Conventional wisdom says “clothes make the man,” but can they also make the show? Vincent Zulo is a tailor for the theatre who has left his imprint on hundreds of productions here and abroad, from Broadway extravaganzas to the Barnum and Bailey Circus to modest two-character plays. Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman and Alec Baldwin have passed through his fitting rooms–it’s no exaggeration to call him “the tailor to the stars.” “Anybody you can mention, they’ve come through this shop,” he says with a crinkly smile and the engaging inflections of his native Italy.
Those who imagine a tailor as a bent little man sewing tiny stitches by hand alone in a dark garret might be surprised by Zulo and his shop. He’s well-dressed, cordial and energetic, and his tidy loft in the garment district of Manhattan is surrounded by windows and filled with modern equipment and a staff that ranges in size from 13 to 20.
Zulo began his training in Italy at the age of eight, working after school in a tailoring shop to help support his large family. In 1966 he immigrated to New York, and went to work at Eve’s Costumes where in short order he was assigned to tailor Mata Hari, which he accurately describes as “a big flop.” The Edward Thomas-Martin Charnin musical starring Marisa Mell and Pernell Roberts closed after a disastrous Washington tryout involving collapsing scenery and a spotlight accidentally turned on a nearly-nude Mell as she changed costumes. Zulo, undeterred by this unauspicious beginning, was caught up in the excitement of the theatre and eventually opened his own shop in 1980.Order now
Among Zulo’s favorite shows are Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera–not because of the famous falling chandelier, but because he had the chance to equal and sometimes improve on the original costumes tailored by talented craftsmen in England–and the current Broadway mounting of Guys and Dolls. Working from William Ivey Long’s award-winning designs, Zulo and his staff constructed all of the latter production’s period menswear–about 75 percent of the show’s 250 costumes–not only cutting and tailoring the suits, but also creating half of the fabric in the shop.
In the eye of the viewer
Zulo designed and soldered special sewing-machine feet to adapt his machines to do the difficult embroidery for Guys and Dolls. The staff started with a solid-colored fabric and, using over-stiching, embroidery and mock-weaving techniques, added stripes of various colors and sizes–no painting, dyeing or applique was used. To understand the scope of this undertaking, imagine a pinstriped suit. Imagine sewing each of the hundreds of stripes onto the fabric by machine (keeping the lines straight!). Imagine enough fabric for about 90 suits. This time-consuming procedure was used to give Long the colors and shapes he needed without making the suits stiff, a challenge that makes this show memorable for Zulo. “In a short time we produced so much work,” he says. “We worked all night, and then at the end when the show was so successful we felt really rewarded.”
But what difference does all this work make to the untutored eye? “If you don’t know much, a suit is a suit,” Zulo shrugs. “It can be 1930 or 1909 or 1960, it looks the same. It’s pants and a jacket.” True appreciation of the customer’s craft, he says, depends on the discriminating eye of the viewer. “When people go see Guys and Dolls, they’re supposed to go there in the spirit of the ’40s. I like it when people are critical, because satisfaction comes back because the audience knows what is there.”
Good tailoring for the theatre is more colorful and sharper in line than streetwear, Zulo says, and Long agrees. “When a show verges on being a cartoon–in the use of color and shape–it is extremely important that the tailoring is top-notch” the designer says of Guys and Dolls. “For example, in these suits, you can see someone onstage from the side and trace the stripe all the way from the shoulder to the pants. This is great tailoring.”
Zulo works with the designer from the beginning of a project, choosing shape and fabric to make the costume sketch come to life. Despite the collaborative nature of the job, he stays flexible and takes care not to overstep his bounds. “To my eyes–tailoring eyes–a suit looks better one way,” Zulo explains. “For the script he has to look like a bum, I want to make him look like a big shot. Okay, they don’t go together.”
The future of Zulo’s kind of craftsmanship is uncertain. There is no adequate training program to pass on tailoring skills, which take years to learn. Zulo operates a union shop and cannot afford to pay union wages to trainees. “The world will keep going around,” Zulo says philosophically of the future, “but they will have to struggle more to produce this kind of project.”
Zulo is clearly a man who loves his work. You can see that on his face and hear it in his voice as he talks about his craft: “Whatever you do, if you don’t do it with satisfaction, with the feelings, it’s not worth it.” His dedication to the theatre has earned him respect from scores of costume designers. “I never compromise,” he says. “I always say it has to be this way, it has to be good.”