Tailored to You

Age-old business thrives in a ready-made world.

Almost everyone has sought the services of a tailor at one time or another. Maybe your leather jacket suffered a tear, or you never quite got the hang of taking up a hem. Perhaps you wanted to keep a pair of pants you loved, even after you lost weight. You may simply want clothing that fits you perfectly or dream of a dress or a suit fashioned exclusively for you. In any case, tailors have skills to meet your needs, from the essential to the extravagant. Following are several you may well like to do business with, right here in City South.

Irina’s Stitch in Time

Irina Boiarskaia was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and immigrated directly to Minneapolis as a young woman. She has owned her own store, Irina’s Stitch in Time, on Lyndale Avenue in south Minneapolis for over 22 years. She is a personable and exceedingly well-dressed woman (a pattern I will see over and again) who, over the course of a lovely interview, describes the two main categories of work she does: alterations,  tailoring and fashion design.

Alterations on a piece of clothing may be requested, says Boiarskaia, “If a person goes to the store and buys clothes that don’t fit.” In making alterations, Boiarskaia fits a piece of clothing to the customer’s body “to make it look like it belongs to them.” Clothing may be taken in, let out, lengthened or shortened. Other alterations might include embellishment or combining various elements of clothing into one piece. For example, says Boiarskaia, a bride may wish her wedding day outfit to be a composite of her grandmother’s lace, her mother’s sequined bodice and her sister’s veil. (By the way, Boiarskaia does not shy away from wedding gowns or the dreaded “bride-zilla:” “I like people,” she says.) When I asked Boiarskaia for the most common fit problem in clothing brought to her for alterations, she has an interesting answer. “What the woman usually says is, ‘This doesn’t fit,’ but often their idea of why it doesn’t fit is incorrect.”

It’s the second category of work in which Boiarskaia clearly takes great delight and pride: tailoring. “Tailoring is almost couture,” she says, taxing my vocabulary once again. (Couture is defined as “the design and manufacture of fashionable clothes to a client’s specific requirements and measurements.”) In tailoring, she says, “I come up with the design, I make it, and I make it fit. It is definitely not one-size-fits-all.” That sounds like couture, I tell her. Boiarskaia demurs. She is not in the same league as Chanel and Dior, she says.

And yet, a glance around her small shop indicates unique artistry and style. Two mannequins bear dresses in various stages of design. One is simply draped with a lovely piece of border-print fabric—“I’m still thinking about that one,” she says—she purchased at a local discount fabric warehouse for a client’s order. “You don’t get a lot of assistance there,” she confides. “The only help I need is to get out.” The second mannequin’s dress is a little further along in its construction. “The combination of colors will do the work,” she says with confidence.  (Pictured above is a different dress in construction.)

She has many regular clients, women who demand “whatever it takes for a good fit,” she says. Others want a unique item of clothing, a true expression of themselves. “I really, really like and understand a person who is willing to save up a little bit because they want something exceptional.” The cost of a custom-made dress can easily top $300, and may soar far past that.

“Since I was born I was interested in clothing,” says Boiarskaia. “In Russia, every woman sews.” When asked what was her most challenging tailoring project, Boiarskaia smiles. “It’s like children,” she says. “Every single piece I make is a challenge at the beginning. But when I think about it, it becomes my favorite.”  

Top Shelf

Across the street and half a block from Irina’s Stitch in Time sits a 1901 arts and crafts style-home which, except for the Top Shelf sign, gives no hint of retail. Once inside, however, owner John Meegan (well-dressed and personable!) will introduce you to old-school service and tailoring expertise in an experience as elegant and timeless as style itself. Boasting thousands of fabrics for custom-made shirts and suits, the shop also sells accessories to complete the look: designer ties and pocket squares, sweaters and hosiery, customizable belts, cufflinks and other jewelry.

Why would a man prefer a custom-made suit or shirt to what he can purchase already made? One reason is selection: “We have 30,000 fabrics in the suit room,” Meegan says, and thousands available for shirts. While each is not inexpensive (shirts range from $170–$500, suits from $1500–$21,000), clients have been known to start with shirts and graduate to suits. “In terms of dollar volume, we do about the same in shirts and suits,” he explains. Another selling point of custom-made clothing is the ability to uniquely fit long arms, wide necks, rounded shoulders or whatever physical idiosyncrasy a customer may present. Also significant, says Meegan, is the entire experience of getting a piece of clothing made for you. He cites the extended human contact and a tactile experience. “It’s a building process, like architecture,” he says. “You are making something not already created.”

