A versatile, affordable dressmaker who can update a favorite outfit or copy a Chanel is a treasure.
by Ruth J. Katz
Irena Cherniakhovsky and Anna Drugova work on a dress alteration at Silhouettes & Profiles. (Photos by Larissa Drekonja) . . . . . . . . . . . .
It’s not surprising that a woman closely guards the name of her dressmaker or tailor: These master sewers can outfit her in knockout clothes that cost a fraction of what she’d spend for them on Madison Avenue. Only the best of friends are likely to share the names of Irena Cherniakhovsky, Guillermo Molina, and Penny Babel. It took digging to unearth these (and several other) ingenious scissorhands; they can whip up your fantasy from a bolt of cloth, copy your favorite Armani pants for quite a bit less than the original cost, handle the how-can-it-possibly-be-done alteration, and—working from photos you’ve clipped of Paris runway shows—make you a “Chanel” for a fraction of the 57th Street tariff.
I asked these talented artisans to quote me a price for copying a favorite garment of mine—a six to seven-year old Dana Buchman double-face-wool, cropped jacket, made with a very interesting, intricate pattern. (Working on double-face-wool requires enormous handwork, since the jacket is completely unlined and is, therefore, totally finished inside.) I also asked for pricing on other alterations: taking up the hem on Eileen Fisher knit trousers; replacing a 32-inch-long zipper on a woman’s down coat; relining a classically styled woman’s winter coat. Prices quoted below are for the work alone, not including fabric (unless otherwise specified)—but everything noted is always “and up.” (Prices are from May 2011, and most likely, will have increased…ed.)
Alterations are this 50-year-old establishment’s specialty; its eight seamstresses (American-, Russian-, Polish-, and Chinese-born) are geniuses with hard-to-craft repairs. Irena Cherniakhovsky, the owner, proudly displays a New York Times Magazine story that profiles the repairs she did on a vintage Chanel for the Met’s Costume Institute. She also works behind the scenes for a few Seventh Avenue designers (Jason Wu and Rodarte, to name two) at their runway shows, engineering last-minute fixes on garments not-quite-ready for mannequins’ bodies; recently she did alterations on costumes for Black Swan. On my visit I saw one dress being transformed (losing its sleeves and becoming a halter style) and another in the works—a bridal gown being made 10 inches smaller all around. Her company also did the runway show for Jason Wu and Rod Darcy and is now listed as the Best in City Search and Yelp. Pricing: My knit trousers would be $24 to hem; relining my coat starts at $120; installing a zipper in the down coat, $120 and up.
Irena Cherniakhovsky adjusts the diaphanous sleeve of a client’s evening gown. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Guillermo Molina at work in his studio, copying a coat that had been featured in a fashion magazine. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Guillermo Couture, 237 West 37th St., Suite 1300, between 7th and 8th Ave., 212-366-6965
Ecuadorian-born Guillermo Molina worked as a patternmaker in the garment industry before striking out on his own (he employs one or two seamstresses), and there isn’t a pattern or a silhouette that he would find daunting; years ago he made me a ruched bustier that is a work of art. He has even gotten calls from AmEx’s concierge services to turn around a tricky job for a tourist visiting the city. He relishes challenges, especially when he is asked to create a pattern for a complex garment. But he doesn’t turn down simple jobs, and, unlike other tailors, he makes house calls and will go through your wardrobe, recommending what to alter and how to cleverly “modernize” outdated garments. Pricing: A Chanel-style suit would be about $2,500 to $3,500 to create; I saw a lovely taffeta evening wear trench coat (about $2,000); trouser hems start at $35, jacket sleeves at $75 (and raising shoulders at $150 and up); copying trousers would be about $600. Molina would charge about $1,800 to make my Dana Buchman.
