he quickly found work at Perry’s Menswear in the Central Mall. At first, Roberto clashed with American culture. He rebelled against it in a manner befitting a tailor.
“I wouldn’t wear an American suit. I had my suit from Italy,” Roberto says. It took him almost eight years to adjust to a new lifestyle. He says it happened when he realized that 200 million people lived a nice lifestyle in America. “Who was I — at 22 years old — to say my ways were better?”
Roberto worked for most of Erie’s finest men’s stores, including Isaac Baker and Son, Taggert’s Men Shop, and the legendary P.A. Meyers & Sons. Mostly, he did alterations but yearned to work on his own, using his skills making bespoke suits instead of fixing mass produced, off-the-rack, clothing.
In 1969, seven years after arriving in America, Roberto opened Roberto Custom Tailors at 26th and Cranberry streets. Though the shop moved locations several times, Roberto has remained its owner, and only employee, for more than 45 years. In that time, he has seen a shift in American attitude toward dressing up, including a new increase in the past few years in suit sales among young men.
“The style may change a little bit here and there,” he says. “There are people who like to dress up for work but as soon as they get home, they change their clothes. Years ago, you were dressed all the time.
You were dressed even in the house.”
The master tailor even thinks mass-produced apparel fits better today allowing a man to walk out of a clothing store with a decent-looking suit. Surprisingly, he also doesn’t see anything wrong with our society’s more casual attitude about dress.
“Maybe, we wouldn’t have what we have today if we were all concerned about clothes. Did you ever see Steve Jobs with a suit on? He always had jeans on. If he was concerned about wearing a suit maybe he wouldn’t have done what he did,” Roberto says.
If you are concerned about clothes, however, Roberto can create a bespoke suit that meets your every desire. He doesn’t force his customers into a particular look but acts more as a consultant. He has books full of different styles of suits, as well as ones with a wide variety of luxury raw material. Once the pattern and fabric are picked, measurements are taken. A customer needs to return for a few fittings to ensure the perfect fit as Roberto cuts the cloth from a pattern he creates. As for the cost — let’s just call it expensive.
“I can’t give you the exact price. It’s not just based on my time.
It’s based on the fabric you buy, my time too, and the workmanship that goes into the suit. I cannot give you the exact price because the price varies,” he says. Typically, a bespoke suit can start at around $3,000.
Given the high price-point, Roberto says he does mostly alterations today. He has cut back his schedule to a few days a week and doesn’t advertise. In fact, he hasn’t placed an ad in 30 years. He also doesn’t have a website or Facebook page.
Roberto’s shop has only tools of his trade and that does not include a computer. Still, customers from the tri-state have found him thanks to Internet searches.
One regular customer Roberto has had for the past 8 years is Presque Isle Down & Casino in Summit Township. The winning horse trainer for the season’s final race recieves a beautiful azure blue blazer made by Roberto. Ted Arneau, the racino’s first owner started the tradition and it has continued since his departure.
“Golf has a green jacket so for Presque Isle Downs it is a blue jacket,” Robert explains. “It is blue to match the color of the lake. That was Ted’s idea.”
While pondering full-time retirement, and despite a culture where jeans are accepted nearly everywhere, Roberto always remains “a man of the cloth.”
“I dressed up all of my life,” Roberto says. “I don’t go out of the house without suit and tie which you don’t see that often today. I could even sleep in a suit and tie.”
Originally published at www.goerie.com on December 30, 2012.
Updated: August 19, 2015