Sebastiano Montella was only 8 years old when he embarked on his lifelong career as a bespoke tailor, one who makes custom clothing by hand to a customer's measurements.
In his hometown of Visciano, Italy, he apprenticed for the age-old art form with a master who taught him the hallmarks of the craft -- hand stitching, precision cutting and pattern making.
"I'd race after school to the tailor shop, then home for supper and some soccer," says Montella, 59, as he escorts a visitor through his Bellport shop. "But the best part was the tailoring; I loved to sew. I would sit under the table where my grandmother was at her mending and play with needles and thread and scraps of cloth. . . . In my teens I went to a pattern-making school in Naples. My grandfather and uncle were bespoke tailors and I learned from them also. It's in the family." Montella brought his skills to this country in 1980 and opened his shop on Bellport Lane in 2007.
Now there's a third generation of bespoke craftsmen in the family. Montella's son, Fabio, 34, has also taken up the trade, sharing duties with his father at Montella Custom Tailor. "My dad has taught me all the bespoke skills exactly as he learned them as a boy," says Fabio, who started learning bespoke skills while in high school. In 2010, he earned a master's degree in library science at Stony Brook and is working on a second master's in 20th century history. Still, he plans to follow his father's path. "I'm ready for a long career like his," Fabio says, "but it's the father-son bonding that means the most to me."
Last year in April, The Center for Italian Studies at Stony Brook University presented a program celebrating Montella's 50 years in the "almost lost old-world trade of Bespoke Custom Tailoring." It featured both father and son.
The word "bespoke" may be archaic, but it pays homage to a tradition of skilled workmanship that serves as a benchmark for fashionistas today. However, despite the sky-high level of respect they enjoy among the haute couture crowd, bespoke tailors are disappearing; their time-honored art form becoming obsolete -- in this case, because of the inroads of cheaper ready-to-wear imports and inexpensive knockoffs.
Among the short list of bespoke tailors who remain in business on Long Island are Montella and Neil Cesarino, 64, owner of Enzo's Custom Tailor in Smithtown. Cesarino immigrated to America from Italy in 1974 and has owned his shop since 2006.
Cesarino began his bespoke tailoring apprenticeship at age 6 in Naples, but "it's a different culture now," he says. "If kids want to learn the tailor business they go to a trade school, not their father's shop."
George Simonton agrees. A designer whose private label appears on sportswear in upscale stores, Simonton, 67, is also a veteran assistant professor of fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in Manhattan. In his "Structural Silhouettes" classes, he teaches garment construction, pattern making and draping, which he says are the basis of all couture. "These are simply the old bespoke skills," he says, "but we must teach students the modern methods."
These methods, concurs fashion design professor Joseph Pescatore, 55, of Nassau Community College and Parsons School of Design in New York City, "include computerized digital drawing as well as the ability to work with today's high-quality fabrics."
These days, traditional wool and wool-cashmere blends, which have been enhanced with Lycra and other state-of- the-art, man-made fibers that add strength and body, are the fabrics of choice for luxury men's suits. Such fabrics can cost from $100 to $1,000 a yard -- and the average men's suit takes four yards. The artisan's labor is not included in the cost of the textiles. Montella charges $3,500 per men's suit; Cesarino makes them for $1,800. But, in an oft-repeated mantra, experts agree, "these suits will last forever."
Both Montella and Cesarino use similar methods and tools of their trade. They use Juki professional sewing machines for long, straight seams, but collars, lapels and other fine details are done by hand, with tiny one-eighth-inch stitches. Buttonholes are finished by hand with waxed thread chosen from hundreds of spools on racks. "Customers like that little detail," Fabio says.
For some details, machines are better. Sebastiano Montella uses a serger to bind raw edges on fabrics because, he says with a grin, "I have to admit it does a better job than I can do by hand." There are also industrial steam machines to achieve those knife-edge pant creases. It takes three to four weeks to create one men's suit.
In both shops, suiting fabric is spread on 8-foot-long work tables and then overlaid with the seven-piece set of stiff paper patterns for a suit. With the pattern outlines marked in tailor's chalk as guidelines, the fabric is ready for the critical process of scissors-cutting. Pattern sets marked with the customer's name and measurements are stored on clothes pole racks.
In Smithtown, the no-frills Enzo's Custom Tailors storefront on East Main is devoted to the creation of men's suits, alterations and repairs. Beyond a pinup board decorated with snapshots of Cesarino's home and family in Italy and a pair of display mannequins that wear work-in-progress suits, there are few amenities.
"I make men's suits mostly by hand, the way I was taught as a boy in Italy," Cesarino says. "I have nice customers -- doctors, lawyers, people who want the best -- and I make clothing for my family. Women come in mostly for alterations."
In contrast, Montella's has the look of an urban studio in a country setting. Two wooden steps, painted green, lead to the picturesque entrance where pots of evergreens glitter with tiny lights. In a pair of quaint bay windows, half-finished garments draped on mannequins reveal to passersby the hidden underpinnings of fine, handmade clothing.
Stationed around the polished oak floor inside are a half-dozen mannequins wearing work-in-progress garments; one dressed in a strapless velveteen gown with a fitted bodice and flirty, flared skirt. The walls are hung with paintings by artist-clients over a shelf sporting a library of English and Italian fabric-sample catalogs that hold hundreds of 6-inch-by-9-inch swatches. Larger lengths of folded fabric samples are stored in an antique china cabinet next to a lounge area that invites leisurely design consultations.
Bellport resident Anne Arthur, 52, arrives and steps onto a 6-inch-high platform in front of a three-way mirror where Montella takes her measurements for a new skirt. "I've been a customer ever since this shop opened," says Arthur, an administrator for North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System. "They're the best, absolutely meticulous."
The Montellas have their hands full in coming months; Fabio Montella explains that he and his father will be making garments for the April marriage of his sister, Rosa, 30, and her entire wedding party.
"We'll be making my sister's wedding gown and a suit for her fiancé, Jeffrey Leibrock, plus a mother-of-the-bride gown for my mother, Michelina, and suits for me and my father," he says. They'll also be making various items for just about every member of the wedding party. "It's a huge undertaking," he says, "but Dad is so excited about it, you can see the joy in his face when he works. We often say that he gets more pleasure out of making clothes than the people who receive them."