Fancy Pants

Jun 02, 2011 at 12am

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Neither rain nor wind can penetrate their woolen goodness and to my mind they’re damn stylish. (If nothing else they make my derriere look as good as a Navy man on shore leave, and who doesn’t love that?) I will even go so far as to admit that I have not one pair, but two. Their only flaw? While the thirteen button enclosure could charm one’s pants off, it makes it nearly impossible to charm these particular pants off, especially after anything involving a 2-drink minimum.

Their shape, however, is perfect and it’s often occurred to me that another pair would be a damn fine idea. While I’ve been an avid stitcher since the day I sewed my first Diana Ross-style tube-dress (but was not allowed to wear it out of the house), I’ve never favored pattern-making, preferring a more freestyle (aka lazy) approach. I’ve also never tackled pants, and since the whole basis of my love affair with this particular pair stems from how well they fit and look, I decided it was time to engage a professional. 

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For years I’d passed by the North Beach storefront, admiring the 1940’s style menswear and impeccably tailored ladies coats adorning the window. While it registered in the back of my mind that everything was made in-house, it wasn’t until a friend started popping up with a gorgeous tweedy coat here and a stitched-to-fit plaid hunting jacket there (not to mention a handful of classic wool caps), that it occurred to me I might need to investigate a little further. For some reason (two student loans and an affinity for non-profits?) it had never occurred to me that the average soul could just waltz in to Al’s Attire, bypass all the racks, and create a custom-made piece for anything less than a month’s rent.

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Even if one did have a cool handful of bills to drop, I quickly learn that an appointment at Al’s might not be quite that simple. To start, they hardly ever answer the phone. A couple tries convinced me they must be seriously busy and knowing how irate I get when that thing starts clanging in the middle of a crossword (and doesn’t it always?) I tried the email route instead. An reply-less week convinced me that was the wrong tack as well. If your mother ever said you’d get farther doing something in person, she was right (never mind Teddy Roosevelt’s addition about carrying a big stick); a quick stop into Al’s after work and I’ve got an appointment for the following day.

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I show up giddy but slightly nervous and spy a diminutive man in perfectly fitted denim coveralls helping another gentleman into a suit that’d make Sinatra proud. Both suit and gent look damn good and the more I look around, the more it appears I’ve entered my version of thrift-store heaven. Suits and blouses and coats, all cut in fantastic vintage styles and fabrics hang about the store, bright and new and lacking in pit stains. Buttery leather boots and wingtips, peep-toe heels, and classic unisex oxfords beckon. Only the prices remind me that my own two feet are still firmly here on earth.

Another few minutes and I’m ushered over to Al. He’s half business and half chit-chat and I like him immediately. He’s serious about what he does, showing off hand-stitched buttonholes and invisibly finished hems that demonstrate the quality he believes in. He’s not in the least baffled by my wanting to look like Jean Harlow (while looking nothing like Jean Harlow) and loves the high-waisted, side-zip pants idea, even suggesting 2 inch cuffs before I have a chance to get that far. He also doesn’t bat an eye when I pick the heaviest wool I can find.

While I drool over samples (apparently I don’t need caviar, just a thick square of melton) he snaps photos of my sailor pants with his iPhone. It turns out we’ve got more than just a love of fabrics in common, as he’s also a fan of the wharf and one of the few people I’ve met who still cares about it despite its tourist trappings. In fact, he goes way further back than I, having attended Lowell High School, waited tables at DiMaggio’s, and rowed circles around my office with the South Enders. He’s had the shop for over 18 years, only recently moving a few doors down into a bigger space.

With fabric picked and measurements taken, I promise to bring Al my other pair of sailor pants as a guide. He enters everything into the computer and the moment I’ve been dreading finally arises: How much will I have to shell out for the pants of my dreams? The answer is $236.00. While it’s no small sum, it doesn’t strike me as incommensurate with what I’m gaining. After all, we’re talking some high quality wool, stellar craftsmanship, and a pair of slacks that’ll fit me like Dietrich’s tuxedo. I plunk down a $100 deposit and leave with instructions to return in 6 weeks. Nothing to do now but wait. And dream. And wait.

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Which is precisely what I do, until somewhere in that vast expanse of waiting I forget all about Al’s and my dream pants and one day while digging in my wallet for a BART ticket I pull out a receipt with the 6-week date on it instead. And guess what? It’s only a few days away! I call and leave a message and Al himself calls back. He’s short of help, but will check the order and let me know when to come in. A few days pass in radio silence. At risk of seeming stalker-esque I stop by the shop. Al seems harried, but not at all unhappy to see me and I realized the shop is one of those old-world type places, based on person to person interaction; neighbors stop by to chat, customers ask Al about his health and I even run into a coworker and his lady friend. Al’s is as much about being a part of the neighborhood as it is about the services provided.

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My particular services, however, are looking a little dour. Al’s last batch of interns didn’t quite cut the mustard. Hence, the fabric meant for my dream pants have turned into someone’s should-be-black-but-instead-its-grey dream jacket and vice-versa. Al’s ever apologetic and tells me he’s re-ordered my fabric and put the new order on rush. I suppose at this point a body could be righteously peeved, but somehow it doesn’t really bother me. I just like the shop too much and since I’m in no hurry, it doesn’t seem worth getting one’s lady things all in a bunch over. After all, I’m still getting my dream pants, right?

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Right. It takes almost another month of waiting but when they finally emerge, my new pants are fantastic. The pattern is just what I asked for – high waist, wide leg, no frippery – and the cut’s as flattering as my navy pair. What really gets me is the attention to detail; the hand-stitched buttonhole and construction of the waistband are all signs that the shop cares about its work.

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Al double checks everything while I have them on, making sure I like the length, pinching in the waist a bit where it could be taken in and says he’ll have them pressed and ready to go by the weekend. He’s also refused to charge me the rest of the cost, and is making me another pair – for free – as an apology for the whole ordeal. Do I love Al’s? Oh, hell yes. Next up’s a vintage-style bathing suit, just in time for fall.

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If you're pining for some custom tailored duds, Al's your man. A trip to the North Beach shop (at the corner of Grant and Vallejo) will definitely get inspiration flowing, or land you a sweet piece right off the rack. Two bits of advice: forget emailing, it's all about the personal contact; and make sure to give yourself a few extra weeks (or months) in case it takes longer than expected.

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