A Bellport custom tailoring business where handmade men’s suits start at $4,500 has expanded with a second location, despite having to buck a tidal wave of competition from cheaper, custom-measured but factory-made suits.
Sebastiano Montella, 64, owner of Montella Custom Tailor, says his 10-year-old business — where one suit can take four weeks or more to complete — is thriving in today’s fast-paced, throwaway world because “there are a lot of people who want to look their best and demand quality.”
He projects sales of $500,000 this year, about 60 percent more than five years ago.
Handmade, or bespoke, garments like the ones Montella produces represent a tiny but growing fraction of the $217.6 billion retail apparel market. The bespoke segment of the market “is so small it’s under the radar, probably less than $1 billion,” says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for the NPD Group, a Port Washington-based global market research firm. “But we’re noticing a slow growth in the way consumers looking for personalized service are increasingly patronizing small boutique shops like custom tailors.”
Montella, an Italian-trained master tailor who cuts, sews and custom-fits garments for men and women, relies on word-of-mouth recommendations rather than advertising. In June he opened a second location in the Shoppes at East Wind in Wading River, investing $50,000 in the 1,000-square-foot store.
“Expansion has always been our goal,” says Fabio Montella, 39, who is apprenticing with his father and also has a career as a reference librarian. The Bellport shop covers the South Shore, and “we wanted a presence on the North Shore as well,” Fabio says.
Both locations are entirely family-run; three more of Sebastiano’s five children are apprenticing with him to learn the craft and the business. Michelina, 41, is her father’s full-time assistant, and Salva, 18, and Felice, 40, are students who help part time.
Montella has been teaching all five of his children — from the earliest age, they could safely work with a needle — the meticulous hand stitching and shaping techniques of his trade. “It’s tradition, it’s how I learned,” he says, with traces of his upbringing in Visciano, in Italy’s Campania region, lingering in his voice. “From the age of 8, I would run after school to the tailor shop . . . and watch and help out as my uncle and father worked. I loved it there.” Later he attended professional tailoring schools in Naples and Rome.
In addition to hand-sewn bespoke suits, Montella has added a line of custom-made men’s suits starting at $2,500 that are 60 percent hand-sewn and 40 percent machine-sewn. He also produces overcoats starting at $2,500, men’s shirts starting at $240 and ties starting at $70. Women’s skirts, dresses and even wedding gowns vary in price. Alterations make up 30 percent of the business, and the shops recently introduced accessories such as belts and wallets.
Travel writer Michelle Knapp, 55, says she and her family have been customers of Montella “since they opened in Bellport. He makes my husband’s shirts, our children’s school uniforms and even gowns for me, including one he copied from the movie ‘Rear Window’ that was worn by Grace Kelly. We love the fine craftsmanship that you actually feel when you wear his clothes.”
Montella holds the industry’s highest rating, certified bespoke master tailor, according to the 100-member Custom Tailors & Designers Association. While the Rochester-based trade group has only three custom tailors in the New York City area “who come anywhere near Montella’s unique status,” says executive director D-D Lazenby, the association is seeing a revitalization “in the number of younger applicants nationwide who aspire to becoming master tailors and designers.” Lazenby attributes the increase to a renewed interest in fine handcrafts.
“Shaping fabric for a perfect fit is an art form, like sculpture,” Sebastiano Montella says. “It can only be done by hand.”
At a glance
Company: Montella Custom Tailor
Locations: Bellport, Wading River
Owner: Sebastiano Montella
Projected 2017 sales: $500,000
Passing on his craft
In addition to teaching his children the art of custom tailoring, Sebastiano Montella has donated his time to teach a 10-session course in bespoke tailoring at Stony Brook University’s Center for Italian Studies.
“It was such fun and so exciting to learn so many amazing techniques and time-saving tips, especially from an expert who is so eager to share his skills,” says Carlene DeScale, manager of the costume shop of the university’s theater department.
Montella hopes to teach the course again this spring. The program is open to students and the public. Call 631-632-7444 for information.