Family sustains and friends entertain, but success today mandates a posse of professionals to build a better you. Doctor, hairdresser, accountant. Their numbers sit on speed dial, ready to engage an emergency. Nestled amongst this elite crew of critical care: tailor. A good maven of material can rescue the lost swimming in a suit, or revive a dress with a hemline that’s DOA. While some will never divulge the identity of their inner circle of support, word is out about the top tailor in town. Truth be told, there are two: Lila and Eric Brockman. A mother and son duo, working at the foot of Augusta Street, in a non-descript building thousands pass every day.
STITCHES IN TIME
Coltrane fills the air as an iron gurgles and wheezes, erasing wrinkles from silk. “A person coming through that door at 9, 9:30, that makes my day ’cause it gets me started,” says Eric Brockman. He’s massaging the sleeve of a houndstooth jacket at The Tailor Shop, a funky, 108-square-foot space covered in clothing labels. “A typical day here, you just never know. Dog-bitten shoes, purses, split pants. It’s exciting to know something different is coming.”
As much as the daily tasks and yearly styles change, the craftsmanship remains the same. Even as ownership shifts from mother to son, the work is impeccable, delivering a fine fit, through meticulous attention to detail.
“I have a passion for making things right,” the tall, bespectacled 46-year- old explains. “If I put a hem in a pair of pants and it doesn’t look good, I’ll spend time to get them right. It’s just one of those things you have to put your all into.” The lefty deftly grabs a button, threads a needle, and creates stitches so small, they’re almost invisible to the eye. It’s hard to believe these nimble hands worked heavy demolition equipment 12 short years ago.
“I didn’t even know he was interested in this,” shares his mother, Lila H. Brockman. “One day he says, ‘Momma, I think I want to do this.’ And I said, ‘Well, you have a lot to learn.’” Eric chuckles adding, “Yeah, as far as her teaching me how to do this trade, it was more or less you’ve got to learn on your own. She would answer my questions, but it was a hands-on process, and she was my training wheels. I looked over her shoulder a lot.” Just as Lila looked over her grandmother’s shoulder so many decades earlier.
Lila grew up in a multi-generational home with her father’s family near Piedmont. “My grandmother’s hobby was quilting and making dresses,” she recalls. “I’d watch her and got intrigued.” She stitched a bit here, a bit there, but the pieces of the pattern fell in place while taking home economics at Bryson High School. Her assignment? Turn a cousin’s band uniform into a dress suit. “He was very tall,” the talkative seamstress explains with a hearty laugh. “He ended up playing for the Harlem Globetrotters, so I had a lot of fabric to work with. That got me into men’s clothing, and then I went to tailoring school.”
In her early 20s, Lila returned to Greenville armed with a combined degree from Voorhees College and Denmark Tech. She started collecting clients everywhere she worked. “My background is with retail,” she reveals. “I was with Ivey’s that got bought out by Dillard’s, and then Rich’s, which is now Macy’s.” From Main Street to the mall, Lila outfitted men and women across the county, assisting them to look their best with nips, tucks, and darts. She eventually opened her own shop, where she earned the hearts of hundreds of Donaldson Center Desert Storm reservists one well-placed patch at a time. “Oh, honey, tailors have been around since Jesus’s day,” she proclaims. “Ever since Adam and Eve and the apple, mankind’s been making some kind of clothing to wear. I’ve always enjoyed what I was doing. Seeing people happy and getting ready for this event and that, weddings, proms, trips, whatever it may be.”
Clients were traveling from as far away as Asheville and Greenwood for her wizardly way with needle and thread. “I was just enjoying what I was doing and it kind of evolved,” she says of her growing business. She didn’t realize the boom yet to come, when her only child gave up Caterpillars for Singers, bulldozers for sewing machines. “I didn’t realize I was getting old, until after I got old!” she reveals. “It’s good to pass off the shop to Eric. I still go in every once in a while. I tell him the customer is always right, and if you try to please them, everything else will fall into place.”
EYE OF THE NEEDLE
Brass bells tinkle, signaling another customer coming through the door, stepping into the shop’s small space. (Its lawful occupancy is three.) Dozens of clothing tags hanging from the ceiling sway with the rush of air. “Well, hello!” Eric greets a long-time patron who needs a poplin pink skirt hemmed for a special reunion. “Everything I’ve gone through in my life is instrumental to what I do here,” he explains. “Like in construction, one cat taught me to feel your body move when you’re on the rig, so you know where to cut the dirt. Here, you’ve got to know how the sewing machine sounds. If it doesn’t sound right, it’s got too much tension on the thread. You’ve got to feel it. That’s a lot of material going over that machine right there.”
He’s switched Sirius stations from jazz to Yacht Rock. If reggae’s playing, you know he’s slammed. The man who once tore things down is building a major client-list, while implementing skills he picked up studying business management at South Carolina State University. The biggest game-changer: the Internet. The Tailor Shop is rated #1 for the area on Yelp.com.
Eric’s humbled. “I don’t read all those reviews. No need for that.” He focuses on the task at hand. A woman from Salem has brought in a long fur coat she’d like shortened to the waist. “You’ve got to be committed to what you do. You’ve got to please people,” he states. “It doesn’t matter if it’s in your D.N.A. Anyone who commits to tailoring, you really need to want to do it, because you can easily get overwhelmed. My biggest fun is seeing a person smile. When they walk out of that dressing room, that’s just it. It doesn’t matter, as long as the person is happy. That’s what I like.” But Lila’s the one smiling now, knowing the shop rests in good hands.
The Tailor Shop, 3209 Augusta St, Greenville. (864) 277-9550
Mon–Fri, 9 a.m.–5:30 p.m.