Chaos rules the Sammy Lee Tailor Shop, a floor above Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast.
Suits, some with chalk marks and raw-edged hems, hang from hooks and the tops of doors. A snowdrift of receipts sits on a table. The walls are covered with business cards tacked up with pushpins and notes and photos of clients.
But these are no ordinary clients. Their names read like a who’s who of Washington power brokers: The scrawls of former Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) are next to an old photo of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and a note from Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). There is a candid photo of Muhammad Ali and an official portrait of President George H.W. Bush.
And from this unlikely mess emerge beautifully cut suits and bridal gowns ready for walks down the fanciest of aisles.
It is evidence of the 24 years in which Sammy Lee, the shop’s eponymous proprietor, has taken in the seams and adjusted the fits of the garments of lawmakers, staffers and Capitol Hill neighbors. Lee has become a fixture here, outlasting majority-shifting on the Hill and lapel-width trends alike.
A native of Seoul, South Korea, Lee specializes in complicated alterations, overhauls of suits to make them fit properly. These aren’t just the quick hem jobs one might trust to the corner dry cleaner.
“Most of my work is major work, not simple work,” he says. “I recut, remake.”
And although Lee slices into expensive tweeds and pinstripes with precision, he doesn’t cut corners. “Some tailors, they try to do a slim style, they take in just the back,” he says, pulling out the rear of his own navy blue sport coat to demonstrate. “But you have to make it even. I take in a little on the front and the back. More even. Nicer.”
Such touches aren’t cheap. A major suit makeover can run $200 or more. Prices for the labor on custom-made suits, for which Lee draws the patterns himself, are even higher.
Lee is 69, but the tools of his trade remain sharp. He doesn’t wear glasses except to drive at night, he says, and when he shakes hands, his hands are surprisingly soft.
And as in the proverbial case of the shoemaker’s children going barefoot, Lee’s own clothes are hardly an advertisement for the fine work for which he’s celebrated. His own pants are too baggy for his slight frame and are held up by a thin leather belt.
He trained as a tailor in postwar South Korea, knowing, he says, that with only a high-school education, he needed to learn a trade to support his family. He came to the U.S. in 1984 seeking a better life for himself, his wife and his three children. He first settled in Washington state and briefly lived in New York City (“too busy,” he says) before finally coming to Washington, D.C., in 1986. “In my mind, Washington was the capital, so it was where I wanted to be,” he says.
Little appears to have changed in the 24 years since he bought the business from its previous owner.
A battered sofa is wedged in the office, surrounded by yellowing magazines and a broken, retro credit card machine that might belong in a museum. In the workroom, where Lee and his single employee snip and stitch, an entire wall is covered with handwritten scribbles.
There are phone numbers, names of clients and what look like measurements. Spools of thread in rainbow colors top shelves and the tabletop of an industrial sewing machine.
“I should clean, but I am so busy,” Lee says, assessing the scene with embarrassment. “Every time I try, someone comes with four suit and says, ‘I need these next week.’”
Most of his business comes through word of mouth, he says.
Lee plans to retire, maybe in five years. But not yet. “I’m still OK!” he says, pumping both fists in the air.