A New Generation of Tailors

By Rebecca Ungarino

Elizabeth 93 Cleaners and Tailor Owner Zhijie Fan answers phone calls. He said, "Americans aren't cut out for this work. Twelve hour days? They can't do it." Photo by Rebecca Ungarino
Elizabeth 93 Cleaners and Tailor owner Zhijie Fan answers phone calls. He said, “Americans aren’t cut out for this work. Twelve hour days? They can’t do it.”
Photo by Rebecca Ungarino

“All of our tailor friends have either died, their leases expired, or they moved. Most died,” said Nurten Onay, 63, pressing her hands against her Singer sewing machine. A Turkish calendar hangs above her tabletop, this month’s photograph of a mosque in Istanbul.

Nurten’s husband, Habito, sat next to her, quietly unfolding a pair of blue jeans. The counter space in the narrow tailor shop between First and Second avenues on 93rd Street is laden with spools, needles and garments waiting to be altered. Onay married her husband, an Italian immigrant, in 1970. They have worked in the tailoring business for about 40 years.

In the late 1960s, Onay’s husband had been a tailor for Gucci in Manhattan’s Garment District before they married and opened their first shop.

“He’s the master tailor,” Nurten said.

As a generation of tailors who came from Europe passed away or retired, Asian tailors have replaced them. The trend is particularly noticeable on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Across 93rd Street, at Elizabeth 93 Cleaners, owner Zhijie Fan answered calls on a cordless phone while a Katy Perry song played on the radio, and a buzzer sounded each time the front door opened. The storefront advertises a specialty in altering wedding gowns and tablecloths.

“Why do I work in cleaners? Tailors? The same reason you work: to pay the rent,” said Fan, 41.

Onay Tailors has gone through four different East Side locations in 40 years, first at 87th Street in 1973 – “That was between Second and Third avenues. We started in the basement and moved up,” said Onay – then at 81st Street, 10 years later. Another decade later, the couple moved to 83rd Street, and 10 years later to the current location, tucked between a sushi restaurant and an apartment building.

Inside George’s European Tailor Shop at 1168 Lexington Avenue, pride in the European history of dressmakers and tailors is ever-present. A small Greek flag waves in the front window of the narrow store space between East 80th and 81st streets.

“There are 1, 000 tailors in this city, but only four or five of them are real tailors,” owner George Marakomiheakis said, “and the real tailors are from Greece, Israel, Russia, Italy and Constantinople. Make sure you write down Constantinople.”

Marakomiheakis, 67, settled in Astoria, Queens, when he emigrated to the United States from Greece. He was 20 years old when he arrived in Astoria for “a better future.” Marakomiheakis’s parents, farmers in his home of Crete, stayed behind. He attended night classes to learn English and worked in a suit factory for two years before opening his first business on 87th Street. Since then, he has moved to Park Avenue at 70th Street, and once more to his current storefront on Lexington Avenue.

Close by on Third Avenue is Jade Cleaners, formerly family-run and now owned by a group of friends. One tailor, who would give her name only as Amy T., 45, toils at a table strewn with spools of pink and yellow thread.  She works as a tailor six days a week, 10 hours a day.

She attended a university in Hong Kong, where the curriculum included a sewing course for women, now lives in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and commutes to Third Avenue to tailor jeans and women’s blazers; she said they’re the most popular items brought in for alterations.

“I mean, it’s work. I don’t like it a lot, but it’s work,” she said. “Sometimes the customers are happy, and sometimes they aren’t. I do this because I learned in school. It’s the only job for me here.”

A petite brunette wearing sneakers and a sand-colored jacket, she was altering a pair of jeans on her Singer 491 sewing machine. She settled in Brooklyn with her husband 10 years ago, and has worked as a tailor ever since, the last five years at Jade. In Hong Kong, she worked in the purchasing department for a ceiling fan manufacturer.

“I liked Hong Kong better. I had all my family there. Here, I just work, work, work,” she said.

The Onays work in their storefront on 94th Street, altering garments for loyal patrons. Photo by Rebecca Ungarino
The Onays work in their storefront on 94th Street, altering garments for loyal patrons.
Photo by Rebecca Ungarino

Onay believes the trend of Asian tailors dominating the business reflects the interest in education of first-generation European families.

“When you come here, you have to do something with no education,” she said. “You have to make something, even if it’s the smallest business. You have to do something. You have two kids, and they’re not going to be tailors. They’re going to be professionals. That’s how it was with us.”

In a May 2012 report, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said tailors, dressmakers and custom sewers earn a mean annual wage of $29,170. Although this is about $18,000 above the national poverty line, Onay stressed her outlook on the future of European tailors.

“There isn’t one,” she said, needle in hand.

In George’s European Tailor Shop, a faded red and white sticker with the words “I’m a proud St. John’s University parent” hangs by a counter. One of Marakomiheakis’s two daughters attended the university in Queens and now is a teacher. His other daughter is a cosmetologist. Marakomiheakis said he had not seen any new young European tailors in years and that the more recent tailors are predominantly Asian, like the tailor adjacent to his store across Lexington at Carlton Cleaners.

“Becoming technicians and tailors doesn’t interest young people of European families anymore,” Marakomiheakis said. “They want money, and they aren’t patient.”