Tailor's Apprentice Hones Craft in Pennsylvania Shop The Italian tailor is a dying breed in America, and the tailor's apprentice is even rarer. But in the suburbs of Philadelphia, one young man is devoting himself to learning the craft from an old master.
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Tailor's Apprentice Hones Craft in Pennsylvania Shop

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Tailor's Apprentice Hones Craft in Pennsylvania Shop

Tailor's Apprentice Hones Craft in Pennsylvania Shop

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And now, a profile of a young man who's hoping a dying craft will help secure his economic future. He's a tailor's apprentice devoted to learning from an old master.

NPR's labor reporter, Frank Langfitt has our story from the Philadelphia suburbs.

FRANK LANGFITT: Step into Centofanti Custom Tailors on Philadelphia's Main Line and step back in time. In one corner stands a rusting steam press with a pipe held together by duct tape. Next to it, an old machine that makes buttonholes.

(Soundbite of drilling)

LANGFITT: But head into the basement and you find a real throwback: A young tailor's apprentice.

He's Joe Genuardi, 27 years old. And at the moment, he's using a huge pair of shears to cut a suit from a piece of blended fabric made of cashmere and silk.

You know in a factory, this would be done by machine?

Mr. JOE GENUARDI (Tailor's Apprentice, Centofanti Custom Tailors, Philadelphia): Yeah. They cut it with like a big band saw, if you can imagine that.

LANGFITT: Genuardi has spent the last year-and-a-half learning to make custom suits by hand. Instead of working off digital blueprints, he drafts the clothes for each customer on life-size pieces of cardstock. They hang by the hundreds from pipes in the basement.

Joe rolls out one. He's using to make a pair of pants for his girlfriend, Kelly.

Mr. GENUARDI: You know, I'm proud to be at this point where I can make this from scratch. I don't have to buy a pattern, I don't have to go to a store and buy something off the rack. I can, I mean, I can make something and it's better quality than what I'm going to find in the store.

Mr. JOSEPH CENTOFANTI (Operator, Centofanti Custom Tailors): My name is Joseph Centofanti.

LANGFITT: Centofanti is almost 90. He learned tailoring as a boy in Italy.

Mr. CENTOFANTI: I've been on this sort of occasion for 51 years. In fact, I made a very lovely change on the store except for the custom tailor. No show business.

LANGFITT: Centofanti makes more than 150 pieces of clothing a season. Suits begin at $2,500. But Centofanti says finding people to help him is tough.

When you try to find a tailor to work for you, where do you go?

Mr. CENTOFANTI: They find me.

LANGFITT: But there aren't many.

Joe Genuardi was planning to move to Italy to learn tailoring. Then, he heard about Centofanti. Thinking the store would be closed on a Sunday, he went there to check it out. Centofanti's daughter, Helen, who helps run the store, listens as Joe recounts meeting her father.

Mr. GENUARDI: Looking in the window and he's staring right back at me and I said, oh, gosh, I guess I have to go in now. And we talked that morning for, I'd say, at least an hour. He asked me why I wanted to - why in God's name do you want to get into this field? Are you crazy?

LANGFITT: Since then, Centofanti has taught Joe how to calculate proportions using an L-shaped metal tailor's square. Joe's also learned how to draft, cut and sew by hand. Centofanti tells Joe to practice techniques hundreds, even thousands of times.

Mr. CENTOFANTI: I push him. Sometimes, I push too much so he gets the role because, you know, I don't know much on myself.

LANGFITT: Joe studied in industrial design in college. He says most of his colleagues work for global firms like Ralph Lauren or DKNY. But people who follow fashion say there are more and more people like Joe Genuardi.

Patricia Mears is deputy director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

Ms. PATRICIA MEARS (Deputy Director, Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology): He's an anomaly, that's for sure but there's a growing trend amongst young people who not only want to avoid the issue of creating things or really consuming things on a mass-market level. They are engrossed in the concept of craft and really looking at making things beginning to end, especially something that's so intimately connected to the human body.

LANGFITT: So, what are Joe's dreams after an apprenticeship?

Would you like to have your own tailor shop some time?

Mr. GENUARDI: Sure. Yeah. But it takes a long time to learn and the more I learn, the more I know it takes longer. But - and I'm okay with that because I love what I'm doing.

LANGFITT: As for Centofanti, he has no plans to retire. And he expects his tailor shop to outlive him.

Mr. CENTOFANTI: I thought I was going to stay cover.

Ms. HELEN CENTOFANTI (Daughter of Joseph Centofanti): And hopefully, Joe will stick with me.

LANGFITT: Do you - so, you don't have much doubt that this Centofanti's will keep going on in the next generation?

Mr. CENTOFANTI: Oh, yeah. It would go on forever.

LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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