As the unofficial tailor to the president, Georges de Paris gets invited to the White House for fittings as a matter of usual practice. He has dressed every chief executive since Lyndon B. Johnson and is close with the Kennedy family. When George W. Bush was in office, de Paris visited 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. as often as three times a week.
But de Paris says his visit last December with President Barack Obama was probably the most nerve-racking he’s had in 47 years.
While passing through White House security, a woman who had recognized him from television asked if she could borrow de Paris’ measuring tape to check her size. “I say yes. She take the tape and go away!” says de Paris, who speaks in a clipped French accent. When she didn’t return, he got so nervous waiting to be called in for his five-minute fitting with Obama that he began perspiring badly.
“I was shaking,” he recalls, laughing about it now. “How you like it if you go to the White House to fit the president and you don’t have your tape?” Luckily, someone at the executive mansion bailed him out by loaning him one.
A cut above
It’s a few weeks after that harrowing fitting and de Paris is in his downtown Washington shop. Dressed in dark slacks, suspenders and a pinstriped shirt with monogrammed French cuffs, he’s awaiting a call. “I’m going to deliver the suit for President Obama today,” de Paris says. It’s an expertly cut, two-button, black cashmere jacket, with the initials B.O. stitched in yellow on the inside pocket, and matching pants. “It’s Scabal,” he says. “The best material in England is Scabal.”
De Paris, 75, is a striking presence with long white hair, a bulbous nose and gentle eyes. He credits hard work, patience, honesty and integrity for getting him where he is today, clothing some of the most important people in the world.
Born in Marseilles, France, he started out as an apprentice for his father’s tailor (“I pick it up in six months,” he says, snapping his fingers) and studied the craft in Munich and London. In 1960, he came to America and landed in Maryland outside the nation’s capital. He was homeless for nine months. A woman eventually took him in, cleaned him up and gave him work at a large men’s clothing store. He saved his money and after a few months, opened his own tailoring business, where he cut material using a razor and slept on the floor.
It wasn’t long before a client who was a congressman recommended him to then Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. “You don’t have much talk because his time,” says de Paris, about fittings with LBJ. And it was a little tense with Secret Service agents in the corner. De Paris says he has slipped up only once, when he accidentally stuck Ronald Reagan in the belly with a pin. “I said, ‘Oops! Sorry, Mr. President.’ But he was cool,” de Paris says.
His favorite presidential suit is the blue herringbone cashmere that Reagan was wearing when he was shot in a 1981 assassination attempt in Washington. For years, de Paris felt guilty. “I say I should not deliver the suit for President Reagan because maybe he not shot. It’s taken me years for give up the mentality.”
De Paris says Reagan had the best fashion sense (“because his position before, he was actor in Hollywood”), Jimmy Carter was the hardest to dress (“He don’t know much for clothing”) and Richard Nixon teased him about being only 5 foot 6. “He said, ‘How tall are you, Georges? You can’t reach me.’ ”
Although de Paris comes from a political family—his father was a judge and his twin sister works in the Elysée Palace in Paris for President Nicolas Sarkozy—he never takes sides in American politics. But he does admit that his favorite U.S. president is Reagan, followed by George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush. He also thinks highly of the current commander in chief. “So friendly! So nice! You cannot imagine,” he says of Obama. “The charisma is fantastic!”
But de Paris hasn’t always approved of Obama’s threads. He criticized their quality in a Vanity Fair article last year. So far, de Paris has made several suits for Obama, including one that he wore to the Nobel Prize award ceremony in Stockholm in December.
Suiting up the powerful
In addition to presidents and power brokers, de Paris has cut clothes for Peyton Manning, George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as well as corporate tycoons and a New Jersey taxi driver. The price of a de Paris suit can run several thousand dollars, depending on the fabric. Bill Gates paid $10,000 for his. The most expensive fabric de Paris carries is vicuna, which is $2,000 per yard. “The suit would be $30,000 to $35,000,” he says. He’s made three.
It’s not all about money, though. De Paris simply loves what he does. His shop opens at 9:30 a.m. and he often works well into the night. “I take a break, sometimes an hour, and have a glass of wine,” he says. “Give me energy.”
So with a work schedule like that, does he have time for a love life? De Paris smiles. “I love my girlfriend,” he says. “I’m going to show you my girlfriend.”
Walking past a 5-foot high stack of fabric bolts, into the back of his shop, he leans over a large worktable. “Here’s my girlfriend,” he says, showing a needle he has pulled from a pincushion. “Ms. Needle.” He’s joking, sort of. “I live with lady, but 99 percent that’s my girlfriend.”
Craigh Barboza is a writer in Washington.