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As is his custom

Times Staff Writer

The familiar names roll off his tongue. But Jack Taylor is not speaking in the ordinary manner of the name dropper. Rather, these names serve as signposts guiding his thoughts back to a different era, a more dignified age, a time when being a “gentleman” meant something.

“Cary Grant. One of the best-dressed men ever. He was easy. I knew what he wanted and nobody wore clothes as well as he did.”

“Harry Truman. I made him a couple of suits when he was president. The nicest man in the world.”

“Jack Lemmon. He’d walk in and leave it to me. The sweetest man

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Taylor is heading for a point: “Back then, men dressed.”

By which he means that some men cultivated a proper style. The kind of style that has never come easy. The kind of style that men strived for when they had the means -- or the determination -- to leave behind everything that looked like ordinary. The kind of style that defines the precise edge between background and foreground when a man walks into the room: It’s style that doesn’t draw your eyes to the clothes, but to the presence of the man inside the clothes. Jack Taylor’s style.

All that’s changed now. Everything but Taylor. A living legend in men’s wear, he can be found behind the big U-shaped desk in his showroom of mirrors in his shop on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills. He has a fresh flower in his button hole, as always. And in the old-school way, he’ll probably say “thank you” just for coming in.

No sir, Jack Taylor hasn’t changed, and he won’t.

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For the price of a big-screen TV or a good-enough used car, Taylor will measure you for a suit cut in a style that hasn’t gone out of style in a half-century, a suit made to last you another half-century, or at least 30 years or so, like the one he is wearing today in blue sharkskin. The key here, what’s important to understand, is that this won’t be just a custom suit. This suit will be sewn entirely by hand and as close to perfect as the hand can make it.

He bolts out of his chair. He is 86 now, but he still jumps, more or less, out of his chair when he needs to get a jacket or a pair of pants to show you exactly what he means. So what if he’s been in the custom men’s clothing business for most of 66 years? Exuberance can last a lifetime if you’re of that frame of mind.

“Pick a pair, any pair,” he says, standing in front of a rack of slacks. Those in tan gabardine are handy. He separates them from the hanger with the flourish of a symphony conductor. He spreads them flat, using the edge of his hand to shape the material just so. Taylor fingers his clothing with the skill of a puppeteer and the grace of a great salesman: The pants are alive in his grasp, alive like a topaz in the hand of a jeweler, except they cost only $750.

He presents the work for inspection. He follows your movements and anything you touch he brushes with his hand to reshape and flatten. These are not pants to be handled except knowingly. Taylor conducts a tutorial in craftsmanship.

His creases are stitched into the pants. “I haven’t had these pressed in a month, see?” He points to his own trousers with an unbroken knife-edge crease. The buttonhole at the waist is sewn by hand. The curtain behind the waistband is closed. The side seams are lapped -- first basted by machine, then sewn by hand and reopened. A cotton piece is stitched into the crotch so that it can be cleaned separately without having to subject the wool of the pants to the wear-and-tear of dry cleaners.

“There’s nobody in the world that does this -- and I’ll bet on it,” Taylor says, flicking his hand across the fabric with the triumphant look of a man who is showing you his horse that just won the Triple Crown.

He’s a man in motion. He prowls the floor, he returns to his desk, he’s back on his feet, he’s sitting on the edge of his desk, he’s in the fabric room lovingly fingering bolts of English wool, he’s off to retrieve a jacket from the sewing room -- everything is made here, on the premises. He’s calling back to his employees. He’s on the phone. He’s up and dashing to the door to hug and kiss actor Dennis Farina, who is stopping by. “That’s a classy man. That’s the way men used to greet one another, not so much anymore.”

The beginning

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Jack Taylor passes the morning by recounting the passing of eras.

He’s demonstrating not only the art of clothes, but a bygone way of doing business. He’s earned his nostalgia. On the West Side of Manhattan in 1938, an immigrant from Kiev, Russia, was lucky to have a Depression-era job as an errand boy at his brother’s dental laboratory. Down the hall was an Italian tailor. Ready-to-wear was just beginning in those days. Mostly, men of wherewithal had their clothes made. Taylor wasn’t shopping, just curious. He had $2 in his pocket. Naturally, he parted with it -- a down payment on a $22 suit. His enthusiasm for it became contagious. When he’d return for a fitting or just to say hello, he’d bring somebody else he’d met. By the time his suit was ready, he’d cultivated enough new customers that the tailor asked him to be partners in the business. The shop was called Restivo-Taylor.

