The story of how clothier Jim Mayer returned to his family’s peddling roots begins with a text message. Not because the note was so powerful. But because its author was texting when his vehicle smashed into Mayer, who was riding a bicycle. Mayer slammed into the windshield, bounced across the hood and ended up 72 feet away from the spot of the collision. He suffered massive brain injury and permanently lost the ability to taste and smell.
Or maybe the story starts with Mayer back at Mayer Co. Clothiers a month later, still ailing, his short-term memory gone, determined to cure himself with the family version of retail therapy. Mayer’s father was fond of saying the most beautiful music in the world was their cash register ringing, a sound he could hear in his store and nowhere else. The machine now occupies a place of honor in Mayer’s dining room.
Maybe the story starts in 2011, exactly three years from the date of his accident, when Mayer closed the store on South Sherwood Forest Boulevard. Over 26 years, fashion priorities had changed. The demand for high-end, tailored clothing was shrinking like a cheap shirt. Businesses had even embraced casual Fridays. Mayer’s children had jobs in finance that paid far more. His lease was expiring.
Or maybe the story starts several months after that, with yet another call from a former customer. Mayer’s phone began ringing about a day after he closed, with clients complaining that other clothiers in town couldn’t fit them. This time, the request came from a man who’d undergone a colostomy. He wanted Mayer’s help with the measurements for a new suit, with pants that could accommodate the colostomy bag.
“I said, ‘You need a 42 regular jacket with a 40-inch, long-rise waist taken up to 36 inches in the waist,’” Mayer said. “But none of the stores the man went to could help. They told him he didn’t know what he was talking about.”
Mayer’s client didn’t want to tell a bunch of strangers about the colostomy bag. He asked Mayer what to do.
“I said, ‘Hell, I’ll fit you.’”
Mayer soon found himself making regular trips to his old customers’ offices and homes, accompanied by swatches of material and catalogs of clothing and accessories. Like his ancestors, Jewish merchants who emigrated from Germany in the 1830s, Mayer became a peddler. Instead of lugging a 90-pound pack on a six-day hike through the Louisiana swamps, Mayer barges through Baton Rouge traffic in an SUV. He can see up to three customers a day, easy. Each visit takes about two hours, and Mayer sees a customer three times: once to measure him and help select the clothing, once when the items come back to check whether adjustments are needed, and a final time after the alterations to make sure everything is perfect.
He meets his customers when and where they want: at their homes, offices, sometimes Mayer’s house.
“I come to you. You don’t have to leave your business, and I do it at any time,” Mayer said. “One customer I meet at 5 in the morning. I’ve met people at 10 o’clock at night.”
He has gone from dealing with thousands of customers every year to 150 or so. But Mayer loves it. He loves saying he’s a peddler, loves the history of it and the connection to generations past. He loves the hustle, loves guiding customers to the right material, the proper weight, the best color, the precise cut. He loves knowing where to find those things, loves solving the puzzle, putting together the pieces to create the perfect fit.
He loves fine clothing, and he loves talking. He’s got a story for every occasion; sometimes he’s got two. And he’s got enough energy to tell every one of them. You get the feeling if Entergy could hook Mayer up to River Bend, they’d never have to change the fuel rods. He is never going to retire. He’s having too much fun.
On this day, Mayer is checking the fit on an English-cut sport coat and leather jacket for lobbyist Joe Mapes. When Mapes arrives, in full custom-fitted western regalia, Mayer jokingly asks where he got such a “damn, fine-looking shirt.” Mapes gives it right back, naming a discount chain. Mayer, of course, had the shirt made with cloth confected in Italy.
Mapes is like a lot of clients. He was spending a fortune on tailored clothing that didn’t quite fit. Ninety percent of Mayer’s other clients fall on the heavy side, but Mapes’ has only two weight-related concerns: how much he can lift and finding a jacket that doesn’t bunch up, or “buck,” across the chest when it’s buttoned.
Before he went to Mayer, Mapes kept losing jackets because they pulled apart at the back seam.
Fitting a weightlifter like Mapes is more difficult than a big person or a small, skinny one.
“People think weightlifters, their shoulders are square, but they aren’t like that. They fall off a lot from the traps,” Mayer said.
Mapes’ shoulders slope downward, an inch on one side and ¾ of an inch on the other. Mayer notices this. He notices everything. It’s the reason Mapes’ sport coat is sculpted at the waist, exactly 3 inches narrower than each shoulder. It’s why the left sleeve is ¾ of an inch larger at the wrist so Mapes’ watch doesn’t snag. It’s the reason Mapes’ leather jacket sleeves come a quarter-inch too long — because leather wrinkles, and when it does the extra length will disappear. It’s the reason Mayer paid $125 to have cream hand-rubbed into the leather for 10 days in a row. Now the jacket, to quote Barbra Streisand, feels like “buttah,” Mayer said.
The pay off comes when Mapes slips into the jacket.
“Oh yeah. I don’t know what it looks like, but I know what it feels like,” Mapes said. His voice can barely contain the smile.
The attention to detail required to generate that level of customer satisfaction is both a blessing and a frequent source of aggravation for Mayer, who adheres to certain clothing commandments.
For example: God put a wrinkle between a man’s hand and his wrist. “A coat sleeve should never cross that line.”
And God forgive the tailor whose sleeves trespass on the palm side. Because Mayer won’t.
Not too long ago, Mayer attended the funeral for one of the city’s wealthiest people. Mayer couldn’t stop shaking his head. A friend asked him what was wrong.
“There isn’t a frigging coat here that fits anybody,” Mayer told him.
There are other rules: Socks should coordinate with pants; collars should lie comfortably against the neck; button-downs are only for daytime; casual Friday is the work of Satan.
Mayer is equally adamant when it comes to compromising the integrity of his clothing.
When a customer complained his jacket didn’t have a loop, Mayer wasn’t having any.
“I said, ‘Sir, you wear a 52 long, portly. You weigh 320 pounds. You’re a minister. You’re going to put two or three books in your coat pocket and you’re going to hang it by that ... little loop on a nail, and you expect my coat to hold up?’”
Mayer gave the preacher an extra wide hangar and told him to use it. When the minister groused that he always hung his jackets on a peg, Mayer retorted, “That’s why your coats look like the devil.”
Mayer said people don’t realize how much their clothes say about them. He doesn’t understand why politicians distract from their message with ill-fitting jackets or in shirts with collars two sizes too big.
“Clothing speaks. It really does,” Mayer said. “It has a tongue of its own.”
Every aspect, from the sleeve length to the cut to the lining, is important. Mayer’s job, he said, is to make sure the message gets delivered clearly.
For Mapes, that means clothes that tell clients he’s professional, he’s effective and he’s trustworthy. “When I walk into a room, and I look like I know what I’m doing, I’ve set a tone, haven’t I?” Mapes said.
Mayer puts it differently: You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
But sometimes you get a second shot at the same profession.
Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr