The Man Who Dressed the Rat Pack
A vintage poster of the Rat Pack--Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop--hangs at the Sy Devore store in Studio City. The debonair babe magnets are dressed in hip threads that made them the Mack Daddies of 1960s cool: sharkskin suits, skinny ties and tailored dress shirts.
To look at the guys, you’d think they were decked out in the spare contemporary silhouettes of Prada. The fabrics are fine, the fit immaculate, details noteworthy. Dino’s collar is slightly higher on the neck, Sammy’s trousers are pencil thin and Frank’s lapels are exactly 21/4 inches wide--just the way each ordered their clothes from Devore.
Known as the “tailor to the stars” until his death in 1966, Devore was almost as famous in Hollywood as the men he dressed. But he made his biggest fashion impact with the martini-gulping, wisecracking, Hollywood-Palm Springs-Las Vegas-hopping Rat Pack. They came to Devore’s on Vine Street near Sunset Boulevard, just around the corner from the Brown Derby restaurant, to shop as well as hang out.
Not much of the Rat Pack’s style is seen in the new version of their 1960 heist caper “Ocean’s Eleven,” which opens today. Because the movie is set in today’s Las Vegas, costumer Jeffrey Kurland gave George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and the other actors individual contemporary looks rather than copy the Rat Pack style in the original. Devore created many of the suits for that flick’s costumer, Howard Shoup.
“Our movie is far more character-driven,” says Kurland, a stage and film costumer for 23 years who has worked on 16 Woody Allen movies. “But from the original film, I saw lots of personal style in the Rat Pack guys,” a look that captured the glamour and fantasy feel of Sin City. “And I wanted that feeling to come across with the clothing. We didn’t want to put the guys in flip-flops and shorts at the crap table.”
Instead, Kurland put Clooney in casual outfits such as three-button sport coats, open-collar shirts, no ties, Pitt in elegantly tapered suits and shirts that have a European look and Damon in preppy khakis and crew-neck pullovers.
Devore probably would have been pleased with Kurland’s workmanship--all 300 garments in the movie were made the Devore way: hand-tailored. That included Andy Garcia’s formal wear and stunning vests crafted from antique kimonos as well as Elliott Gould’s ‘70s disco shirts, neck scarves and cheesy matching swim sets.
In his day, Devore and his staff custom tailored clothes for more than 100 films, according to Marti Devore, 53, his niece who operates the store now. Her father, Al Devore, a partner, ran it when Sy Devore died at age 57 of a heart attack. Sy was survived by his second wife, former actress Erika Peters and adopted daughter, Lisa, who was 12 when he died and isn’t involved in the business today.
A close friend of Martin and Jerry Lewis, Sy Devore costumed all of their movies as well as many that starred Elvis, who would often shop off the rack at Devore’s, taking 15 suits--size 42 regular--at a time. Ricky Nelson, taking his cues from his dad, Ozzie, also wore Devore clothes on and off screen.
In the 1960s, Devore opened a store in Fashion Square Mall in Sherman Oaks. He also opened one in Palm Springs and another in the now-defunct Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas for the Rat Pack who were known to fly to Vegas on a whim with nothing but the clothes on their backs. In 1961 it was reported Devore grossed more than $1 million a year.
Three stores were closed in the ‘80s, leaving only one in the San Fernando Valley. Last year, the store moved to Studio City from Fashion Square Mall.
Flipping through pages of scrapbooks, Marti vividly recalls how at age 10, she and her older sister, Tawny, would pretend to be mannequins and goof around with the Rat Pack when they came to shop. “They’d come to the shop just to see their buddies,” Marti says about the Rat Pack, who shopped in good company. Bob Hope, Milton Berle and Jimmy Durante were regulars, too. “They’d crack jokes, try out new material on each other, on the workers, even on customers.”
Marti was always there because her father was Sy’s bookkeeper. Al passed away at 63 in 1974 from complications from a triple heart bypass. Marti, then 27, took the helm. Today she runs the business with partners Danny Marsh, 43, and Leonard Freedman, 75, who worked with the Devore brothers.
She’s not surprised that her uncle, born Seymour Devoretsky in Brooklyn to Russian immigrant parents, became a clothier. Her grandfather, David, was a tailor who had his own shop in the 1920s that was frequented by jazz musicians.
Devore, an immaculate dresser with dark hair and thick eyebrows, loved show business even though he couldn’t sing, dance, act or play an instrument. “But he loved to hang out with musicians” in New York, Marti says, adding that he catered to them when he opened his first shop in 1930 in the heart of the New York theater district. While operating that store, he moonlighted as road manager for the Andrew Sisters. After serving in the Army, he moved to Los Angeles in 1943. A year later he began making band costumes for Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and Count Basie and his orchestra and opened the Vine Street store.
He got to know the movie stars, who dined in the area, and the musicians and writers who visited a publishing company upstairs. Eventually his star clientele included Bing Crosby, Spencer Tracy, John Wayne, Desi Arnaz, Danny Thomas, Rock Hudson, Richard Burton, Nat King Cole, David Janssen, Sidney Poitier, Eddie Fisher and Robert Conrad. Even Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson bought his clothes.
