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After 30 years, custom suit maker Victor Pascal to retire in May

"I never wanted to be a master tailor," said Victor Pascal, dressed impeccably in one of his own creations: a light blue striped dress shirt and steel blue pinstripe suit. "But God decides what he wants us to do."

Pascal's custom suit showroom was quiet that morning as the longtime tailor reminisced, looking through drawers containing Polaroid photographs of his fashion shows and clippings of articles written about him over the years. He occasionally spun around the temples of his glasses in his fingers.

In the long, rectangular room at 22 Light St., a deconstructed suit on a dress form revealed the craftmanship that has made him a mainstay since 1988; with fine-pick stitching and intricate button holes, the partially completed suit was fully canvassed — stitched, not glued — the mark of a luxury garment.

But this May, the Parisian transplant plans to vacate his downtown showroom and semi-retire. He'll continue to make suits — from his home — for select clients while he pursues other passions.

"People say that they are going to miss me. But you can't last forever. It's time to pass the baton," Pascal said in his unmistakable French accent.

For the past 30 years, Pascal 67, has been a go-to for Baltimore businessmen looking to make the right impression at work. His dedicated clients rave that his made-to-order creations are a cut above, with top-quality materials and superior fit.

It hasn't always been like this.

"I became a master tailor out of a need and survival," Pascal said.

Pascal, a Mount Washington resident, struggled when he first moved to Baltimore to live with his wife, Ann, whom he met in Paris while she was backpacking through Europe during a post-college graduation trip in the early 1970s.

"I came here with zero money," he said. "But she believed in me."

The two moved into her parent's basement.

"He arrived with a cardboard suitcase tied with string," said Ann Pascal, who is vice president of the tailoring company. "Can you imagine how happy my parents were?"

Despite having unparalleled skills — he began his career at the age of 14 in Paris when he apprenticed under his father and later went on to formally study at design school — he initially struggled to break into the fashion industry in Baltimore.

"A buyer told me 'you can't compete with the big guys,'" he recalled. That same buyer referred him to the chairman of London Fog, who immediately hired Pascal and sent him to Boston, where he learned American measurements and body types, which were larger than standard European sizing.

Pascal quickly ascended the fashion ranks, doing work for Ralph Lauren and Christian Dior. His work had him traveling the world until he settled back in Baltimore and started a family.

It was also during this time that many of the brands Pascal worked for started making their clothes oversees with cheaper labor. It forced Pascal to open up his own "miniature clothing company" in Mount Washington in the space that now houses C.H. O'Malley's Antiques.

Pascal was extremely visible at this time, throwing lavish fashion shows once a month. He distinguished himself by making leather garments — something that few designers in Baltimore were doing at the time.

But the business model left him in a financial struggle.

"I had two kids going to private school. At the end I couldn't make it," he said.

Pascal switched to custom work. It was far less glamorous than the monthly fashion shows, but it allowed him to maintain the same detailed design work that had become his hallmark while turning a profit.

He also was encouraged by his wife to drop ready-to-wear women's options and focus his attention on custom men's suits, which would require less design work each season and would yield higher profit margins. Pascal's suits start at $1,600.

"I got rid of my ego," he said.

Pascal decided to move downtown in 1988. There, he approached tailor Jerry Feld. The two had known each other for years,and Feld, who was suffering from liver cancer, was looking to pass the torch to new ownership.

"[Feld] actually had a buyer," Ann Pascal said. "But this guy was not going to keep the same approach."

Victor Pascal didn't have the money necessary to purchase the business,but Feld believed in his vision and sold it to him at far below the asking price.

"He gave me a chance," Pascal said, adding that Feld died the day after signing the business over to him. "I hope to be able to do the same for someone else."

In the downtown location, which was in the heart of Baltimore's business district, word quickly spread among businessmen about Pascal's custom suits. Perfectly situated in an area with plenty of foot traffic from professionals, Pascal hit his stride.

Tucked between a 7-Eleven and the Bun Shop, Pascal's showroom still draws a cadre of loyal clients.

David Faulkner amassed 15 of Pascale's suits after learning of his reputation among other businessmen and passing by the showroom while working downtown at T. Rowe Price. Now retired, he said impressions were important in the finance industry.

"People size you up in the first 60 seconds," he said. "It can only hurt when you are not dressed as well as you can be."

That's why Faulkner has recommended Pascal to his two sons, Preston, an analyst at T. Rowe Price, and David, a student at Columbia University's Business School.

"Victor is a perfectionist more than I am, and I appreciate that," said the Severna Park resident. "He always makes sure things are perfect. He obviously knows the industry, and he knows fabrics. ... He's the only tailor I know that does that much detailed work. ... His work makes Nordstrom look like J.C. Penney and Sears."

Mario Dispenza, a now-retired attorney, CPA and special agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, discovered Pascal's showroom when he moved to Baltimore in 2002 from Northern Virginia.

"I'm 5 foot 3 when the sun is in the right position with a stocky build," he said with a chuckle. "Going to Victor, he was able to do for me what I couldn't do off the rack."

And when Dispenza lost 60 pounds, Pascal was able to create new suits for him with ease.

"For someone like me who was hard to fit, it was a real find," said Dispenza, who estimates that he purchased 10 suits from Pascal. "They last."

When custom suit maker Stephen Wise heard the news of Pascal's looming retirement he decided to visit the longtime tailor's downtown showroom to pay his respects.

"He's a legend. I always admired the standard that he set. He's the Savile Row of Baltimore," said Wise, refering to the world-famous fashion district in London. "He's in a class of his own."

What he didn't expect was to strike up an instant friendship with Pascal.

"We were like long-lost kin," said Wise, who has his own showroom near Lexington Market.

Over the past two weeks, Pascal has sold Wise various tailoring tools — everything from a sleeve board to tailor rulers.

"He's been teaching me things as well — that I couldn't pay for. I enjoy that more than anything," Wise said.

In addition to passing on his knowledge, Pascal hopes to transfer his business to another tailor before he retires. He's still searching for a successor.

"I want to pass it on to someone with my same passion and approach," he said. (Wise and Pascal have not discussed that prospect, according to Ann Pascal.)

In the meantime, Pascal is looking forward to his life after operating his showroom. He has a laundry list of things he wants to accomplish.

A dress form in his back workroom reveals one of them. On it is a trick suit jacket he designed with secret compartments that allow him to create illusions such as disappearing coins and floating balls — he's an award-winning magician. He plans to devote more time to the craft.

Also on the to-do list: learning Spanish and catering to his wife of 44 years.

"One thing you can't buy in life is time," he said. "We want to enjoy life."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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