Clothes And The Man
For The Past 15 Years, Paris Native Victor Pascal
“This was the year when the price of the gas was 30 cents per gallon,” Pascal says in an accent that appears to have lost none of its Pepe LePew-ness in the ensuing 30 years: “Zis was ze year when you walk on ’Oward Street and people walking wiz ’ats and gloves and nice cars, you understand?”
Since 1989, Pascal has been fitting area men for custom suits, jackets, trousers, and dress shirts that are then made—according to Pascal’s original designs—by small manufacturers in Maryland and upstate New York. The downtown Light Street shop he runs with wife Ann is a cozy throwback to a more upholstered era. Bolts of luxuriant Dormeuil and Holland and Sherry fabrics are arrayed on a table, unattached shirt collars line a glass display case. Hanging from the triptych fitting mirror is a device used solely to measure a man’s neck incline.
Pascal is himself a throwback to the days of the refined tradesman—equal parts gentleman’s gentleman and bon vivant. He is given to somewhat extravagant descriptions of his art. “I see with my fingers,” he murmurs, running his hands over a sample book of wool-and-silk blends.
A tailor’s son, Pascal had no desire to follow in his father’s unglamorous footsteps. He studied fashion design at the Ecole de Guerre-Lavigne in Paris, seduced a University of Maryland girl traveling in Paris, followed her to Northwest Baltimore in 1973, and eventually married her. There he set to work in her parents’ basement designing and hand-making women’s leather coats under the label Baltimore Leather Fashions. He sums up his grand ambitions and enterprising spirit in a single word, with barely a trace of irony.
“America, America,” he cries, throwing up his hands. “I’ve always dreamed about America. Why? Because it’s America, my friend.”
But he was attempting to start a European shop model in an American market that was increasingly turning to Asian labor for more efficient manufacture—which is exactly what a buyer at Hutzler’s told Pascal when he showed up one morning at the department store carrying a sample of his line. “The guy says to me, ‘You’ll have a rough time doing it this way, it’s not Europe here,’” Pascal recalls.
As a consolation prize for Pascal’s pluck, however, the buyer arranged a meeting the following week between the aspiring French designer and the chairman of London Fog, the then-Baltimore-based outerwear company. Pacing the narrow floor of his cozy showroom, Pascal continues his autobiography, almost breathlessly. “And London Fog, he says to me, ‘You remind me of when I started.’ . . . He respected my guts!”
Suddenly, Pascal was on a fashion fast track. London Fog dispatched him to Boston, where he learned to design outerwear in inches, instead of centimeters. Six months later—“I am ambitious”—he jumped ship to go to a New York leather-wear designer, Martin Bernard. Over the next few years, Pascal had stints in New York, Europe, and India, with Ralph Lauren and Christian Dior.
During this frenetic period, Pascal’s wife gave birth to their two children. Ann wanted to move back to Baltimore, to be near her ailing father. So when Dior came looking for someone to design a ladies sportswear line for a Baltimore-based merchandiser in 1980, Pascal jumped at the opportunity to settle down in Pikesville.
Several months after the Pascals returned to Baltimore, Dior shifted its operation to the Philippines. “I couldn’t find people to do the sewing,” Pascal explains. “We had a problem in this country. The labor is not there. So I was the one, pattern-making and sewing and everything, and it wasn’t going fast enough.”
There was a job opportunity in California, but Ann wasn’t about to leave her hometown again.
“Ann said to me, ‘You want to go, you go,’” Pascal says with a smile at his wife, who now manages Victor Pascal Custom Tailors. “So I was forced to open my own business.”
So Pascal was back where he began his American journey—except this time he worked out of a Mount Washington Village storefront rather than his in-laws’ basement.
“I became a miniature manufacturer,” he says, “creating my own designs, my own sewing, and selling it out of my store.”
But the business model wasn’t any more likely to succeed in the early ’80s than it had in the ’70s. Pascal couldn’t find skilled help, and he couldn’t stretch himself thin enough to profitably attend to the demands of both retail and production. Though he reveled in the occasional fashion show and the art of women’s fashion, he was also finding himself increasingly exasperated with his customers. Or rather, their bodies.