Devore was known to be a perfectionist, tossing out a garment that didn’t meet his standards and having his tailors start over again. He even kept the Rat Pack’s suit patterns--as well as those of other stars--filed and locked in strong boxes to protect against fire.
A travel agency next door soon caught on to Devore’s star magnet and promoted the shop to tourists, recalls Freedman, who was in his early 20s when he began working at Devore’s in 1950 and regarded him as a second father.
“If you hung out long enough you’d see stars coming and going. Sy’s sort of became a Mecca for tourists,” Freedman says. And for entertainers looking to get discovered or make a connection. “The idea was, ‘Hey, if you wanna get into show business, go get a Sy Devore suit.’”
Freedman remembers when singers performed on the sidewalk outside the shop. Among them was Sammy Davis Jr. who became one of Devore’s biggest clients, once placing a $30,000 order for 84 suits of various hues to be worn on his television variety show, one of the first in color. Another time, Jerry Lewis asked Devore to stitch a half-dozen eye patches in silk mohair for Davis, who lost an eye in a traffic accident in the mid 1950s.
Johnny Grant, Hollywood’s honorary mayor, used to broadcast a radio show from King’s Restaurant across the street from the shop. He remembers how Devore “was always coming up with ideas to keep the stars coming.” One idea that caught on was a barbershop Devore set up at the rear of the store and kept for many years. It was a favorite haunt of comedians, including George Burns, who often tried out new jokes on whoever was in the barber’s chairs. “Sy was one of a kind,” Grant says. “He really was more of showman than a haberdasher.”
Some Devore clothing enthusiasts, among them James Darren, insist that Devore did more than any other designer to influence men’s styles--he narrowed lapels and uncuffed pants.
A few years ago, Darren played crooner Vic Fontaine, a Rat Pack-inspired character, who was a mix of Sinatra and Martin on television’s “Deep Space 9,” a Star Trek spinoff. When the show’s producers asked Darren who made his tuxedos back in 1960 when he was all the rage, the singer told them Sy Devore. “They said, ‘Then that’s where we’re getting you a tux. We want it to be just as hip as it was in the 60s,’” Darren says. “So we go to Sy’s and they still have my pattern on file and it just about fit me.”
Devore’s prices--$285 for a custom-made suit, $200 for a sport coat, $25 for a shirt and $85 for slacks--were expensive in their time but pale in comparison to a $2,000 off-the-rack designer suit today. Bob Hope used to joke: “In a very good year, I have my choice between a Rolls-Royce, a new house in Beverly Hills or a suit from Sy Devore.”
Liberace once wrote to Devore about his offstage wardrobe: “I wish you could hear the wonderful compliments your clothes receive throughout the country. I won’t wear anything but.” And this from Tony Curtis in an autographed photo: “A wonderful place to do business and a wonderful place to have a ball.”
That’s what made the shop “a different kind of men’s store back then,” Marti says. “There was always a party going on.”
That’s because her uncle was a bit of a partyer himself. He was out every night at a restaurant or at the Trocadero, Macambo or Ciros nightclubs, the life of the party while drumming up business. “He also threw really great parties and went to parties. He loved all that and obviously, it was very effective. My father was the quiet bookish type and did the finances, the buying and made sure the numbers were right. But Uncle Sy, he was the hustler.”
He even ventured into the nightclub business in 1946, operating Slapsie Maxie’s on Beverly Boulevard, reportedly backed by mobster Mickey Cohen. The club, which featured young comedians such as Jackie Gleason and Danny Thomas, went kaput within the year, but the men remained Devore shop clients.
Slapsie’s established Devore’s lasting friendship with Martin and Lewis. Freedman says Lewis was the biggest Devore clotheshorse in town, mostly because he was allergic to dry cleaning fluids and gave away his suits when telltale signs of soil appeared. (He also never wore a pair of socks more than once.)
Lewis, whose sons worked at Devore’s when they were teenagers, is still a dedicated customer; his annual Muscular Dystrophy telethons tuxedos are tailored by the shop.
And the entertainment industry continues to be vital to the store’s well-being. Clients include “The West Wing,” “C.S.I.,” “ER,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and several daytime soap operas. The actors are costumed from Devore racks--a fashion mix of Hugo Boss, Tommy Bahama, Nat Nast and Zegna. Sometimes, an actor such as Freddie Prinze Jr. will come in for a fitting.
“But it’s rare when a star pops in,” says Marsh, who became a partner more than a year ago and works with the studios. “It’s not like back then when my uncle first started out in the heart of Hollywood,” Marti says. “It’s about business these days, not about hanging out” even though she encourages that in her store. Still, she’s glad for the memories that are part of the Devore legacy. “They’re the backbone of Sy’s today.”
Steven Soderbergh’s suave caper movie “Ocean’s Eleven” owns the patent on style. F1