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Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017 12:05 am

A half-century of sewing

Tailor shop survives on MacArthur

Wilbur “Skip” Costa is celebrating 50 years in the tailoring business.


After decades of sewing, Wilbur “Skip” Costa has succumbed.

He no longer wears a tie to work, as he did back in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan dropped jaws by wearing brown suits in the White House. Governors and presidents delivering speeches in open-neck shirts?

“That bothers me,” says Costa, proprietor of Roy’s Alterations and Custom Tailors on MacArthur Boulevard, which is celebrating 50 years in business. “Look at the governor. It’s not professional.”

And Costa knows about governors, having sewn for former Gov. George Ryan (and First Lady Lura Lynn Ryan) and former Gov. Jim Thompson back in the day, when his shop would sell 50 or 60 made-to-measure suits each year. Former Springfield Mayor William Telford, who left office in 1979, was also a customer. Costa says that he last sold a suit three years ago.

“In the back of your mind, you wonder: Will it really be appreciated?” Costa says.

Still, 23 books of fabric swatches from Holland & Sherry, a world-famous weaver based in Savile Row in London, hang on a wall, just in case someone wants something a touch above off-the-rack. There were once 200 such books. These days, alterations are Costa’s bread and butter.

Even as he bemoans the decline of men’s fashion, Costa himself now favors casual garb, particularly button-down shirts sans tie and polos when the weather turns warm. Everything is perfectly pressed. While  cuffs puddled at the tops of shoes have become de rigueur in a world of cargo shorts and jeans that cost more if they come ripped, Costa’s pants have just-right break. He knows that corduroy looks better and lasts longer if dry cleaned, as opposed to laundered, and he won’t let out poplin trousers without first warning the customer that the fabric is so tightly woven that a needle is apt to leave telltale holes.

Costa has his limits. He will not make clothes for dogs, although he knows someone who does and is happy to provide referrals. He can put zippers on Gore-Tex rain parkas and hem khaki trousers and make tiny holes in sport coats disappear without the expense of reweaving. He thrives on repeat customers. More than a half-dozen uniforms from the Springfield Fire Department, Springfield Police Department and Air National Guard hang in the back, waiting for the personal touch.

How does a tailor’s shop stay in business for so long?

“You have to let the customer know that he or she is right,” Costa answers.

But that doesn’t mean that you don’t attempt, gently, to correct fashion flubs before they happen. What if we try it this way, Costa will ask, knowing full well that his way is the right way. We can always change it, he will offer.

“It’s all in how you present it,” Costa says. “You can’t shove it down people’s throats.”

Costa, a native of Colorado Springs, had never sewn before coming to Springfield in 1970 at the invitation of Roy Costiner, his father-in-law who once worked as tailor for the U.S. Air Force Academy and had opened his tailor shop on MacArthur in 1966 at the suggestion of a friend who had said that the capital city was suffering for want of tailors. Costa had just gotten out of the Navy and figured that he would become a tool-and-die maker, for which he had already received training. Costiner figured that if Costa had sufficient manual dexterity to be a tool-and-die maker, he could learn to sew. And he was right.

After three years of working for his father-in-law, Costa was hired as head tailor and shop manager for Bachrach in Decatur. After seven years at Bachrach, Costa returned to Springfield in 1980 and bought Roy’s when his father-in-law retired and returned to Colorado. Costa has been here ever since.

Costa doesn’t consider himself a master tailor on par with the shop’s founder, who could make a suit from scratch, including the pattern. Made-to-measure suits and sport coats offered by Roy’s Alterations and Custom Tailors are sewn in Maryland based on hand measurements taken by Costa, who performs final fittings and adjustments when the garment is shipped. Bespoke, or custom suits, that are made entirely on premises require as many as a half-dozen fittings and cost considerably more.

It takes considerable skill to supply a made-to-measure suit, even if most of the sewing is done elsewhere. The local tailor must have an eye for body shapes and know how to properly fit a garment to a customer. Not everyone can do it, Costa says, and the ability to fit someone is what separates true haberdashers from sales associates.

Costa credits, or more accurately blames, the decline of fashion on the rise of Silicon Valley and dot.com zillionaires who would go looking for an atlas if asked about an Inverness cape. He believes fine fashion for men is coming back, with epicenters in New York and Boston, both towns rich in top-end clothing shops. The trend isn’t breakneck, he says, and he allows that he may not be around to see it reach Springfield. Roy’s Custom Tailors, Costa says, is for sale. It’s a matter, he says, of finding the right buyer.

“I’m anxiously awaiting retirement,” he says.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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