- Associated Press - Thursday, July 7, 2016

KOKOMO, Ind. (AP) - A small, unassuming sign hangs from the porch of the house on 614 E. Vaile Ave.

It reads “Luigi Bilella. Tailor. Alterations.”

Since 1960, Bilella has lived at that house. And during that whole time, he’s run his tailoring business from a small room in the back bringing what many of his customers consider a kind of old-world craftsmanship to their clothing.

But now, the sign is coming down. At 86 years old, Bilella is retiring and leaving behind a 60-year career in the city that has earned him a reputation as one of the best tailors in the area.

Bilella said stepping down from the job wasn’t an easy decision. After all, it’s a craft he’s been practicing since he was 11, when he began an apprenticeship with a tailor in his hometown of Sciacca, Sicily. That’s where Bilella lived until he immigrated to the U.S. in 1956 when he was 26 years old.

But recent health issues have forced Bilella to stop doing the thing that’s been his life’s work.

The biggest issue is his hands, which sometimes shake and make it difficult to do the intricate, spot-on sewing, trimming, hemming and stitching that have set him apart as a tailor.

“I enjoy what I do, but I want to please the customers as best I can,” Bilella said. “If I can’t do that anymore, it’s time to stop.”

And so he has.

Sitting inside his tailor shop, Bilella reminisces about all the friends he’s made living and working in Kokomo. After all this time in the U.S., he still hasn’t lost his thick Italian accent or his gentle sense of humor.

Bilella is quick to laugh when he tells stories, but he tears up just as quickly remembering all the loyal customers who won’t be coming through his door anymore.

“I like talking with my customers and my friends. I don’t know how well they understand me, though,” he said with a laugh, referencing his accent. “Some say they only understand 15 percent of what I’m talking about. But I say that’s better than nothing.”

Inside his small workspace at the back of his house, a Singer sewing machine sits quietly beneath a wall loaded with spools of thread. Bilella bought that machine in 1956 when he first came to Kokomo, and he used it his entire career.

On a busy day, the sewing machine would sometimes hum for hours and hours as Bilella worked on the stacks of suits, pants, shirts and other clothing dropped off by his customers.

“That’s the best machine, and I’ve used it for a long, long time,” he said.

Beside the Singer is a newer sewing machine that his wife, Margherita, used to use to for alterations and sewing work before she passed away in 2011.

An iron, some scissors and other tailoring tools sit on a large table across from the sewing machines. Above the table are pictures of Bilella’s four kids and grandkids, as well as a photo of an Italian basilica and pictures of Jesus and the saints - a reminder of his Catholic faith.

Posted on another wall above a small desk packed with buttons and other supplies are hordes of newspaper clippings documenting Bilella’s long and unique history as tailor in Kokomo.

That history began when he arrived in New York City after riding across the Atlantic Ocean from his home in Sicily. From there, he took a train to Kokomo, where he met his wife and infant daughter, who had immigrated to the city a year before.

Three days after arriving, Bilella landed a job at the old Turner’s Department Store located across from the courthouse doing alterations on suits and other men’s clothing.

Bilella said it was a difficult time. He had just married his wife the year before. They already had a daughter who he was trying to provide for. Plus, he was in a new country starting a new job, and he didn’t speak a word of English.

“I cried a lot,” he said. “I couldn’t understand anyone, but little by little, you learn new words and learn to talk.”

But his work as a tailor spoke for itself, and four years later, he decided to open his own shop inside his house to be close to his wife and children.

It was a move that ended up working out well for Bilella. He quickly gained a following of dedicated customers, and his wife jumped on board and started doing alterations on women’s clothing.

People started coming from as far away as Indianapolis to have Bilella work on their clothes, and that steady flow of customers never slowed until he decided to cut back his workload after his wife passed away in 2011.

Now, he said, it’s finally time to officially say goodbye to the profession that’s been his livelihood for 60 years.

Bilella’s daughter, Maria Killion, said it’s been difficult for her dad to step away from the job. But it’s been just as difficult for his customers.

“They all tell me, ‘All these people in Kokomo rely on him. Where are we going to go?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ But it was kind of sweet that people thought so much of him,” she said.

Even now, though, Bilella can’t say no to a loyal customer. While sitting inside his shop on a recent weekday morning, long-time patron Homer Hoover walked through the door to see if Bilella could fix a zipper on a pair of pants.

Bilella told him it will take him a few weeks to finish, but he’d do it as a friend.

It’s that kind of service that has kept people coming to Bilella’s shop for the last 57 years, during which time he said he’s never lost a customer.

And it’s friends like Hoover who make it so hard for Bilella to finally say goodbye to the job he loves.

“People understand there comes a time when you can’t do everything,” he said. “I tried pleasing the customer as best I could, but I realize you slow down a lot when you’re old.”

___

Source: Kokomo Tribune, https://bit.ly/29iF84I

___

Information from: Kokomo Tribune, https://www.ktonline.com


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide