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North Hills Monthly

Crafting a Legacy: Modern Cobblers and Tailors Are Low in Number, but Abundant in Old-School Quality

Nov 30, 2015 06:15PM ● By Jennifer Monahan
In an age where most of us are accustomed to clicking a few keys on the computer to order airline tickets, buy books or purchase clothing, the personal touch and investment of time offered by craftsmen like cobbler Tony DeMarco and tailors Frank and Larry Cicco or Nino Pettinato are a bit of a throwback. While their ranks are thinning, these professionals thrive because they combine expert workmanship with outstanding customer service.

Tony and his son, Danny DeMarco, are co-owners of Northway Shoes and Repair on Babcock Boulevard. The elder DeMarco was born and raised in Foiano, Italy and emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 17, where he began working for his brother-in-law at Northway Shoes. He learned cobbling on the job over the next few years. In 1980, he bought the business and today continues to serve as master cobbler while his son heads up the retail side of Northway Shoes.

Tony DeMarco believes that cobbling is a dying art. “It’s going to disappear because there is no workforce,” he said. “There are a few of us left, but a lot of shops have closed. There is plenty of work, but not plenty of workers.”

One reason for the decline, said DeMarco, is that cobblers put in long hours, and the work is messy. “My hands look bad, and in order to make a living, you have to put in 11, 12, 13-hour days.”

DeMarco does all of his work by hand, and takes pride in doing it right. His customers have responded with loyalty and repeat business, and they are his favorite part of the work. “I’m grateful for the customers I’ve had all these years. I raised my family on this business. It’s hard work, but it’s a good place to be,” he concluded.

Brothers Larry and Frank Cicco are fourth-generation master tailors and own Frank Cicco Custom Tailors in Butler. From a young age, Larry Cicco helped out sweeping floors and organizing fabric samples in the family business, and completed a four-year apprenticeship for another tailor while working in his father’s store. Frank Cicco, Jr., swept floors and ripped out seams as a teen, then followed a college degree with 10 years in the wholesale fabric business in New York City. He returned home in 1993 to join his father and brother.

The work is time-consuming and labor-intensive. It can take 45 to 50 hours to make a suit from scratch. Patterns are customized to fit individuals; the Ciccos adjust for a client’s posture, how they hold their arms, how they stand. “It’s very personal,” said Larry Cicco, who added that his favorite part of his work is “seeing the client happy, seeing them in the finished product. It’s gratifying.”

The Cicco brothers have been active in the Custom Tailors and Designers Association and are aware of tailoring’s reputation as a lost art. Mastering the craft is a challenge. “Taking time to see and feel and be able to shape something is a skill acquired with years of experience,” Frank Cicco explained. Although Frank Cicco, Sr., passed away in January at age 88, his legacy to his sons lives on in lessons of skilled craftsmanship and taking pride in your work. “We were taught well,” said Larry Cicco.

Nino Pettinato, owner of Nino’s Black Tie Tuxedo and Tailor in Wexford, learned his craft in Italy, starting around the age of nine. Although he did not especially want to be a tailor, he recalled, “In Italy, tailoring was a very prestigious job. It’s an art. You take measurements, make a pattern, make a suit. You would be able to get a job.” Pettinato studied this art for 10 years before emigrating to the U.S. in 1960.

“When I arrived, there were too many tailors. I worked at a dry cleaner,” he said, adding that he also did alterations. “A lot of the Pirates came in. I used to fix Roberto Clemente’s clothes. I didn’t know who he was at the time!”

Pettinato eventually opened his own clothing store but shifted to the tuxedo business in 1979. “The clothing business was going crazy,” he explained. “It cost $200 for a leisure suit. It’s not a real suit! And you could get a leisure suit at Gimbel’s for $19.95.”

Pettinato laments the lack of tailors around today but understands the change. “It’s hard to learn the trade. You have to start when you are very young,” he said. Like the DeMarcos and the Ciccos, Pettinato has as much work as he can handle. Although he employs some assistants, he still takes on the major tailoring jobs himself and his clients appreciate his dedication.

“Our customers are the best. We have moved a couple of times, and they always come back,” he said.

Whether mending shoes, creating quality suits from scratch or altering clothing, the dedicated service and personal attention offered by these small business owners are clearly appreciated by their loyal customers. Their success suggests that, whatever the future of cobbling and tailoring, taking pride in one’s craft isn’t a lost art at all.