Jewish Journal

The quiet tailor

by David Suissa

Posted on Dec. 18, 2008 at 3:50 am

We all have times in our lives when it seems like nothing can go wrong. When one good move leads to another; when all the breaks go our way, and we simply can't wait to get up every morning. We feel invincible, on top of the world, hoping the feeling never goes away. These times can take on a mythical value within our larger life.

I was thinking about this the other day, when I went to pick up a suit at Paul's Tailoring on Pico Boulevard and stuck around to hear the story of the owner, Paul Drill.

Paul's shop has been a fixture in the neighborhood for 28 years. When you enter his shop, which sits adjacent to the Pico Glatt market a block east of Beverly Drive, you half expect to see trolley cars and '56 Chevys going by outside. His sewing machines are more than 50 years old. There are no computers, no cash registers, no ads on the walls, not even an employee to greet you.

There's just some old furniture and a sturdy, older man with a full head of white hair who hears the bell from the entrance door and soon appears to see what you need.

This is Paul the tailor, born 66 years ago in a little town outside of Kiev. Since the age of 18, he's made a living tailoring people's clothes. The world around him has changed, but his tools and materials haven't -- it's still the same needles and threads and buttons and patterns and scissors and chalk markers and whatever else he needs to mold fabric to fit people's bodies.

His life in tailoring began when he was looking for work in his childhood neighborhood and saw through a window a tailor cutting a large swath of fabric. He loved how that looked: scissors swishing through soft material. That one moment would come to define the next 48 years of his life.

He started as a clerk and began taking sewing lessons, slowly moving up the ladder, before getting drafted by the Soviet army. After the war, he found a job in a "fashion factory" and went to a fashion college at night for four years, where he learned all the aspects of the trade.

When the Soviet Union began relaxing its immigration policy for Jews, he made plans to move to America with his wife and young boy. They landed in New York in 1976, and after working for a Manhattan tailor for a couple of years, he decided to take his family to Los Angeles, where most of his friends lived.

He carried a letter of recommendation in his pocket from his well-known former boss in New York, and that was enough to get him into the tailoring department at Saks Fifth Avenue.

Within a year, he was introduced to the woman who would transform his life.

Her name was Lina Lee, owner of an upscale fashion enclave in Beverly Hills. Impressed by Paul's many talents and old-world experience, she hired him to produce a high-end line of leather and suede designs under the Lina Lee label.

The line was so successful, that by 1980, he had to rent his own space to meet the growing demand. That's when he moved into his current location on Pico Boulevard.

When I was with him the other day, I asked him to give me a tour of the place. Paul is a shy, reticent man with poor English, but his face lit up when I asked for a tour. Before showing me the back room -- where he does the alterations -- he led me up some creaky steps to a large, dark, ghostlike room, where right in the middle was one of those huge work tables you'd expect to see in a shmatte factory.

This upstairs area is where for years Paul produced the hippest leather and suede fashions in town. Since 1993 -- the year his specialty went out of style and the orders stopped coming in -- the space has mostly been used for storage, but, amazingly, signs of his former, high-flying life are everywhere. He showed me stacks of leather and suede samples from Italy, Lina Lee labels and bags, delivery boxes still filled with merchandise, order forms -- all untouched from his heyday more than 15 years ago.

It was as if he were ready to turn back time and start that exciting life again on a minute's notice.

As he walked me through the room, his words seemed to accelerate. Even his English got better. He explained in detail how the operation worked: the size of the staff, who did what, where they cut the patterns, the machines they used, where they stored the samples, how many pieces they would finish in an average week and, of course, how everything was always "rush, rush, rush."

Clearly, this was not a life he was ready to simply clean out from his memory. His work has always been with real things that you can touch, and many of those things were still there in the upstairs room.

He could still touch them. He could still touch his old life.

When we came back down, Paul seemed to slow down. His voice got a little lower, his English more choppy. A customer walked in with a baby in her arms to pick up a dress.

It's very likely that this customer, as well as the many regulars who walk in every day, have never seen the upstairs of Paul's Tailoring -- the place where Paul used to run a fast-paced, high-end fashion factory.

The only Paul they see today is the quiet tailor, the one who'll occasionally reminisce about that time in his life when he would walk upstairs and feel on top of the world.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

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