Detail of a brocade evening coat made by Guillermo Molina of Guillermo Couture. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Guillermo Couture: the brocade coat was fashioned from a client’s grandmother’s dress; the white jacket, from yards of ribbon. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Katalin Varga, 252 West 38th St., Suite 701, near 8th Ave., 212-717-4430, cell 201-259-1302
“My customers think $8,000 is just too much to pay for a Chanel,” asserts Katalin Varga, who maintains a small atelier (and works alone) in the garment district. The Hungarian-born Varga learned to sew from her grandmother and worked previously as a graphic designer and costume designer. Now a dressmaker, she can whip up Chanel lookalikes for far less than $10 0r $12,000. She showed me a Chanel-style jacket she had made, which was about $800. I saw some very beautifully tailored suits, with very clean-cut pin-tucking in an intricate pattern in the jackets ($700). “Sometimes,” she laughs,“ I think I am so precise that I must have an illness.” A skirt would be about $400 to $500. I also saw some of her own exquisite silhouettes—one she dubbed her “Louboutin”—a form-fitting, drop-waist, black cloqué dress lined with scarlet satin that peeks through at all the edges. A masterpiece. She has also tackled some extraordinarily difficult repairs (enlarging a vintage Pucci, among them) for reasonable costs.
“I like to help my clients become the best designers that they can be,” states Penny Babel, meaning that she steers clients to their best looks and their most flattering silhouettes, incorporating their fantasies into a garment that can realistically be created (within a budget) and that is appropriate for any body type. She is highly collaborative and loves a challenge. “Some of my clients are CEOs who just want a vacation from their regular workaday wardrobes” and others are women, who want their wardrobes “to say something about themselves.” (Babel can do the mundane, of course, but she prefers the artistic, and the more challenging the repair, the happier she is to attack it.) In business for many years—she learned to sew from her grandmother—she works with one or two employees. Pricing: I saw a raincoat she made that was stunning, with all kinds of interesting details, including notched pockets ($800); a tailored skirt that had so much detail that it should have been in a museum ($500); gowns are about $3,000 and up. All my repairs are things she would do for her regulars, but she is not the person to go to for just alterations.
Peering into Remziye Perkin’s storefront shop, you will see the walls of the boutique lined with cocktail dresses and what appear to be wedding gowns, judging by the poufs of white organza and snowy satin clouds billowing from the racks. Employed for many years by Vera Wang and Arnold Scaasi (and by the mother ship of all things bridal, Kleinfeld), this Turkish-born seamstress “loves making wedding dresses,” but she “will work on anything, except fur and leather.” She showed me a spectacular bustier with beading and pearls that she was making. Remziye, who has been in business for 17 years and has a staff of four, notes, “We can take anything apart and remake a dress. Regardless of the job, we don’t want to send anyone away.” She does a lot of what she calls “build-ups,” ingeniously covering décolletage and arms on evening attire for religious clients. “Show us a $20,000 wedding dress and I will bet we can make it for $3,000 or $4,000.” Pricing: Hemming trousers starts at $18; relining a winter coat, $85 and up; but putting a zipper in my down coat is something she wouldn’t want to do. My Dana Buchman jacket would be about $600 to re-create.
Tailor Sam Leung is literally a Hong Kong tailor and a Savile Row tailor as well; now he and his son can be your Lexington Avenue tailors. In business here for 30 years, Leung employs half a dozen skilled artisans. The majority of his clients are men who order custom suits (his shop walls are lined with bolts of men’s suiting and hundreds of swatch books of suit material), but he also does alterations and will make new garments for women. It’s best to bring an item or photo of something that you want copied and to shop for the fabric yourself; he does not shop for fabrics, and is not the collaborator that some of these dressmakers are. I saw countless copies of the same boxy evening jackets that he regularly makes for one female client, in various textiles ($450), and spied a few other women’s garments, beautifully finished, hanging on racks. One male client, who was leaving while I was there, threw a gratuitous “He’s the best, by the way, the absolute best,” to me as he exited. Pricing: Hemming trousers starts at $20; relining a winter coat starts at $140, and putting in new zippers starts at $25 to 35. Altering a Hickey Freeman suit for your husband that no longer fits since he has lost 30 pounds would cost from $200 to $500, depending upon how much needs to be done. Copying my Dana Buchman double-face-wool cropped jacket would cost $600, but Leung would make it with a lining, in order to avoid all the tedious finishing that double-face-wool requires.
