Karim, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1969, has been a master tailor for fifty years. He is the owner of Gassane Tailors, in Austin, and has made custom suits for Bill Clements, Lyndon B. Johnson, and George W. Bush.
My father was a tailor and had a big shop in Tripoli, Lebanon. When I was ten, I started to work with him during the summer to keep from getting in trouble. I loved it. Making clothes was like artwork to me. Honestly, I did not like school at that time, and finally my father said, “What do you want to be?” He wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, but I said, “A tailor.” I completed my first coat, cutting the fabric and everything, when I was sixteen.
In 1961, when I was still a teenager, my father passed away, and I took over the shop. Eight years later, I got the chance to visit New York. It was 20 below—not at all like my home—and I had only $300 in my pocket, but I decided I wanted to stay in the United States. I ran into a friend who had studied at the University of Texas, and he called someone in Austin who had a tailor shop. That’s how I came to work for Mike Leff, at Austin Tailors. I am Muslim and he was Jewish, but he treated me like I was his brother. After two years, I opened my own business downtown. I’ll never forget the address: 121 East Fifth, at Brazos, right on the corner. I got a five-year small-business loan, and I paid it off in three years.
I opened a second location in 1977 and then consolidated the two shops into my current location, on the north side of town, in 1983. I now run the place with my brother-in-law, Joseph. His wife is in charge of the ladies’ tailoring, and my wife does the bookkeeping. I take measurements, draw patterns, cut the fabric, and give directions to our seven employees. We do alterations and redesign clothes, but we are known for our custom shirts and suits. We hand-stitch all the buttonholes, sleeves, collars, and lapels, and I sew each customer’s name into his coat.
If someone wants a custom suit, I ask him to come in wearing a suit he already owns. I can read his mind from the suit he has. Few customers know what they want; the majority let me lead them. The first consultation can last thirty minutes to an hour, to take all the measurements and decide on the cut and the material. I ask if the suit is for daily wear or for evening or for traveling. If it’s for casual wear, I pick out a strong material that won’t crease as much. Most of my fabrics are from Italy and England. One of my favorites is a Super 140 merino wool herringbone—very soft. Now, you can buy a $200 suit made in China that says it’s Super 150–grade fabric. But that number only tells you how fine the fibers are. It doesn’t mean the wool is good. You can tell a suit is high quality if, after you wear it, you hang it in the closet and the wrinkles are gone thirty minutes later.
A lot of the younger people now favor a European cut that’s very fitted: The sleeves are too tight, the armholes are too high, the pants have no pleats or cuffs and are narrow at the bottom. I ask them, “Why do you want to wear something so snug?” It’s not attractive, really. And tight clothes pull out and lose their shape. So I argue with customers sometimes for their own benefit. But what they want is what we do, of course.
Why invest in a custom suit? Say you want to buy a blue suit with a certain design. You go to the department store, and you like the color of one suit but not the design. You find another, and you like the design but not the material. Then you find a suit whose color and design and material you like, but it’s too big and you spend huge money to fix it. And it won’t last as long. It’s not worth it. Our suits start at $1,100 and go to $8,500, but you can pick out every detail from A to Z. That’s the difference. When you have something made for you, you feel different.
When I first opened my business, President Johnson came to me for a sport coat. I didn’t want him to know I didn’t speak English very well, so I asked my assistant, Becky, to take notes. While I was measuring, he said something I didn’t understand and then, “Are you sure?” I said, “No problem, Mr. President.” Becky’s eyes got big, and after he left, she threw her tape measure down and said, “I quit!” He had asked if he could have the coat by eight o’clock the next morning. I said to Becky, “Please, no, I beg you. Anything you want. I’ll pay you double, but stay with me.” We started on the coat at about four-thirty in the afternoon and stayed up all night. At five till eight, a man came to pick up some of the president’s other alterations—LBJ would gain twenty or thirty pounds one month and then lose it the next—and I said, “The coat is ready.” He said, “Wait a minute. The president was kidding!” Afterward LBJ sent me the best letter and some pictures.
When George W. Bush was governor, three people told him to come to me, so he called one day and said he had two coats; if I fixed them well, he would have me make him a suit. At our first meeting I told him, “Governor, I will make your suits from now until we put you in the White House.” He didn’t say a word, but he smiled. When he ran for president in 2000, I made his jackets broader in the shoulders, because Al Gore was taller and bigger and I wanted Bush to look more powerful. I also made the blue suit and overcoat he wore for the inauguration; I based them on a picture of George Washington. On his second day in the White House, he sent me a letter that said, “The suits fit great and look good.” I still make suits for him.
My reputation means more to me than the money. A sportscaster came to me once and said, “Do you know who sent me to you? George Bush Sr. and George W. Bush.” That’s good. My philosophy is that you must create yourself. But really our customers own the place. We do the best we can to please them, to be honest with them. That’s what I learned from my father. He said that when something happens that you aren’t prepared for, it is good for you. The best move I made was to come to the United States. My dad would be proud of this.