Oakland tailor for 50 years has clients in stitches
September 12, 2011 4:00 AM
Gino De Iuliis, marking his 50th year as a tailor in Oakland, sits under photographs of his grandchildren.
By Diana Nelson Jones Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On a ship with thousands of people he didn't know, 18-year-old Gino De Iuliis, who had never left his tiny village in Abruzzi, watched New York grow bigger as the harbor got nearer "and so many people," he said, "I was scared stiff.
"When I saw my brother-in-law in the crowd, I thought I saw God."
It's been 55 years since that reunion with his sister, Iolanda Di Nardo, who sponsored him to join her and her husband in Pittsburgh.
Once here, the dumbstruck young tailor who knew barely more than "yes," "OK" and "May I have this dance?" has today a clientele so loyal and so constant that there's a wistful edge in all the congratulations this month, his 50th anniversary as the New Oakland Tailor at 234 Meyran St.
Is anyone who is not getting on in years training to operate a blind stitch machine? What about the flouncy dresses with four layers of lace underneath? How many people out there under 73 know how to repair that?
"Nobody is apprenticing," he said. "Sometimes people come in asking if I repair shoes. I had to drive to Elizabeth to find someone who sharpened scissors. We are losing our crafts."
Customers know how rare Mr. De Iuliis' skills are.
"Maybe the day he retires I don't wear any clothes," said Dr. Freddie Fu on a recent visit to his shop. Mr. De Iuliis responded with an infectious laugh that his patrons get as a bonus.
You get steam-pressed shirts, a repaired shoulder seam and the hems altered on the pants of your first adult suit, and you get that laugh. Not nervous or ingratiating but a laugh that says you are enjoyed.
"I love what I do," he said, leaning into the counter of his shop on Friday.
"I don't want to quit, but I'm getting old." Idly turning over a business card he said, "I will probably stay with it a while more."
Friday was D-day for Jack Anderson, the University of Pittsburgh's band director. He stopped in to pick up the last of 85 freshmen uniforms that needed to be tailored and rehemmed.
"He's a life-saver," Mr. Anderson said. "I can bring a pair of pants in yesterday and he has them ready today" -- the day before half-time of the Maine-Pitt game at Heinz Field.
"The drum major did a backbend on Saturday [the week before] and he ripped the whole seam," he said, drawing a line down the front of his thigh with one hand, the other clutching the hanger that held the drum major's pants.
Matt Vitovsky, a Pitt senior, was one of several students who stopped Friday. He needed to have his pants hemmed. "That and whatever else he thinks," he said, standing on a platform just outside the fitting room as Mr. De Iuliis folded the hem and pinned it, about an inch above the sole. "This is the first time I've ever had a suit."
Inspecting the young man, the tailor said, "The vest is a little loose, but you can adjust it in back, you know. When you wear a vest, you don't button the coat, you know that? Otherwise, you lose the purpose of wearing the vest."
Word-of-mouth, and being in the middle of thousands of students, has been good for Mr. De Iuliis, who lives in Penn Hills.
Charles Pratt stopped in to pick up his R.O.T.C. uniform pants and said, "Other people recommended him, and now everyone comes here."
Dino De Iuliis, one of the tailor's three sons, wrote in an email, "Through his work ethic, perseverance, finding his niche in life, and love of family, he is one of the most successful men that I know."
"He works from 4 in the morning until 5 at night and then he comes out here every night to have dinner with me," said his wife of 49 years, Mary Jean De Iuliis, who lives in a nursing home in North Huntingdon. "I want people to know how much his customers love him."
Dr. Fu met him when he was a medical student in the 1970s, "just walking by and seeing the sign," he said. "I needed someone to do my clothes. His work ethic is incredible. He works earlier than doctors. I've been all over the world and believe me, nobody sews a button on at 5 in the morning."
Just off the boat, Mr. De Iuliis' first job was in construction "with a pick and shovel," he said.
He worked briefly at a garment factory in Philadelphia before returning to Pittsburgh, where he worked for the next seven years for the Gerson Brothers on the South Side.
"He learned English working for them," said his wife. "God bless him how he learned English and how he learned to run a business and he does it all himself" with no employees. "I've been very fortunate to have him."
For the past 20 years, Mr. De Iuliis has also been the lead singer in the Italian folk band, The Cavaliers.
"When I do that, I forget everything," he said. "And when I see someone moving their lips to what I'm singing, it feels so good."
The first years here were "very hard," he said. "When I came over, if I had had the money to go back the next day I would have. If my sister hadn't been here, I don't know if I'd have made it.
"I used to go to Danceland in West View. A bunch of us would take two street cars to get there. When we asked the girls to dance, they said yes, but then you got on the dance floor and they would talk to you, and I had no idea what to say. They would just walk away."
He learned English listening to the radio, taking classes and riding the street cars. Serving as a groom at a friend's wedding in the early '60s, he met Mary Jean Baver, the bridesmaid.
The couple married and had three sons, all of whom played college football.
"To them," said Mr. De Iuliis, "football was a job. I am the proudest man in the world, because they told me, 'You're the reason. We saw the way you worked and wanted to do the same.' "