Handsome Work

The Tradition of the Moment: What’s the difference between modish and chic? Ask a real tailor…

John Meegan knows the clothes make the man (or woman). Meegan makes the clothes that make the man. Visit him at Top Shelf, his twenty-nine-year-old custom-made suit and shirt shop, and Meegan will make the clothes that make you. Well, he won’t literally make the clothes; almost no tailor nowadays actually designs, cuts, and sews suits from scratch. But his solicitude is reminiscent of a time when a tailor might actually do such a thing.

He’s no miracle worker. But for some, he comes close. Many of his customers are people who simply cannot buy suits in a department store because of their irregular body types. Meegan and his colleagues offer an attractive alternative to nakedness; they create and alter clothes to fit every client perfectly. In the process, they teach their customers how to dress. A little knowledge is a powerful thing: Meegan is a font of wisdom about technique and style. Mention a particular body type, and he can reel off endlessly flattering stratagems.

One should not underestimate the power of the perfect cut; some of Meegan’s clients can testify to the fact that confidence in appearance is sometimes all it takes to seal a million-dollar deal. For others, Meegan creates ensembles worthy of an audience with the Queen of England, which is precisely what he did recently for a customer on his way to Buckingham Palace. Meegan dresses Paul Magers (whose perfectly oval face, by the way, lends itself to all styles of collars), Randy Shaver, numerous pro athletes, and most of the CEOs in this town. He even has a few clients who don’t regularly appear in CJ’s column.

Inside the Top Shelf shop, a cozy house on Lyndale Avenue, an erstwhile living room, dining room, and front den are filled with books of fabric swatches, brightly colored ties, sample collars, shoes, and sweaters. Meegan, his wife and co-business owner, Pat, and his original partner, Suzanne Murphy, moved to this spot five years ago after inhabiting a storefront at Hennepin and Lake for twenty-three years. Back then, during the first years, the fresh-from-vocational-school partners created made-to-order everything and anything, by hand, by themselves. Over the years they tightened up the focus of the business to include only suits and shirts, with a small percentage of business from retail alterations completed in the small sewing shop in the basement. Today, the partners commission the labor needed for their suits and shirts, from the patternmaking to the cutting to the sewing, from companies located in Canada, Italy, and Asia. It is simply impossible for an American tailor to spend twenty-four hours (the bare minimum) on a custom-made suit and still turn a profit, Meegan explains; it is also rare to find a tailor so skilled at the creation of each part of the suit that the end product would consistently be of the highest quality. So the suits and shirts are created by people who specialize in particular parts of the production, in countries where labor is cheaper and yet of a higher quality than most American tailors are capable of today.

It’s a dying art form in this country, says Meegan, who was drawn to the craft one day in college when he considered altering a bow tie he had purchased. Most Americans wear cheap clothes mass-produced in a factory and purchased at a mall; most U.S. cities do not have enough work to offer a decent living to graduates of a vocational school’s tailoring program, he says. Meegan got lucky and found a way to do what he loves and make a living; the future is not so bright for others.

Many of his six thousand active customers have been coming to him for twenty-five years, he says. His challenge is to appeal to a younger crowd, to new graduates and young professionals. In this jobless recovery, Meegan’s is a service you can’t afford to not afford, he figures; how awful to blow a precious job opportunity because you weren’t dressed like the one they were looking for.

Next: Great guitar maker…

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