Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A stitch in time

Custom tailor among the last of a dying breed of master craftsmen

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It seems like a fitting refuge for an aging practitioner of a lost art.

Giovanni Lagioia's custom tailoring shop is located at 726 Osborne St., kind of. To find Gio, locate a narrow gap between buildings that leads to the rear, and cross the parking lot to a small, converted garage, the modest home for the last 20 years of one of Riverview's hidden treasures.

 

The ranks of the master tailors who can cut and hand-stitch a made-to-measure suit are thinning fast. And there are few apprentices willing to take up the needle in their place.

The grim joke in the industry is that if you want a real tailor, you have to go to the cemetery, where there are lots.

"Tailoring is dying, 100 per cent," says the 62-year-old St. Vital resident, surrounded by his many sewing machines, thread spools, zippers and bolts of cloth in his makeshift four-by-four-metre office.

"Kids don't want to learn (apprentice) anymore because they don't get paid.

"All that will be left will be people who do alterations. There will be no people to make custom-made suits. I predict 20 years from now, there will be no tailors making a suit."

Lagioia guesses there are only a handful of tailors now in Winnipeg who could make a suit from scratch. There are men's clothing stores that offer custom suits, but the actual work is done out of town.

"Alterations pay the bills, but I love making a suit," says Lagioia, who turns out 20 suits each year. They can cost, depending on the material, between $800 and $1,200.

"I like it best when I take a piece of material, mark the measurements and start cutting.

"I want my customers to feel like a million bucks. You shouldn't feel like you have a suit on."

Lagioia would never describe himself as a master tailor; he doesn't have the diploma that many of his colleagues earned. His status comes from other top tailors who say they would commission him to stitch them a custom suit.

Eleven years of apprenticing, starting at the age of nine, is how Lagioia honed his tailoring skills in the small southern Italian town of Triggino, near Bari. The oldest son of a produce farmer, he sewed his first pair of pants for his father, Pasquale, at 11.

Three years later, Lagioia put his rudimentary talents to work when he was asked to pick almonds off the ground. Instead of lugging a container around, the 14-year-old fashioned himself a pair of pants that filled through the zipper with almonds or olives. His dad immediately wanted a pair.

"They were like balloon pants, tied at the bottom of the legs," recalls the diminutive father of two.

"He would fill his pants with 20 to 30 pounds of almonds. I would laugh at the way he walked when he had too much in his legs. He looked like a pear."

Young Italian men serve in the military for two years when they are 18, and Lagioia didn't want to waste two years of his life. He schemed for a way to be deemed unfit to enlist.

"I used to put old cigars underneath my armpits so I could get a very high fever and I would lose a lot of weight. But it didn't work," he said, with a laugh.

"It was a stupid idea."

Lagioia got a deferral for a year, during which he plotted to follow his seamstress sister to Winnipeg. He went to Rome for a sewing test at the Canadian consulate, where he was granted landed-immigrant status.

"I left because in the '60s, I didn't see any future for me," says Lagioia, whose licence plate on his restored 1980 Datsun 280ZX reads "Stitch," a reference to his nickname.

The 19-year-old arrived in Canada on Sept. 15, 1969, and the next day was looking for a job at the custom tailor shop of Hanford Drewitt, then on Portage Avenue. He offered to work free for a week with the hopes of being kept on. He got hired, got paid, and worked there until the place closed in 1971.

"My boss told me not to go to a factory or an alteration department because 'you have hands of gold,'" Lagioia recalls. "'Stay in a custom-tailoring department.'"

He moved on to The Pine Room at Eaton's before he opened his own tailoring shop on Pembina Highway. For 15 years, it was a thriving business, employing five tailors. When the property was expropriated, he moved to a second-storey shop on Osborne with his brother-in-law, who was a hairdresser.

That left him feeling shut away, so he chose to renovate the dilapidated garage at the rear because he is proud of what he does, and he wanted people to see him at work in the open-concept space. His customers followed him.

"I joke to them, 'I try to hide, but you guys always find me,'" says Lagioia, who drives to work on his 49cc Vino scooter.

As long as his dad was living, Lagioia would send him custom-made trousers sporting the Giovanni label inside, until his brother asked him to stop. His father was so proud of the label he would proudly show his cronies.

"My brother said it was embarrassing to be walking by the piazza and see his dad with his pants down, showing the label to everyone," Lagioia says.

"I guess he was so proud. After that, I put the label on the outside over the pocket."

Like many Canadian immigrants, the tailor is a vocal patriot of this country, although it took him decades to overcome a personal bugbear and become a Canadian citizen.

"It's a good country, very mellow," he says. "People here are not big-mouths, like Italians. I wish they were prouder and louder.

"I didn't become a Canadian for so long because I didn't want to be called an Italian-Canadian. I want to be a Canadian-Italian. If you become a Canadian in this country, you should be a Canadian first."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2012 J14

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