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‘Il Maestro’ Sews Up Lasting Legacy

Sun., March 5, 1995

Silvio DeCaro knows the pulse of corporate Spokane, and he measures it by the inseams and waistlines of its mightiest power brokers.

But the only full-service tailor in the Inland Northwest is better known in New York’s garment district than in his hometown.

The owner of Silvio DeCaro Collection/ Sil’s Tailors boasts a customer list of 2,500 loyal men from the Northwest and as far away as Los Angeles and Milwaukee. He served as president of the Custom Tailors and Designers Association of America in 1974, and he’s known as “Il Maestro” within suit-maker circles internationally.

He has graced pages of trade publications and glossy magazines such as GQ and Town & Country, the latter ranking him in the top five tailors in the West. And he’s had faithful customers who’ve been coming back for the past half century.

“Had he been in New York City, he’d be the most famous tailor in the country … based on his technical prowess,” said DeCaro’s 38-year-old son, Gian.

Gian, who learned his trade while playing “in a rag box beneath dad’s cutting table,” is the owner of a much lauded sartoria of his own in Seattle.

Silvio DeCaro almost landed in New York’s famed garment district when he and his mother boarded a steamer and left Maione, Italy, headed for Ellis Island. But they decided to go further west, where DeCaro’s father, who immigrated to the United States 30 years earlier, was working in lumber mills.

After a two-week trip across the country, they stepped off the Empire Builder railroad car in downtown Spokane. Within weeks, his mother sent DeCaro - who had been sewing since he was 8 years old - to a neighborhood tailor to become an apprentice.

“I never got paid a dime except when I delivered suits for my master. My mother did it to keep me off the streets and out of trouble,” DeCaro said sternly, with only the slightest Calabrese accent.

“Young kids don’t do that now. Now, the first thing they say is, ‘How much will you pay me?”’

DeCaro met his wife, Elvira, in 1940 at an American-Italian Club picnic. After their marriage two years later, DeCaro joined the Navy and was stationed in Farragut, Idaho, while Elvira banked $5 a week from DeCaro’s Navy pay.

With those savings, the couple opened Silvio DeCaro Collection/Sil’s Tailors in 1947 in what’s now the Metropolitan Performing Arts Center. Elivra has been the shop’s bookkeeper ever since, and the master keeps crafting suits at the shop’s current site, S13 Howard.

DeCaro can create jackets and pants in any cut customers request. But he specializes in Milanese and Florentine styling, and he only uses the best Bemberg lining beneath Italian, British or Spanish cloth.

His signature suit has high, pointed lapels on a single-breasted jacket - a look he says appeals to an “upgrade conservative” clientele.

According to the Wall Street Journal’s most recent study of chief executive officer apparel (such a study indeed exists), at least a quarter of America’s top execs have their professional apparel tailor made. DeCaro guessed that about the same percentage of Spokane CEOs follow suit, dropping thousands of dollars per year at the only local suit maker.

Suits at Sil’s Tailors range from $995 to more than $1,695, depending on the wool. Tuxedos are about $100 more than suits, and sport coats start at $695.

Those prices may make bargain hunters pale, but the even steeper prices of designer suits have helped, DeCaro said.

(At leading men’s clothing stores in Spokane, suits by elite designers such as Oxford start at $1,500, and a highbrow Armani can easily exceed $3,000.)

“Tailor-made suits are really a better buy,” DeCaro said while stitching the collar of a tweed sport coat.

But there are trade-offs. Convenience-oriented shoppers might not like waiting a month for a suit. A simple, custom-ordered suit takes one tailor at least 40 hours of labor to complete, he said. That’s one of the reasons tailors and upscale men’s stores rarely compete head to head.

Each have a loyal clientele.

“I have customers who bring back the same suit I made 20 years ago for some small repair, that’s how long they (the suits) last,” DeCaro said.

In fact, DeCaro’s 4-year-old grandson, Domenico, has recently been traipsing around his Seattle nursery school sporting a herringbone topcoat with striped silk lining that DeCaro made for Gian 34 years ago.

As opposed to rack shoppers who select from what’s on the hanger on any given day, DeCaro’s customers peruse books and patterns, choosing from 4,000 swatches of fabric in thousands of styles and sizes. The finished product is a painstaking exercise in precision.

“It’s an exacting job,” DeCaro said, brass thimble guarding a neatly manicured index finger. “Everything must be as perfect as hands can make it. It requires patience with the customer and the cloth.”

But relative cost and selection aren’t the only reasons to splurge on a tailored suit, DeCaro said.

Men who are especially tall, thin, fat or longwaisted - not to mention those with osteoporosis or physical irregularities - often find that custommade suits camouflage imperfections and improve their self-image.

“Not everyone is a 42 regular. The secret is to make every man look like Fred Astaire and Gary Cooper,” DeCaro said.

Unfortunately, though, the debonair, movie-star look has taken a beating by the decidedly informal, grunged-out look. Even the corporate cogs of America have taken to jeans, cowboy boots and open collars in the workplace.

So it’s natural that DeCaro’s profits have leveled off in the past four or five years, and of course business isn’t as good as it was in the 1950s and 60s - what he calls “the heyday for suits.” But Sil’s Tailors has maintained a core of loyal clientele.

“The power people in town - the industrialists, stockbrokers, lawyers and doctors - they’re still wearing suits,” he said, a measuring tape draped around his neck. “A man in a good suit is never out of style.”

DeCaro puts the finishing touches on suits with 30-year-old, antique sewing machines. Neither DeCaro nor the machines show signs of wearing down, but DeCaro said he’s planning a gradual retirement.

Instead of arriving “before the milkman, like I used to,” he now comes in around 9:30 a.m. and works until about 5 p.m., and he’s thinking about hiring an assistant.

After 47 years of measuring men of varying girths, heights and dispositions, DeCaro has learned not to stereotype his customers. In fact, his sartorial style is a big hit with farmers, who comprise a significant share of his customers.

“Farmers really dress up when they come to town, probably better than most people,” DeCaro said. “They have good taste - very good taste. They don’t order overalls.”

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