Suiting up

To talk to Mark Corallo about custom-made suits is to be drawn into the most persuasive of sales calls.

As a child growing up in a blue-collar New York family, he always aspired to emulate the wealthy.  

“I grew up in a little town in Mt. Vernon, New York,” says Corallo, a GOP crisis communications specialist, as he describes the suit he is wearing as a “very British” tweed. “Every day, I would see the bankers and the Wall Street guys and the lawyers headed down to Manhattan on the trains, immaculately dressed. They always looked like a million bucks.

“I always said that when I could scrape together the pennies, I would buy custom-made suits,” he adds.

Corallo, 42, is hardly alone when it comes to the battalion of Washington men who unabashedly prefer custom-made suits. Many consider their image an important component of their professional aspirations, believing that a crisp appearance helps them gain respect in the halls of Congress and in government. Many of them wouldn’t be caught dead in an off-the-rack number. A custom suit, they say, can be that je ne sais quoi in a first impression. It can also fulfill simpler needs: a better fit than an off-the-rack suit or the perfect way to avoid a crowded mall.

But the true pay-off for the men who wear custom-made suits is in the confidence they gain and the detail they can appreciate, even if no one else does.

“When you have a good looking suit, people respect you more and are initially more receptive to you,” says a 25-year-old White House aide. At least six of his approximately 15 suits are custom-made, and he prefers pinstriped black suits with a tight fit in the coat, three buttons and a theater pocket. “You want to look your best, especially when you are … competing against people who are older or seasoned, people who have different credentials.”

Yet there is a certain amount of contradiction in Washington’s suit culture as well. Many men worry about telling other people about their custom-made suits, lest they come across as vain or extravagant — even though some spend as little as $350 for their handmade suits.

On a strictly visual level, many men say they like the way a tailored suit helps them stand out, but they stick to safe colors and patterns: slate grays, navy blues or a modest pinstripe. They toe the line drawn between gaining an edge in the office and making a statement too bold for the city’s conservative fashion taste.

For David Israelite, president and CEO of the National Music Publishers Association, custom-made suits are more about quality and convenience than anything else. Between trips to Los Angeles to attend events like the Grammy Awards and frequent visits to the Hill to monitor music-industry concerns, he doesn’t have much time to shop.  

He is also beyond the point in life where he needs to concern himself with cost.

“For me, it’s really about the quality of the product,” explains Israelite, a 39-year-old former aide to Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.). “I like clothes, but I’d never say I was a clothes horse.”

Israelite and Corallo are among the 400-plus Washington clients of an Atlanta-based tailor who, like Madonna or Oprah, goes by just one name, Jiwani. The Hill spoke with the 58-year-old Bangladeshi-born tailor as he made a recent trip to D.C., wearing a dark blue suit paired with a light blue shirt and red tie flecked in blue. He insists his relationships with clients take on a very private air, something like attorney-client privilege.

“I guess it’s the position in the company, the position in politics” that cause his D.C. clients to request such privacy, says Jiwani, who boasts that his clientele includes H.R. Crawford, a former D.C. City Council member and former assistant secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as a prominent judge whom he won’t identify. “They like to be low-key, understated,” he says.

Jiwani charges between $900 and $4,000 per suit, but he says Washington is not his most lucrative market, despite its size. Those would be New York, Chicago and San Francisco, which he says are more status-oriented.

Nevertheless, he notes, his customers pursue custom-made for another, simpler reason.

“We’re all vain in some form or another,” Jiwani says. “We want to look good. It’s just that some [men] don’t know how to put things together to look good. It could be right in front of their eyes, but they don’t know how to [dress].”

Men in D.C. are not immune, however, to the desire to look sleek.

George de Paris, the well-known tailor to several presidents, says he still works until 11 p.m. six days a week despite his age of 73. His downtown shop, stacked with dozens of bolts of fabric in the traditional grays and blues — mixed with the occasional tangerine or yellow-and-brown houndstooth fabric — stitches suits that range between $4,500 and $15,000. His customers include Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, former Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani and former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Wearing a tailor-made suit is nearly a foregone conclusion for men who work in the Oval Office. President Bush is a client of de Paris, and former President Bill Clinton has been known to use Brooklyn, N.Y.-based tailor Martin Greenfield.

There is no shortage of suit makers in the area who say they build wardrobes for lobbyists and Hill aides. Stephen Watson, a Foggy Bottom tailor who once abandoned making suits in favor of altering pre-made ones, has returned to making custom suits this spring because he senses a renewed demand.

Eza Sabatini, whose name surfaced in the media when his client Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty in a lobbying scandal, is the one tailor among many who feels pessimistic about the state of the industry.

“There used to be a time when, if you didn’t dress with a suit and tie [for dinner], moms would kick us [away from] the table,” says Sabatini, who is based in Reston, Va. He says customers now try to get more for their money, requesting suits in a year-round fabric rather than buying different suits for every season. His tailor-made suits start at $3,600.

Members of Congress tend to be the quietest about their custom-made suits. Several members did not respond to requests asking whether they wear custom-made suits or claimed not to wear them. Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who dresses his office in Ralph Lauren, said through a spokeswoman that he owns just one custom-made suit, while a 2007 news account described Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) as regular customers of a local tailor named Joe Sauro.

Staffers who wear custom-made suits are more candid. They say wearing tailor-made suits is an important aspect of the image they present to the many powerful people with whom they work. Staffers who aren’t as put together stand out, they say.

One senior Democratic House aide says he didn’t realize why lobbyists always looked so good until he bought his first custom-made suit.

“After wearing a custom-made suit, you feel sloppy wearing an off-the-rack one,” the 28-year-old says, adding that he’s paid between $350 and $450 for his four custom-made suits. “Some of the senior staff who don’t [wear custom-made suits], it’s just so obvious. They look so much sloppier. You would think they’d have their stuff together. But it’s just not in the personality of some people to worry about that. And you can tell the senior staff that do [wear custom-made suits].”

Mustafa Ali, an aide to Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), has been wearing custom-made suits for at least a dozen years. The 34-year-old former runway model, walking through the Rayburn building in a dark khaki suit with a tan-and-blue striped shirt, say he has a true love for custom-made suits but adds that it would be a bit “ostentatious” to spend more than $600 on a suit.

Ali routinely dresses in Hugo Boss, Saxon Reid, Jones New York and occasionally DKNY. At one point he even wore a 1970s-style white linen suit.

“The man makes the suit. The suit doesn’t make the man,” he explains. “So I think the suit is just an addition to who you are. But I don’t think the suit is necessarily what makes you.”

As Corallo’s professional stock has risen, his custom-made suit collection has expanded. He went from being former Rep. Bob Livingston’s (R-La.) spokesman to the House Government Reform Committee’s communications director.

He then took a post as public affairs director at the Department of Justice, which he left in 2005 to start his own practice, now called Corallo Comstock Inc. In 2004, he began wearing only custom-made suits and has between 10 and 12 suits in his closet at any given time.

“It was a mark of success for me,” says Corallo, who recently appeared on the TV program “20/20” to speak about opposition research. “It was, ‘Hey, you finally achieved something that you always wanted to achieve, even as a kid.’ When you grow up without much, you look at that, and you think, ‘Hey, that’s the way to go. That’s the way to get ahead in America.’ ”