Tailors to the Presidents

Two Men Vie to Ply Those High-Profile Threads

Posted December 9, 2008 at 4:09pm

A good Washington, D.C., tailor votes but never reveals his political leanings. Yet he intuitively understands something about politics: When asked about his competition, he makes sure the questioner knows the man does not deserve to be in his position.

Georges de Paris and Joe Sauro, who have worked as tailors downtown for decades and are each often referred to as the “president’s tailor,” are the prime example.

“I make the suits. Joe Sauro does alterations,” de Paris said pointedly in his thick French accent.

“I have nothing against Georges,” Sauro said. “He runs his business the way he wants, and I run my business the way I want.”

Sauro traced their soured relationship to an argument over a pair of rented shoes a decade ago. But he quickly followed that by saying he could get along with de Paris now.

To be fair, de Paris and Sauro are in a somewhat different business. De Paris, 74, still makes suits from scratch, hand-sewing them in the back of his shop with the help of one part-time and three full-time employees. He’s open Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. but says he’s usually at his shop at 650 14th St. NW until 11 p.m. De Paris said the least expensive of the suits that he makes cost $2,500, but he didn’t want to disclose the kind of details that would make a design more expensive.

Sauro, 68, stopped making suits from scratch more than 15 years ago and has since made his living entirely from altering and renting formalwear. He tried to retire a year ago, but after protests from his clients, he relented and only semi-retired. Now he works Tuesday through Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Because he cut back on his schedule, he retained only one employee and moved from a storefront office that now holds the Chop’t Creative Salad Company to a smaller basement office in the same building at 1899 L St. NW.

Like a fisherman’s ever-growing prey, the names of a tailor’s clients get bigger and bigger in the telling. The stories about a tailor’s work with clients becomes more frequent and for larger events. On the day a reporter visited last week, de Paris mentioned he had done work for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that morning, and Sauro took a call requesting his handiwork on 150 suits for members of the White House communications team attending inaugural balls.

Both Sauro and de Paris have the power photos: clients whose faces anyone would recognize. In Sauro’s shop, there are Redskins players and Sens. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), as well as Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and former Vice President Walter Mondale.

Across from them is a more exalted place for the portraits of President-elect Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Sauro said he plans to leave both photos there and hopes to continue working with Obama when he becomes president. He remembered the last tuxedo that he worked on for the then-presidential candidate.

“It was for the Alfred Smith dinner in New York,” Sauro said. “That was my outfit that he was wearing. He looks good in anything.”

On de Paris’ wall, there are notes from former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card and former President Bill Clinton. He has a photo with TV personality Rachael Ray and yellowing clippings from half a dozen newspapers in English and other languages, including Japanese and French, with stories about his business.

One man graces both tailors’ walls: President George W. Bush. Each one claims to work regularly with Bush, going to the Oval Office and getting invited to a holiday party at the White House. De Paris achieved national fame briefly in 2004 when he confirmed that a bulge in the suit that he made for the president was not a device feeding Bush answers at a debate but a pucker in the jacket’s seam caused by the zipper of his bulletproof vest. White House spokesman Carlton Carroll declined to name the tailor who alters the president’s suits regularly, allowing only that Bush wears suits from multiple tailors.

In addition to the similarities in clientele, the two tailors share similarities in their career paths. Both immigrated to the District from Europe — Sauro from Italy and de Paris from France. They learned the craft at an early age and have been faithful to it throughout their lives. The first politician Sauro worked for was Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.); his first president was Richard Nixon. De Paris’ first politician was Rep. Otto Passman (D-La.). Passman in turn referred Sauro to his first president, Lyndon Johnson.

The details diverge in the tailors’ personal lives. Sauro lives in Silver Spring, Md.; de Paris lives near Foggy Bottom. Sauro has been married to his wife, Gail, for 45 years, and they have four adult children. De Paris never married and has no children of his own (though he has eight godchildren).

Even after Sauro’s near-retirement last year, neither man will now admit his retirement is imminent. Sauro said he plans to work for at least 10 more years. De Paris said he doesn’t “believe in retiring.”

“I’ll be here, and six people are going to take me out,” he said.

So what will happen when the men can no longer lift a needle? Neither tailor will name an up-and-comer to whom their clients could take their suits to when the inevitable happens. Neither belongs to any kind of professional association for tailors. The one thing the two men did agree on is the slow disappearance of their craft. Sauro put tailors in the same category as skilled shoemakers and barbers.

“Tailors are becoming really, really scarce,” he said. “People like me — and I’m not bragging, OK? — who started at age 9, don’t exist anymore … because young people today, even in my small town in Italy, they want to learn how to do computers. They want to get out of the small towns.”

De Paris said he turned down two young people who asked him to pay them to learn from him in his shop, retorting that they should pay him to be taught.

“People today look for easy money,” de Paris said. “Tailoring like me is a difficult job.”

As long as de Paris and Sauro are still in business, however, politicians needn’t worry. Their suits are in the hands of men who understand the importance of besting the competition.