Except for an enlistment in the Navy during World War II and a couple of short-term jobs, that’s how it’s been ever since: Jack Taylor, the front office man in a custom men’s wear shop. He doesn’t do the tailoring. He hires the tailors and the finishers. He brings in the clients and fits them. He is the aura. He is keeper of the quality -- like the chalk stripes that must follow the angle-line of the lapel exactly and at a needle-width, no more, from the edge. His suits are constructed in pieces -- each tailor specializing in one portion of the garment. But the work involved would take a single expert tailor 1 1/2 days to sew the slacks and two days to sew the coat, countless thousands of stitches, flawlessly spaced for strength and maximum visual impact.

He came west and in 1957 opened Jack Taylor Inc. in Beverly Hills. This year, he moved locations -- his fourth relocation in the city. He cannot recall any retailer who has been there longer. Today, he employs seven tailors and two finishers. The store produces seven suits a week, on average, priced from $2,950 to $4,500.

“It’s a dying business,” he says, meaning not right away but eventually. “Nobody wants to be a tailor anymore. I could sell a lot more than I do if I could find more tailors.”

The only show of age in Jack Taylor’s movements is a stoop. His eyes are clear, his hands steady, his voice strong. He reaches for a box of magazine clippings on his desk. They recount Taylor’s memories of his clients, from Jackie Gleason to Glenn Ford, and, oh yes, Elvis, Sinatra, Babe Ruth and the Duke of Windsor.

Is there one name that brings back special memories? “Danny Thomas. He was really something to work for. He always had a gag.”

Taylor also will show you clippings that contain his clients’ memories of working with him. The consensus: He’s a “dictator” on matters of style.

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“I make the same suit today that I made in 1940,” he explains. “I don’t want to change my style.”

This style he describes as “classic.” His lapels are sized according to the bulk of the wearer, the shoulders squared, smallish and fitted, sleeves tapered. He prefers one button closure, although he will give you two if you can endure his grumbling, “What’s the use of having a button you don’t use?” As for today’s high-fashion coats with four buttons, Taylor’s eyes pop wide open behind his oversize black-rimmed glasses. It is a look of astonishment that you might get if you blew your nose on his white carpet.

Not that he won’t budge a little on trends. In the last few years, for instance, he has taken to making chalk-stripe suits in which his customers’ names are woven, tiny but readable, into the cloth to make up the chalk stripe.

Who’s next?

He begins to wriggle in his chair. He yanks his coat down over one shoulder to demonstrate what most men in suits look like to his discriminating eye. He punctuates his point with a face like a fellow who just stepped in dog droppings on the sidewalk. He does the same routine again in describing some supposedly custom clothing he has seen in recent years.

“You know something?” he asks. “Ninety-five percent of the suits that you see on men today -- they don’t fit.”

But he has a surprise up his well-tailored sleeve: There’s a new kind of stylish man emerging today. “Four or five years ago, I was scared to death. All my customers were passing on.” He couldn’t think of quitting, however. “I love the business. I’m afraid to quit. Most people who quit don’t last so long. And that’s my last thought on that.”

Then a friend introduced him to a new generation, men who could be his grandchildren.

“Today,” he says, “90% of my business are people who are under 30.”

One of them is Cameron Silver, who began buying Taylor clothes a few years ago and has stuck with him through the ripe age of 32.

“If I didn’t know him, I’d have a weekend house now,” jokes Silver, who has assembled a collection of more than 30 Jack Taylor suits, coats, slacks and custom shirts.

Silver is the proprietor of Decades, a vintage couture boutique on Melrose Avenue, and has spent most of his life in worlds of fashion.

“I deal with making women look beautiful. I know how it’s done. I know all the tricks,” says Silver. “Jack Taylor, he understands how to make a man look his best.”

Silver laughs, “It’s couture for boys.... Primarily, it’s about the fit. I get stopped on the street if I’m wearing Jack Taylor. His clothes advertise themselves in this spectacularly anonymous way.”

Not that these two men of different generations see all things alike. Silver wouldn’t dream of raising the subject of casual clothing with Taylor. For his part, Taylor frowns at the thought that some of his younger clientele actually walk into the store wearing denim and a sweater. Remember, there was a time when a gentleman wore a coat in the house.

But their sensibilities converge when the moment calls for a suit. “When I really want to look like a grown-up, it’s Jack Taylor,” says Silver.

Yes on occasion, Taylor brightens, there are young men “who dress again.”


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