“Believe me,” he says, dropping his voice to a confidential whisper. “If you can make clothes for ladies, men is a piece of cake. Because men hardly change. Ladies is different.” He jumps out of his seat. “A lady, I made a double-breasted for her. When she comes back to the fitting, it was a single-breasted. She picked up weight, she’s like a balloon.” He cups his hands in front of his chest. “Or they have one big, one small. And then here,” he continues, pointing to his thighs. “One day they put on undergarment and compress everything, and they come back for a fitting without nothing, and poof! A nightmare.”
Pascal sighs and continues: “So what happened? My wife, always my wife. I listened to her for a change. Because I could not make a living.”
Ann suggested Pascal return to his roots and become a men’s tailor like his father. Pascal bit the bullet and asked Jerry Feld, a Baltimore tailor since the 1940s, if he needed any help in his Light Street shop. As it turned out, Pascal’s call couldn’t have been better timed.
“Jerry was really sick,” Ann Pascal says. “And he knew he was dying. He didn’t even have time to dismantle the business and he didn’t want to leave it to his widow.” Though Pascal didn’t make the highest offer on Feld’s business, the older tailor passed it on to the younger man anyway, believing Pascal would be most likely to continue a fading Baltimore trade.
The day after Pascal signed the papers to take over the lease, Feld died. And so a budding women’s fashion designer come to America to escape his sartorial roots ended up an old-fashioned men’s tailor in the New World. But 15 years after coming to America, Pascal had a different take on his father’s profession.
“This was not a miracle?” Pascal says. “I tell you. God answered my prayer.”
And yet, his business timing still appeared to be off. “Casual Fridays,” begun in the 1980s, gave way in the 1990s to the “casual week.” Fewer men had to wear a suit to work at all. Pascal claims that relaxation of business dress code has actually had a salutary effect on his business, though, which he says has grown every year. He says he makes several hundred suits (including sports coats and blazers) a year, and about 400 shirts. “People are buying less suits than before, but they are upgrading in quality,” he says.
This optimistic spin on an increasingly dressed-down culture is parroted by Mark Metzger, a Washington, D.C., custom-suit fitter who sits on the board of the Custom Tailors and Designers Association, a Mount Royal, N.J.-based trade group that represents more than 200 men’s made-to-measure specialists in the country. “The guy who normally bought six moderately priced suits still knows the power of a suit,” Metzger says. “Now he’s buying one good suit vs. six not-too-good suits.”
Actually, the business suit may be on its way back. The oldest American men’s business-wear brand, Brooks Brothers, is expanding its made-to-measure and custom-suit services—not because it thinks men are more willing to spend bigger bucks on fewer items, but because it sees business suits becoming de rigueur again in the American office.
“We find that across the country more men are dressing up,” says Rich Honiball, director of Brooks Brothers’ special order department. “We see business-casual as a trend that has been downtrending.”
In recent years, Brooks Brothers has been adding customization options to its off-the-rack business. In about 40 of the chain’s 90 stores, customers can opt to have an in-store “wardrobe consultant” (typically not a tailor) take several dozen measurements, which are fed into a computer that automatically draws a pattern from which the suit is then custom-manufactured. A Brooks Brothers custom suit starts about $800 and averages between $1,500 and $2,000, Honiball says.
That’s about the same price range as Pascal’s offerings, though the Baltimore tailor doesn’t have to worry about custom-suit competition from Brooks Brothers just yet. The retailer’s Gallery outlet downtown—just blocks from Pascal’s shop—does not currently offer made-to-measure clothing, although Honiball says there are tentative plans to roll out the services in Baltimore.
When competition comes, Pascal says he’ll welcome it. “Competition often works in reverse,” he says. “Instead of damaging my business, it allows people to compare, and they’ll come to me for better service.”
In the meantime, Pascal is enjoying his foothold on what might be a resurgent trend in menswear made the Old World way. After many years of swimming upstream against economic and cultural trends, Victor Pascal may actually be in the right place at the right time.
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