When a customer comes in for a suit, Meegan sits down with them at a large wooden dining table in a dark wood-paneled room boasting hundreds of books of wool fabric swatches, priced from $125–$2,200 per yard. The client might be asked when he will use the suit: every day or business? Specific occasion or job requirement? Will they be doing a lot of traveling? Meegan may ask if the person is generally hard on their clothing, if they’ve had clothing made for them before, if they’ve had difficulty finding a good fit. And don’t think it’s all the wealthy and established 60-something set coming in. Not so, says Meegan, for a variety of reasons: older folks may not be working as much anymore, and may not need any more suits. Instead, he says he does a robust business with millennials, 20 to 30-year-olds who may be purchasing a suit for an important interview or a new job. “Our clients run from soup to nuts. They’re not all necessarily wealthy. They are people who want to make an investment and look their best.”

Business is booming, says Meegan; Top Shelf is a niche market without many local competitors. Yet, he worries for the future of the industry. He couldn’t hire qualified tailors when four of his left two years ago, and had to restrict his alterations business to suits and shirts purchased at Top Shelf. Educated by master tailors at Minnesota Vocational College over 40 years ago, Meegan says there are no longer local training centers for tailors anywhere in the state. “Business continuation is my biggest concern,” he says. “It takes years to develop these skills.”

Tailors on Blake

“I started sewing at the age of 12,” says Tailors on Blake owner Sharon Terry. “I would visit my grandma every Saturday morning and she would have her sewing machine out.” Terry started with doll clothes but admits it was “that first dress I made [that] hooked me.” She attended the Pipestone Vocational School (no longer open) where she studied under a German master tailor. “We had to make six suits, from pattern-making to completion, in order to graduate,” she says.
She opened Tailors on Blake shortly thereafter, 35 years ago. Today, Terry doesn’t sew as often as she’d like, and although she imagined more clothing design when she first opened her business, alterations are her bread and butter. “I am fitting customers most of my day. Fitting is half of the alteration. The sewing can be beautifully done but if we don’t do the proper assessment at the fitting, it is all for naught,” she says. Presently, about 10 tailors work on a sunny floor in her shop. Good seamstresses, she says, are increasingly hard to find, what with reduced opportunities for vocational training in the state. “My hope,” she says, echoing John Meegan at Top Shelf, “is that we go back to trade schools.” Up front in her St. Louis Park store is a relatively new business venture: a small but lovely retail selection, including baby gifts, clothing and tote bags that are monogram-ready. “Monogramming is 10 percent of our retail,” says Terry.

She shows me a “Before and After” book she keeps at the counter. It is filled with photos of amazing tailoring: garment-saving repairs, weight-loss alterations, absolute transformations (e.g., a kimono made into a shirt/skirt outfit.) Recently a mom came in with her daughter for prom dress alterations. “She told me I did her dress when she was going to prom some 30 years ago,” says Terry. Summertime brings bridesmaid dress and groomsmen suit alterations. “I really enjoy educating young men in how to wear a suit well,” Terry says. Showing a little shirt cuff is one example. You’ll have to come in to this bustling shop and meet its (well-dressed and personable!) owner for more.

Sew Simple

Brian and Pahoua Hoffman may be owners of the Sew Simple store on Nicollet in the Whittier neighborhood, but don’t be fooled, says Brian, “My mother-in-law does everything.” That would be seamstress and dressmaker Chia Hang, who was born in Laos and immigrated here in 1967. Like many Hmong girls, Hang sewed as a child. She sewed in factories when she first arrived to the U.S., later served as in-house tailor at a vintage clothing store, and finally in 2011, opened Sew Simple.

Hang’s services include hems, shortening, taking clothes in and out, mending and repair. Her shop has a specialty in denim repair, says Brian. He searched for months for “a machine that hasn’t been made in a long time,” one built specifically for denim repair, and Sew Simple now owns one of just two or three such machines in town. “Word gets around about denim repair,” says Brian. “A lot of people don’t understand it needs special equipment.”

Many of Hang’s loyal and often repeat customers are from downtown Minneapolis. “We’ve never advertised,” adds Brian, with pride. “It’s Google ads and word of mouth.”