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What Every Man Can Learn from Umberto Pitagora: the Obi-Wan Kenobi of Suit Making

The bespoke tailor shares 10 pieces of wisdom and advice he's garnered over six decades in the business.
What Every Man Can Learn from Umberto Pitagora: the Obi-Wan Kenobi of Suit Making
William and Susan Brinson

Umberto Pitagora is the Obi-Wan Kenobi of suit making: One of the few bespoke tailors left in the United States, the 75-year-old has a clientele that’s among the 1% of the 1%. When the Connecticut-based tailor was a teen, he wanted to be a mechanical engineer, but once he’d sewn his first pair of pants, he was hooked. Here, Pitagora dispenses 60-plus years’ worth of sartorial wisdom.

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You never finish learning. Nobody wants to learn anymore because it takes a long time. I started when I was 10 years old in my hometown of Nicastro, Italy. I used to go to the tailor shop after school to stay away from the streets. When I finished eighth grade, I went to work in the tailor shop to learn. I’m still learning after 63 years.

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You feel good when you create something yourself—like a sculptor or a painter. I made my first suit in 1959. I was 19. First, you learned how to make the suit, then you learned how to cut. It was a gray and black suit with pin dots for my sister-in-law’s brother. I’ll have to ask him if he still has it.

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If you came of age with the iPhone, there’s no way you could be a tailor. For the new generation to learn would be near to impossible. It’s a dying art. Very few of us are left—most are in the cemetery. When I was 28, there were 49 tailor shops in my hometown. Today, there’s one left.

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With a good custom suit, you feel the difference. It feels free. The way I see it, 75% of the human body is not perfect. Everybody has some problem: big shoulders, big chest, small waist, whatever. It’s cutting for the contours of the person that matters.

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Suits used to be very boring; 45 years ago, the uniform used to be a blue suit, white shirt, and blue tie. I called it the IBM uniform. But it’s changed—there are so many colors and patterns now, it’s much better.

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You need more than one suit. The finest material is not necessarily the strongest. In fact, something like Superfine 210 wool is good to wear only once in a while, on a special occasion. It’s like having a Lamborghini when you need to go to the mountains—you need a Jeep for that.

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A classic suit never dies. It will be good for the next 20 years. If you always go for the newest style, in a few years, it will look terrible.

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The customer is always right—at my approval. I don’t want anyone coming here to tell me what to do. I become their adviser—let’s put it that way.

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The weirdest thing I ever had to make was a long-tail coat for a magician. I had to sew in all the pockets for a rabbit and a pigeon. He even brought two pigeons to the store to check the size for the pocket.

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The best advice I ever received was to be humble. My father told me that. Be nice to people. If you can help a person, do it.

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