Local businesses mean so much to us. We love getting to know the familiar faces in our neighborhood as we go about our day, and we appreciate the energy and inspiration that they can provide to us. "Local Guide" is our ongoing initiative to shine a light on some of our favorite small businesses in NY and LA that we patronize week in and week out. Every few months, we'll launch a new feature consisting of a photoshoot and Q&A to help you get to know the business better, coupled with a t-shirt that we'll produce in limited quantities.
There are certain businesses in our neighborhoods that unquestionably define them. They’re signposts that we rely on and return to over and over again. In the ever-rotating mix of the Lower East Side, Stanton Tailor Shop has been that kind of fixture. I first met Pablo Vargas 13 years ago when we signed our first 3sixteen office lease at 151 Allen Street; I had a wedding to attend that weekend and was in need of a quick turnaround on a suit. It wouldn’t be the last time Pablo would bail me out.
What really means so much to me about Pablo and Stanton Tailor Shop is the fact that he is dependable. When I send someone over for alteration work, I can always be sure that Stanton Tailor Shop is there, and that Pablo will look after them in the same way he looks after me. Pablo also cares about his customers. He worked on my sister’s wedding dress a year and a half ago, and when I stopped by last week to interview him, the first thing Pablo asked me about was how she was doing.
Ever since I’ve been going to Stanton Tailor Shop, it’s been a not-so-well kept secret. At any given time you walked by, Pablo would be doing a fitting with a client while 2-3 customers waited in line to drop off or pick up. Sometimes they’d be so busy that the gate would be closed so that the team could catch up on their backlog. When I swung by to see Pablo for this interview, the shop was silent. All four of his employees had been let go and Pablo was back to how it all started: doing fittings, making alterations himself, and waiting for customers to come in.
If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that we we need to support the businesses that we want to stick around. To that end, we’re launching a new Local Guide t-shirt with every dollar of sales going straight to Pablo to help with his rent backlog. We hired our good friend and illustrator extraordinaire Andrew Hermida (@hermherman) to illustrate his storefront for our t-shirt. These graphics are printed on our Pima tees and we have 50 available for sale. More importantly, though - if you live in NYC, scoop up all those clothes you’ve been putting off alterations on and pay Pablo a visit in the LES. He'll take good care of you.
Please tell us about how you got into the business and the history of the shop.
I began working as a tailor in the Dominican Republic where I was born. I started to learn the trade when I was 12. I worked mostly with pants at first, and by age 16, I completed my first pair. After that I got into making other clothes, like shirts and stuff. And at the time I never did alterations, I only worked on custom jobs. I moved to America in 1983 and made my way straight to Stanton Tailor Shop, where I still am, 37 years later. I worked for a few years under the original owner, and soon after he left, I took over. At that time I needed to learn a lot because by the early 90’s the neighborhood was getting crowded and was starting to change. I had to keep up.
When I started at Stanton, the shop was mostly focused on people who lived in the neighborhood. Some people came here because back then Orchard street was really a big deal, you know, everybody would come from the Bronx and from New Jersey, because at the time Orchard was a bangin place. Everyone would come to Orchard to get their stuff fixed. At the time we also had arrangements with stores in the area, and some bigger stores around the city as well. Most of the shops that worked with us would send us clothes to work with and pay us half the price for alterations. We would do all of the alterations, the shop would pay half and the clientele would pay the other half. This was how the business worked in those days - there used to be 11 tailor shops right in this immediate area. Then we started working with some big stores like Saks and Macys. They knew about the area and the work that we did and were impressed, so they would send their customers over to us.
You mentioned that the Lower East Side has changed a lot since you’ve been here. How exactly has it changed, and how has it affected the business?
The neighborhood has changed for better and for worse. For one thing, the Lower East Side was kind of a dangerous place when I came here in the early 80’s. There was a lot of drug dealing, crime and what not. You had to be more careful, you know. But at the same time, it was very diverse. All types of people lived around here, and many types of businesses were to be found. The neighborhood that I knew began to change around the 90’s and early 2000’s. People who had been here since before me started to leave, and so new people came in. I noticed the diversity of businesses and clientele starting to fade. Young kids started moving in from out of town to attend NYU, who brought with them a demand for bars and restaurants, which had never really been a huge business down here. After that, Business types began to move in, which led to an upsurge in demand for suit alterations, which has been a big part of my business ever since. When I came to Stanton, I didn’t know how to alter suits. A guy that worked here at the time took care of the suits that came in. But when the owner left, the suit guy went with him. All of a sudden I needed a guy who worked with suits. I tried to do the best I could, working 7 days a week you know. And over time, with practice, I learned how to do suits myself.
So as the demographic of people began to shift, and new people began to move in, new clientele came by the shop bringing with them new business demands. So yeah, the diversity of people was somewhat lost, and I liked that aspect of the neighborhood. There is still some of that though, it’s not completely gone. It’s a little different, but I don’t mind. Most of the people who used to come to us for alterations in the early days moved out, but some of them still come to us. Also in the 2000’s we were able to be discovered online, because of the internet, so new people would find us and come in. Some older customers who moved far away would get in touch and send us stuff to fix. I had a customer from Miami who would just ship their items through the mail to get it to us for alterations. It’s kind of like a barber, you know. We have that kind of relationship with them; a trusting relationship. Sometimes they leave their stuff here and come back in two or three months later to pick it up or whatever.
COVID hit our city so hard. We’ve seen so many small businesses go away, but you’re still here. How has Stanton Tailor Shop been affected by the pandemic?
You know, our business had its best years from 2010 to 2020. That was when the neighborhood was packed, a lot of people around, working and living. And then COVID hits in March of last year. We had to close down for a bit, for 4 months exactly, which was terrible for many reasons. First of all, I was so used to waking up and going to work 6 days a week. I run a very social business, so my employees and I missed getting together. When we came back, there were hardly any people in the neighborhood, it was really like a ghost town. Even today it’s still not even 30% of what it was like before. Then comes the loss of business. A lot of people from the neighborhood left because of the pandemic, but more importantly people are not going into the office and so they don’t need to bring their suits and stuff in to be tailored. We used to do like 100 to 120 suits a month you know. Now if I am lucky, I’ll have 5 a week. I only have 1 right now. We also took a big hit last spring because of wedding cancellations. A wedding could mean we have 20 to 30 jackets and dresses to do at a time, but not this past year. People couldn’t gather and postponed or cancelled their plans, taking away a huge part of our springtime business.
Looking toward the future, how do you keep focus and stay positive?
I got to keep going, that’s all there is to it. I got a family to support. I have a daughter who is still in college. I have to keep going for as long as I can, and I will. Hopefully with the vaccine, by springtime people will be out more and things will be a little bit better for us. I have been in the business for a really long time, you know. I think about taking it easy sometimes, and if business is still okay in 5 or so years, and I can afford to pay the rent and the workers and all of that, I would like to step back a little. I am not going to retire completely, because I love what I do. I’ll still come in maybe 2 or 3 days a week. The future is in the younger generation getting into fashion and looking to work with this stuff. So long as there are new people who want to learn, I need to be there to teach them.