The Dying Art of Seamstresses: Inside the Fading Discipline of Alterations
There's a mild lull at the intersection of 17th and Broadway in Manhattan. Beyond the inconspicuous building on the northwest corner of Union Square, the streets will soon fill with activity at the end of another week in September 2022. Parsons and New York University students amble through the park in loose-fitting cargo pants and fitted tops, a post-pandemic attire trend harkening back to '90s grunge. It's the busiest year of weddings ever and I'm about to interrupt someone who's experiencing the boom in full.
On the sunny fifth floor of the building, I'm greeted by a woman in thick-rimmed glasses: Alzira Michelon, owner of Alzira Hermes Studio, the go-to alterations business for Oscar de la Rentals and VIPs. Like the gowns she alters, the walls are brushed in an eggshell white, and there's plush seating in the main room. She hands me a glass of water and explains her efforts to counter what brides typically carry into the space: the chaos of the city and the stress that comes with planning a wedding. In here, visitors find themselves at ease.
"I always want to give the feeling of a good environment," says Michelon. "They can hear the stress of clients," she motions to her staffers in the sewing room. "I try to make a very good environment for everyone walking in, to help them relax."
Michelon and her husband, Reginaldo, first locked eyes in a bar in Brazil and married after a whirlwind courtship. The couple emigrated to the United States in the 1990s, driven by the promise of a green card and a brighter future for their daughter. Their path began at Vera Wang, where Alzira eventually grew into the role of alterations manager. Over the next 10 years, the couple (Reginaldo runs the operations arm of their company) sharpened their business acumen while making new client connections. Today, they independently run their own alterations studio, and they're a guarded secret among fashion, retail and bridal-industry movers and shakers.
The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, DC, has found that Brazilians who migrated to the US in the 1980s and '90s believed they could make four times what they could've earned in their native country. Today, Brazilians make up one percent of the immigrants in the US and often bring a valuable skill: alterations and stitching. But trade success stories like the Michelons seem to be growing increasingly rare. The alterations business, specifically, faces a looming crisis: The demand remains high, yet it's a dying art.
It's during an industry event that bridal boutique owner Beth Chapman raises her concern. "This story needs to be told," she says in a clipped tone. "Soon, we won't have seamstresses to fulfill our orders and both couples and bridal salons are feeling it." What makes Chapman an authority on the matter? She's the founder of The White Dress Society, an industry collective of bridal salon owners, who are on the front lines of the alterations crunch.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 13 percent of garment workers currently hold roles in sewing and tailoring. This percentage has been declining for 20 years, while the demand for alterations remains steady.
"It's a lost art," Chapman laments. "Unfortunately, sewing and alterations work is no longer taught and pursued in this country. I fear that within five years, we're going to be in a crisis and there might not be enough seamstresses to alter the wedding gowns sold."
At first, the issue seems straightforward: There are over 45,000 seamstresses working in the US. In 2022, 2.6 million couples got married. A limited or dwindling supply (not restricted to bridal clients), paired with the wedding boom, has resulted in supply-and-demand challenges for both wedding professionals and couples. Or was that it? The more I look into it, the more complex the problem appeared. Isolated from demand, the number of seamstresses has fallen for a variety of reasons, causing the perfect storm.
The Trump Administration's immigration policy influenced the availability of labor across many industries, and the results are playing out years later. The steady influx of seamstresses from China, Brazil and other countries provided a reliable supply for decades. The decision to tighten borders stunted the availability of green cards and working visas across industries.
According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 1.1 million migrants entered the US annually during the early 1990s, including the Michelons. Access to a hopeful immigration narrative has shifted over the last several years. "People who don't have the papers cannot work. Or they've stopped coming [to the US] now," says Alzira. "We all know immigration is political...If they don't have a visa, they're illegal."
"I would say that none of the seamstresses I've ever worked with are American born and raised. My family is Iranian," says Giselle Ghofrani of Belle Atelier in Chicago. Her interest in fashion started young at her mother's alterations business. "When my mom was growing up, if you didn't know how to sew, there was something wrong with you. All women knew how to sew."
Like Michelon, Ghofrani's story starts with immigration. Her mother, Soheila, was an engineering student in the 1970s when her family's assets were frozen during the Iranian revolution. Though she came to the US to study, the stitching skills she had learned in Iran helped her earn money. Even in the '70s, the trade was so valuable that one opportunity led to the next, and Soheila eventually started her own business. Over 40 years later, she is now known as "the Dress Doctor." Soheila has passed her knowledge to her daughter, who initially pursued another route in fashion. Ultimately, Ghofrani returned home to expand the family business.
Some argue that the point of restricting immigration was to give jobs to Americans. But there lies the issue. The lack of skilled American labor, coupled with reduced inbound talent, is creating a void. Some immigrants were trained in stitching from a young age, and it is rarely taught in US schools. Finding skilled labor is significantly more challenging without immigrants. Then there's also the issue of sourcing new and young talent.
Chloe Skalli, program director and pattern design instructor at the New York School of Design, argues that the latter is causing even more strain. "As the number of seamstresses in the industry dwindles, the impact is twofold. First, the cost of alterations is driven up due to a scarcity of skilled workers. Second, the turnaround time for alterations is getting longer as the seamstresses become overwhelmed by the demand," she says.
