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Portrait of a Tailor

Off Campus | May 9, 2011

In recent times, the American public has become increasingly cognizant—phobic, even—of its collective girth. Tadeusz Matczynski, 58, shares no such anxiety.

“They lose weight, they gain weight, I make money either way,” he says, leaning against his workbench.

A lean man, bespectacled, goateed, and dressed in a perfectly fitted suit, Tad the tailor (as his customers know him) has, for the last 40 years, been making sure his customers are well dressed. A second-generation tailor, Matczynski was inspired by his father’s work, and at 18, formally began his education in a trade school outside Warsaw, honing skills he learned in his father’s shop. After completing his education in sewing, pattern-making, and sartorial history, he worked with his father full time, making completely made-to-measure clothing, from shirts to suits.

In 1980, he came to the United States, landing his first job sewing shearling coats in Chicago. After a few years in the Midwest, Tad moved east, working for local clothier Anderson-Little of Fall River, Massachusetts. Later, he decided to set up his own tailoring shop in Marblehead. This time, however, he did not offer full-service custom clothing.

“The market is different in the United States,” he says, explaining the difficulty making a custom suit shop (where a single suit requires 40 hours of work to construct) cost-effective while catering to the fickle American consumer. “The return policy in this country…it’s unbelievable!” he added.

After 10 years, the long hours and stress of running a one-man business became too much, so Matczynski closed his shop and began working as the in-house tailor for the Ermengildo Zegna boutique on Newbury Street in Boston. Eventually, though,  disagreement with commission-hungry salespeople (who often left him with customers’ demands for impossible alterations) led to his departure from Zegna.

Finally, it seems Matczynski has found the right place. For the last 11 years, he has felt right at home as the house tailor for J. Press in Harvard Square, bastion of the old-school, classic American Ivy League clothing style known to the sartorially obsessive set as “trad.”

Among the tweed jackets and Harvard crest-buttoned blazers, Tad serves two clienteles—not just J. Press customers, but also the private clients who, via word-of-mouth, know to proceed directly to the back of the store for alterations of all kinds. In this way, he enjoys some of the independence of his previous tailoring shop, without the stress (or the return policy).

“It feels like my own shop, but there’s job security,” he says,“The guys I work with know what they’re doing, and we understand each other. I hope I’ll retire with J. Press.”

Retirement may not be so soon on the horizon, though, since, according to Matczynski, more than half of his customers are students, a demographic that is continually refreshed by local colleges.

“I like the rotation,” he explains. “I get a lot of customers for four years at a time,” he adds, nodding at me as if to prove his point.

Despite this familiar rotation, his tasks do not all revolve around nipping jacket waists for skinny collegiates, and letting them out for the men who teach them—though both former President Clinton and actor Tommy Lee Jones have been customers during visits to Harvard. Indeed, there is the occasional offbeat request to keep the work interesting. Matczynski recalls a request many years ago for an extra pocket sewn into the lining of a jacket that was suspiciously gun-sized, or a recent customer—a young man—who asked that long, narrow pockets be sewn under the lapels of his jacket for a pair of throwing knives.

“Of course I did it,” says Matczynski when I ask for his response to such a request. “I did it for the experience!”

Matczynski’s laissez-faire attitude on sartorial accessory to murder notwithstanding, he seems to have reached an internal consensus on the nature of his business and how it should be conducted. This mindset seems to have paid off, as those customers who are not a part of the undergraduate cycle tend to stay customers for years—sometimes even decades.

“The key is to listen to people—for me, I must listen to customers,” he says. “It’s a mistake I’ve seen many tailors make. It’s not about what is supposed to be done. The customer is my boss, so I’ll do what the customer wants.”

Surrounded by the tools of his workshop—the 40-year-old blindstitch machine, ancient steam iron, triangular chalk, and antique fabric shears (circa 1932) he inherited when he took the job—Matczynski is a living vestige of a great and ancient tradition of craftsmanship and personal service that has been largely lost on our modern age of fast fashion, business casual, and Snuggies. Still, he manages to keep a sense of humor:

“People say: ‘Tad, make me look good,’” he says with a smile. “I have to tell them: Hey, I’m not a doctor—if I could tailor people I’d be a rich man.”