Harlem Tailor Fights Sagging Pants Trend One Student at a Time
By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Wilbur Alexander slipped into the pants that Marion Anderson taught him to make over the last month as an apprentice at the Manhattanville Needle Trade School.
Alexander, 21, had learned to draw and cut the pattern, install a lining and sew pockets.
Anderson, 84, the founder and teacher at the school, looked the young man who was more than 60 years his junior up and down. He lifted the young man's black and yellow graphic tee just slightly in the back.
The dark blue wool dress pants sat perfectly at Alexander's 31-inch waist, no sagging.
Anderson pumped his fist in the air. "Perfect," he said with a big grin.
"They can't sag these pants. They are not made to sag," he said.
A few months ago Anderson spotted a group of young men with sagging pants. The style, said the retired New York City public school teacher, came from America's prisons and did not present the wearer in the most favorable light.
There have been efforts across the country to make sagging pants illegal. Anderson, took a different tact. He told the men that he would teach them to make a pair of pants from scratch that did not sag, DNAInfo first reported in September.
Anderson had used sewing to teach his five kids about discipline and hard work and spent many years in the school system teaching troubled youth.
The calls came rolling in.
Mothers sent their sons, sisters told their brothers about the program and some young men took the initiative and called on their own. After more than 40 years as a tailor, Anderson was looking for a few good men to share his craft with and he found them.
"I use it as an opportunity to expose these youngsters to a skill," Anderson said after working with his afternoon group. "As I expose them it may effect their attitude."
Ranging in age from 14 to 24, the young men have been coming to the trade school located on the first floor of Anderson's Harlem brownstone on West 141st Street between St. Nicholas Avenue and Hamilton Terrace three times a week for the last month.
They are required to sign a commitment statement which states that they will share their "acquired skills with others" and wear their pants in the "traditional fashion" while being an "advocate for rejecting the prison trend."
Alexander claims that his sagging pants are of an accidental nature, caused by his inability to find pants and belts that fit.
"It's not me sagging, it's my belt slipping off," he said.
His classmates and Anderson aren't buying it. It was his saggy style that got him a one-way ticket to the class but it has already affected his thinking
"My sister heard about Mr. Anderson and she saw the way I wear my pants so she told my mom and my mom forced me to come but I like it. I want to come," said Alexander. "You walk around and you see people sagging to the point where you can see their skin and it makes you want to pick up your pants."
Not all of the men Anderson has chosen to mentor wear sagging pants but all say they have been influenced by his willingness to help strangers free of charge
"I personally don't sag and am not judgemental of those who do" said Jesse Nathaniel Reed, 24, an entrepreneur from East New York. "What Mr. Anderson has done is said I don't support this but I'm not just going to criticize or argue with you. I'm going to teach you a trade. I appreciate his effort to share as a father would."
Josh Cave, 24, a painter from the South Bronx, is interested in fashion. He was concerned that Anderson might not want him in the class because he too is not into sagging. Instead, he was welcomed into the class.
"He said perhaps you can convince other not to sag," Cave said.
The pants he designed at the studio are his version of a pair of comfortable Levis.
"I wanted them to look like something you could wear now or in the 1950s," Cave said as he modeled the tapered blue worsted wool pants with a pair of brown shoes.
Something wasn't quite right, though. There was too much fabric and Cave couldn't move as fluidly as he wanted in them. Anderson stepped in and began instructing.
"If you mess up, it's no big deal," Cave said about working with Anderson. "I'm so amazed by the process that I walk around staring at people's pants."
Cave kicked his leg and posed in a Jackie Wilson stance after Anderson showed him how to adjust the seat. You've got to be able to dance in a good pair of pants, Reed said.
"He doesn't even need to look at a book because he has all the information stored in his mind," said Cave. "This process shows the value of work and doing things well. It teaches diligence and patience and hard work. It's been so valuable."
Cave, Alexander and Reed, strangers who met at Anderson's school are pondering the idea of starting a clothing line called 'Podium Life.' Anderson admits to tossing the idea out there. Alexander, the reluctant participant, now take extra fabrics home to work on projects.
"There's not telling where you can go once you acquire the skill," Anderson said. "I get the pleasure of seeing these young men accomplish something."
As the initial class nears its end, Anderson says several of the young men are interested in continuing as paid students. He has received dozens of calls of support and one person even sent a $50 check to show their support.
"It was just another source of encouragement," Anderson said.
Managing his young students along with his paying students has been slightly strenuous, Anderson admits. But he also wouldn't have it any other way.
"To me, its an obligation to share," he said.