Alterations is a tough career that requires physical labor and the mental force of paying close attention to every stitch and every loop. "It's a scary job. We work together to make it easier, but it's not an easy job," says Michelon. "I wish I could find more people to train."
Every seamstress I spoke to shared the same message. Despite steady demand, alterations work is a hard career. "It's such a specialized skill, because you're not making something from scratch and you can't recreate it if you've made a mistake," says Michelon. The work requires precision and experience. "That's really scary, especially for someone like me to [test run] someone without much experience...As a business owner, you must have patience and trust."
Scaled correctly, the business can be lucrative, says Melissa Oddo, owner of deMelis Atelier in Higganum, Connecticut. As the founder of Stitched Collective, a community for people in the bridal sewing industry, Oddo's mission is to help independent businesses grow through education and networking opportunities. "It is a different animal, altering," she muses. A designer friend of hers even says she'd rather avoid altering anything, preferring to make gowns from scratch.
"Awareness is the first step. We need to acknowledge and address the problem as an industry," Chapman says. "The next step is education. It is important that we teach future generations about this craft and show that it is a lucrative and creative field."
Let's say you've mastered the art of stitching. You still have to learn about operations and scaling a business. It's necessary to manage client expectations and explain the painstaking level of work required. "The hardest part about the job is not just sewing, but it's also the communication that you have with your client," adds Ghofrani. "That can be very difficult."
For decades, retailers provided lucrative compensation packages to seamstresses, sometimes luring them in with twice the pay of mom-and-pop shops. But today, pay is not the only issue. Many seamstresses have retired or will soon. Their average age is 50, according to the jobs site Zippia.
Young people have long been drawn to the fashion industry. In the 1990s, the booming field attracted college graduates seeking careers and titles with cachet. (Call it the Carrie Bradshaw or Kate Moss effect.) They got jobs as account executives, designers, merchandisers, creative directors and buyers. Thirty years later, a new wave is coming, this time led by Generation Z.
"Bring it to the kids," enthuses Oddo. "We really want to start getting to a point where more and more people learn at a young age. Take a little sewing class. Ignite that spark."
Stitching pairs affordability with sustainability, both of which young people value. "When you have the skill to mend clothing or to alter something, you start to care more about quality, and that's how we beat fast fashion and take it beyond the bridal industry," says Oddo. "That's something that I'm always trying to be cognizant of. What do we do next for circular fashion?"
Independent education across social platforms, or content creation, is an industry expected to reach $38.2 billion by 2030. "I see the pandemic as a real game-changer for Gen Z and its interest in sewing. While other generations largely reverted to increased 'mindless' screen time to distract from the stress, the opposite effect was seen with Gen Z," Skalli says. "They took to YouTube and other learning platforms to create, not simply kill time. This is evidenced by the boom of 'SewTok,' or dedicated channels on TikTok for sewing and tailoring. The desire to create has not been lost on Gen Z, but the way they are learning is different."
"We are seeing some up-and-coming seamstresses on TikTok and Instagram, and that is encouraging," adds Chapman. "However, there are just not enough of them to meet the demand. More seamstresses are retiring and leaving the industry than are joining it.
As long as the diversity in body shapes, sizes and forms exist, we will always need seamstresses. Consumers will always seek fitted clothing across different sizes. Wedding attire specifically is usually made to order, intended to make its wearer feel like the most exquisite being in the room. One dress no longer cuts it. When I stepped into Michelon's studio, the entire team was focused on altering three gowns for a wedding the next day. Whether to-be-weds are wearing one or five dresses, the business of alterations will always require skilled labor.
If anything, Oddo has a simple plea for those exploring career options or new opportunities. "Pick up a trade. I don't care if it's sewing or not, just pick up a trade," she says. "As a country, the US is down on the trades. We have to appreciate people who work with their hands and everything they do for us. I think it's going to be uplifting to see where the next generation takes it."
Alterations is an art, after all, and like anything of value, it must be preserved.
Beth Chapman is the founder of The White Dress Society, a collective of bridal salons. She also runs Beth Chapman Styling, as well as a brick-and-mortar bridal boutique in Clinton, Connecticut, The White Dress by the Shore. Beth is an industry educator and leading expert.
Giselle Ghofrani is the daughter of immigrants and is proudly carrying the torch for her parents. A former design student in New York City, Ghofrani moved back to Chicago to open up Belle Atelier, a new business within her mother's alterations shop, The Dress Doctor.
Melissa Lynn Oddo studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City from 2003-2007 and earned her AAS with a specialization in tailoring. Today, she is the owner of DeMelis Atelier, the founder of Stitched Collective and arguably the lead educator of seamstresses across the bridal industry.
Alzira Michelon is the co-owner of Alzira Hermes Studio in New York City. With more than three decades of experience in alterations, Alzira and her husband, Reginaldo Michelon, are the force behind fitted gowns—both bridal and eveningwear—for VIPs and the preferred tailors for Oscar de la Renta.
Chloe Skalli is the program director and pattern design instructor at the New York School of Design in New York City.