Jenny Couture, 262 West 38th St., 2nd Floor, near 8th Ave., 212-997-4102.
Jenny McFarlane, who studied pattern making at FI and fashion design in London, cut her career eyeteeth in the lingerie business, working for big names like Lily of France. Today her business is about 60 percent dressy attire and the balance “regular” clothes. Her cluttered workshop attests to the fact that she can deliver the goods: I saw one blouse she copied for a client, a classic Brooks Brothers shirt (remember, all those flat-felled seams are a pain), that she remade in a cotton print for $175 (additional copies would be considerably less, as the cost of creating the initial pattern is borne by the first copy). She will work on men’s clothing, also, and she is not daunted by leather; she showed me some suede clothing she worked up for a local designer, all nicely made. I also saw a wedding gown she sent to India to be beaded—and it was gorgeous. Pricing: Hemming my trousers would be about $30 to $35; relining a coat about $175, and installing the new zipper in the down coat would start at $75. Copying my Dana Buchman would be $500.
I saw dancers in costumes by Oswaldo Muniz—both his en pointe ballet on stage and his dance costumes on display—years ago when I attended a performance of Les Ballets Grandiva, a drag ballet troupe that was renowned for its skilled “ballerinas” and humorous take on Balanchine. I was blown away by the sophisticated and exquisitely made costumes—and a large part of that was Oswaldo’s work. (He has created costumes for the Joffrey Ballet, the Pennsylvania Ballet, and for Gelsey Kirkland.) He fashions evening attire only (think cocktail suits, after-five dresses, gowns), with a $550 minimum. He’s your man if you’re looking for a razzle-dazzle “entrance” gown (in the words of a friend, “He never met a sequin or a rhinestone he didn’t like”), not a Calvin Klein–like, bias-cut, slinky beige slip-dress (think Pippa Middleton). He does not do alterations and doesn’t copy sportswear, but bring him a picture of what you want and, pattern-making wizard that he is, he’ll whip it up in no time flat. House calls only.
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Seamstress versus tailor: A seamstress (usually a woman) makes “feminine” clothing, with lots of details, constructed from fabrics ranging from diaphanous chiffons to heavy cotton duck cloth. A tailor (usually a man) makes men’s suits, or works on very “tailored, architectural” clothing—uncluttered separates with clean lines.
Custom-made clothes: Always find out if the cost quoted includes the fabric. (Unless stated, for all garments “made from scratch,” the pricing quoted here does not include the cost of fabric.) Some tailors/dressmakers like to shop alone for their clients and bring back fabric samples; others will ask you do to do the shopping, and may even send you to a specific shop/particular employee to assist you if you need guidance. If they shop with you, expect to have that time folded into the pricing.
Always make an appointment. Ask about deposits for custom-made clothing or jobs that involve extensive work. Check the turnaround time, also. (For seriously complicated gowns, turnaround could be a few months; custom clothing could be a month or more; most repairs take a week or two.) Designing a garment should be a collaborative process, and creating something tricky could require that a muslin version be made first—and that would require a few fittings; bring the shoes and undergarments you will be wearing with the outfit when you go to a fitting. Dressmakers almost invariably do repairs for their regulars, even if they claim to do only custom work.
From the editor: If you have questions about how to alter or create a garment, please contact one of the dressmakers/tailors in the article.
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Ruth J. Katz covered service, shopping, and design for more than 20 years as an editor at Promenade, Redbook, Colonial Homes, Classic Home, The Modern Estate, and New York Home magazines; she wrote for many years for The New York Times and New York magazine and appeared weekly on Fox TV as the Home Services Editor. She is the author of five books.
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