On the Mend
For the past five years, I've been struggling to pursue a freelance writing career. It’s been a constant ordeal, destroying my solvency and sanity, and I’ve barely made enough to pay my rent every month. Among the challenges of buying groceries (I qualified for food assistance) and medical coverage (thanks Healthy San Francisco) was the reality that this admitted clotheshorse had few excuses to dress up on such a tight budget.
But suddenly, after years of slogging away at the blog mines, a real job appeared. A job that paid well and came with benefits, a bonus, equity, and an office address downtown – where I could show off both my marketable skills and my ability to mix patterns and match colors! It also came with new fashion standards. Standards I wasn’t living up to, as over the years, the wrinkles, stains, tears, and broken buttons on my workingman’s attire had gone unattended.
A desk on the 20th floor overlooking California Street comes with certain codes of deportment and attire, expectations that are difficult to meet when you've been out in the weeds as long as I have. It was time to repair to the phone booth for a quick change. Or, in my habit, gussy up thrift store finds and make them work.
Even from my garret in the Mission, I'd snarked along with Manolo for the Men, dreamed of cruising down Market dressed like a Milanese gentleman from the pages of The Sartorialist, and fantasized about grabbing a suit from Wilkes Bashford or Barneys and saying, "I'll take it!"
But my version of looking FiDi on a mid-Market budget means taking my clothing hunt to the thrift stores: Salvation Army, Goodwill, Thrift Town, Community Thrift, and Out of the Closet. Sure, they have plenty of stock that starts cheap and stays cheap, but the good stuff does filter through.
Familiar with what constitutes quality fabric and passable construction, I check the measure of the pants for ballpark numbers on height and weight distribution. Then, if the previous inhabitant had a similar fit, I try on the jacket. This is the moment of truth – if the shoulders are too tight or too loose, or if the cuffs barely clear the elbows of outstretched arms, then it's back on the rack. But even if it's a little generous in the arms or waist, if I like the feel of the fabric and can tell that it wasn't glued together, it's off to the dressing room to see if the hems reach my shoes.
Just as you wouldn't buy a Brioni off the rack without getting it nipped and tucked, I don’t think of a bargain bin find as the end product. In the store, I'm thinking of this little extra fabric as raw material if the suit is a good one. I check the seam allowance in the seat, turn up the hems to see if there's enough for cuffs, and of course check the label to see if it cries for help. Once the specimens meet my satisfaction, it's off to get them the care they need.
My first stop is New King's Laundry, on 17th between Mission and South Van Ness, to drop off some older shirts so I'll be fresh-pressed at the new gig. New King's is a full service laundry that offers on-site dry cleaning and wash and fold. But the best feature is that it's only $1.60 to get your shirt pressed and boxed – boxed shirts are perfect for traveling and for keeping in a drawer at the office in case you didn't get a chance to change the night before, a la Don Draper in the first season of Mad Men.
New King's did so well with the shirts, turning them around in one day upon my request and for no extra charge, that I also dropped off my staple sport coats: a tan camel-hair jacket that had some ash-colored stains along the arms from my bike tires, and a gray herringbone that had been in my smoking room for who knows how many years. For only $9, New King's resuscitated both.
My next stop is Seymour's Fashions on Sutter. Run by George and his son Ravi, Seymour’s offers full custom work as well as alterations. A gray worsted and a Prince of Wales check suit needed a lot of attention. George recommended taking in the waist of the coats, while Ravi said he could fix the too-short trousers for the check, but sadly, there wasn't enough seam allowance for cuffs. Still, better than the hinky mismatched hems I had been trying to live with.
A complete overhaul of the two suits cost only $134 – more than I paid for both, but better than anything I could get for $300 at the Men's Wearhouse. George attempted to entice me with a new purchase – a "starter" bespoke suit for $1,195. That one will have to wait until I've cleared some debt and been vested, at the very least.
In the meantime, I do have a Barneys tux I bought for a costume party one Halloween that's at least a size too big for me. George promised he could fix it, down to the jacket's overly large shoulders. That kind of alteration will cost more – the listed price for altering yokes is $65, and the outfit needed other work as well – but I will be getting a couple of paychecks between now and the company holiday party.
I want to try a couple of options in the neighborhood around my new office, so I drop by Escobar Brothers at the Embarcadero Center. I’m armed with two sport coat finds – a slate-gray felt and a green corduroy – as well as a pair of trousers from a blue pinstripe suit that split during the course of a fancy birthday party on Nob Hill, all of which need mending. I was curious about Escobar because the Yelp reviews told a story of a once-great shop that had stopped doing good work, but then rebounded after Marissa took over the operation a little over three years ago.
When I come to pick up my items during my lunch break, a week after dropping them off, they aren't ready. However, Marissa had everything in perfect shape just a couple of hours later: torn pocket corners restored, a ragged lining patched, buttons sewn back on, and the pants back in one piece with a little extra room around the hips for dancing, all for $60.
I then drop by Jack's Shoe Service on Sutter to upgrade a couple pairs of shoes. Unfortunately, it turned out that my favorite crepe-sole Clarks would cost more to fix than they did to purchase. However, my black dress boots with relatively cheap rubber soles were given new leather soles and rubber heels, new laces, and a nice buff for about $76 – far less than I originally paid for them. Better yet, after returning to the office and trying them on, one of my new colleagues complimented me almost immediately.
While all this tailoring and cleaning may sound relatively expensive – $339 total to clean, repair, and alter two suits, four sport coats, and a pair of shoes – remember that the longer you wear your clothes, the cheaper they end up being in the long run. You could certainly spend as much on the disposable fashion at H&M, American Apparel, or the Gap in a day and have to replace those items in a year.
The confidence that comes with being flattered by the cut of your coat and the hang of your slacks? That's priceless. The psychological boost that a kind and attentive seamstress, cobbler, tailor, or launderer can provide may well be cheaper than therapy or medication. Trust me, I've been taking advantage of both, and even Ativan doesn't quiet anxiety like a fresh, clean shirt and the crisp lines of a proper suit.
Looking for a good tailor? Check the Yelp reviews first to figure out the merchant’s specialties. One might be great for a cheap, quick hem, for example, while others are better if you want something reconstructed or custom made. Seymour's Fashions will fix your finds or help you turn your favorite fabrics into something entirely original. Marissa at Escobar Brothers would probably fix a hem on a lunch break if you ask nicely, and Jack's Shoe Service will get your hard bottoms in shape for when the secret Kanye concert comes to town.
While you want your shirts and slacks pressed regularly (without starch, which will age the shirt faster than normal) at a laundry like New King's Laundry, you should bring your suits, sport coats, and blazers in only once or twice a year at most. Again, cleaning can wear on the fabric. Better just to keep them properly hung and give them a good brush down every so often. If they have a few wrinkles, just hang the items in the bathroom while you take a shower and let the steam do the work.
After all, a used suit is getting a second chance at life to shine. Treat it kindly.