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Charm and Old-Fashioned Skills Keep Downtown Tailor in Business

By Julie Shapiro | January 12, 2011 10:58am

By Julie Shapiro

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

LOWER MANHATTAN — Luigi Levi Barbato likes to talk about everything — except for his successful tailoring business in lower Manhattan.

"I’m just an honest tailor, nothing special," Barbato, 62, said with a grin, as he bustled around the shop he has run for 30 years.

Barbato would much rather talk about tailoring itself: the challenges of fitting people whose legs are different lengths (it's all about adjusting the hips), the famous customers he has served over the years (mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani) and the moribund art of hand-crafted clothing (he thinks it's a skill that must be learned from childhood).

"Human bodies are so individual, you wouldn’t believe," Barbato said, shaking his head. "Everything should be done by hand — lots and lots of skill."

Barbato, a mustachioed Italian native who jokes that his one great sorrow is being too short, draws a broad mix of customers to his 7 Dey St. shop, which is one of the oldest downtown. Businessmen and politicians bring in baggy suits with Versace and Hugo Boss labels, while the bargain hunters who shop at nearby Century 21 count on Barbato to perfect their finds.

"He’s my favorite tailor in New York City," one of Barbato’s customers, a public official who asked that his name not be printed, said during a recent fitting. "It’s his handicraft that I trust."

Barbato likes to banter with his clients in a mixture of Italian and heavily accented English, using vociferous gestures to make himself understood. He is happy to continue working on a garment until the client is satisfied, though he is also perfeclty willing to give his opinion when he thinks the job is done.

When a middle-aged man recently asked him to make suit tighter around the waist, Barbato objected.

"You need to breathe!" Barbato told the man in Italian, inhaling deeply. "Breathe!"

After considering Barbato’s point, the client acquiesced with a shrug.

Barbato first took up the craft of tailoring as a 6-year-old in Naples, working for his grandfather and then his father. The hardest part was learning how to use a thimble to push a needle through thick fabric, a skill that took him three or four frustrating weeks to master.

In 1980, Barbato came to New York to help out at Joseph Tailor Shop, which his uncle Joseph Vito had opened on Ann Street around 1950 and later moved to the corner of Fulton Street and Broadway.

When Vito decided to retire in 1982, Barbato took over. He continued building the modestly profitable business over the next two decades, always working with opera music in the background, always fitting every client himself.

Then 9/11 struck. Barbato’s sales dropped more than 80 percent, his savings dried up and he struggled to pay his mortgage on his home in New Jersey. Assistance from Red Cross and the government helped keep the shop’s doors open.

"I survived, but just survived," Barbato recalled. "The first couple years — forget about it."

Then, in 2006, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority used eminent domain to evict Barbato and dozens of other businesses on Fulton Street, to make way for the Fulton Street Transit Center. Barbato struggled to find a new space but eventually landed on Dey Street, where his customers have followed.

Barbato said he keeps them coming back with his reasonable prices, a lesson he learned from his grandfather. He charges $10 to shorten a pair of pants, and about $20 to refit them entirely, while a skirt alteration costs about $15.

Barbato has no plans to retire, partly because he cannot afford it and partly because he likes the companionship his shop provides.

"I like to talk," Barbato said. "Can you imagine me and my wife sitting at home? Divorce on the second day, forget about it."

Barbato’s one regret is that none of his five children expressed an interest in becoming a tailor, but instead chose to go to college and pursue more modern careers. He does not entirely approve.

"So many people with master’s degrees, now it is hard to find a job," Barbato said. "In a very tough moment, with a skill [like tailoring], you can honestly survive. You survive, no stress."

While that argument hasn’t convinced his children, it has lured in young man from South America who is interested in learning the trade. Barbato is training him, with an eye toward making him a possible successor, though Barbato still holds out hope that one of his children will have a midlife change of heart.

No matter who takes over the business, Barbato has just one requirement, the same one that his uncle insisted on 30 years ago.

"I want them to promise me that they’ll keep the same name," Barbato said. "Joseph Tailor Shop."