Pablo Vargas of the Stanton Tailor Shop, Part II
And now, the conclusion to yesterday’s feature about Pablo Vargas, the proprietor of the Stanton Tailor Shop. Written by Steven Gibaldi.
It’s been almost 30 years since Pablo Vargas arrived from the Dominican Republic and landed a job at the Stanton Tailor Shop, except then it was known as the Olympic. He was 22 years old and had 12 years experience sewing by hand, making button holes and hand stitches using Singer foot-peddle sewing machines, without electricity. In the D.R., where he started at his cousin’s shop, he made custom clothes, not exactly of the bespoke variety, but more likely a practical and utilitarian style.
How fitting that his skills as a tailor derived from child labor in the D.R., and that these skills would wind up benefiting the neighborhood that once abounded with scruffy children skipping school to toil in stifling tenements as low-skilled garment workers. One wonders, is there a Dominican Jacob Riis? Nevertheless, for this new job in New York, Pablo had to demonstrate his sewing acumen and more. He was asked, “Como tu estas”? The owner wasn’t asking how Pablo was doing. No, his low voice and cocked eye was asking, “Do you have papers”?
He got the job, and years later, in 1991, the opportunity to actually own the shop. The previous owner was neither a tailor nor a businessman, and eventually faced eviction for not paying rent. Rather than see the shop close, Pablo asked the landlord for permission to keep the operation running. And thus, the Olympic Tailor Shop became Stanton Tailor Shop. Monthly rent was $900 a month.
In the 80s Orchard Street was a de facto bargain district without having to announce it via local chamber of commerce street signs. In addition to the culture of the LES, the work has also changed over the years. Back then it was goods scooped up from discount merchants on Orchard – Levis, BVD tee shirts, Adidas sneakers and “8 ball” embossed black leather jackets. The clientele was the local Puerto Rican and Dominicans, as well as Sunday Bridge and Tunnelers who would shop on Orchard, leave their alterations, and scurry away to enjoy a pickle or pastrami sandwich at Katz’s. Or a quick trip to Ratner’s. The work was always steady; the customers appreciative; the rent was achievable; the crime a constant reality.
The garments Pablo is seeing today often cost more than a week’s worth of clothing in his early days. He says there is an uptick in “Wall street types” lately, and only about 10% of his customers are the old Latino clients from the neighborhood.
Today, the LES is a bustling and different place. Pablo and the Stanton Tailor Shop continue to provide this essential service to the L.E.S. community. Call it what you want, Hell Square or the gritty LES, Pablo has survived the changes by adapting slowly to the new realities. He is bi-lingual and has an eye for fashion, proper fitting, and for the details that are so vital to those who now line up at sample sales of cutting edge labels to score discounted fashion.
The other men who do the alterations take pride in their work, have their own special skills, and understand that the neighborhood maintains numerous competitors all vying for the same business. The fast beats of the meringue music contrast with the deliberate pace the tailors take when working on the garments. The customers can be demanding and will not tolerate mistakes after shelling out hefty sums to wear these signifiers of sartorial status.
No problem. Pablo is always calm, ready with a smile, some advice, and a fair price. If you walk by at night and the gate is halfway down, lean down and say hello and he might even slide it open, invite you in, and take in those Rag and Bone black slacks you “need” to wear to the gallery tour.