Georges de Paris, tailor to US presidents, dead at 81

Jean-Louis Santini
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French-born tailor Georges de Paris poses in front his small Washington, DC shop on September 30, 2002

French-born tailor Georges de Paris poses in front his small Washington, DC shop on September 30, 2002 (AFP Photo/Shawn Thew)

Washington (AFP) - Georges de Paris, a French tailor who came to America and ended up broke and homeless before resurrecting his career to make suits for presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama, died Sunday. He was 81.

De Paris died in a hospice in Arlington, Virginia near the US capital after a long illness, a friend of his, Dimasito Pereira, told AFP.

Another friend, Alain Trampoglieri, told AFP from France that de Paris had been diagnosed with a brain tumor two years ago.

But de Paris continued working at his Washington shop up until two months ago, said Pereira.

In his heyday, de Paris worked for Ronald Reagan, among others, who shared with de Paris some of his trademark jelly beans, and with Johnson, who introduced the suit maker to his wife and daughters.

Reagan talked a lot and knew good fabric, de Paris once told AFP.

A native of Marseille in southern France, de Paris was a diminutive man with a long, unruly mane of white hair. He had a tailor shop just a few blocks from the White House, and always dressed impeccably.

He learned his trade in France and came to the United States in the late 1950s at the age of 27 with his life savings of $4,000.

In a photograph taken at the White House last year, de Paris is seen with his arm around a smiling Obama and a tape measure draped around his shoulders.

That is just one of many photos of de Paris posing with US presidents that adorn his shop.

- Jilted lover makes good -

When he first arrived in the United States, de Paris lived with an American girlfriend but the relationship quickly fell apart when he declined to marry her.

She threw him out, and refused to give him back the money he had deposited in her bank account, de Paris told AFP in an interview in 2002.

De Paris then spent six months on the down and out, speaking very little English as he panhandled on the streets and slept in a parking lot near the White House.

The seeds of his tailoring business were planted when he was hired as a cutter by a French-Canadian tailor for 70 dollars a week.

De Paris rented a small room and saved his money until he could buy a sewing machine and strike out on his own.

A decisive meeting in a restaurant brought de Paris -- who became a US citizen in 1969 -- closer to the White House.

A conversation with then-representative Otto Passman of Louisiana led the lawmaker to buy suits from de Paris.

The satisfied congressman introduced him to Johnson, then the vice president, who continued to enlist the tailor's services when he became president following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963.

- Clinton a 'cold' customer -

Of all the presidents he spent hours measuring and fitting under the watchful eyes of Secret Service agents, de Paris preferred Reagan and George W. Bush.

They were the "friendliest and also the most elegant," he said.

"Reagan spoke a lot. He, like George W., knew how to appreciate the quality of fabrics," de Paris said. "He gave me jellybeans and was always afraid that I would prick him with my needles during the fitting."

At that time of that interview, in 2002, he was charging $3,000 dollars or more for his suits.

Richard Nixon "was cordial. He always asked for news of my family and whether I liked the United States."

"As for (Jimmy) Carter, he never said anything," while Gerald Ford "teased me about my small size by asking me whether I played on an American football team."

On the other hand, George H.W. Bush "was not the most agreeable. But the least pleasant of all was Bill Clinton," de Paris said.

"Clinton was very demanding, cold and always occupied. ... He was unaware of me completely," de Paris said.

In the end, he did not want people to know he was sick, Trampoglieri, a member of the board of Radio France who was friends with the tailor for 20 years, told AFP.

"During the periods when he could not work, he would go by the shop in the morning and turn on the lights and go back in the evening and turn them off," he said.