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Nick Dimitropoulos was 16 years old and didn’t speak a word of English when he landed at the airport in Halifax in November of 1965.
He’d flown from Athens to London to Halifax, and had two brothers and a sister-in-law living here. He’d sent a telegram to tell them when he’d arrive, but had somehow beaten the telegram, which was why there was nobody to greet him.
“And man, it was cold! It was a nice day but it was freezing,” Dimitropoulos remembered this week. “I left 17 or 18 degrees and I got here and it was minus two or three.”
Maybe because he’d been fortunate enough to fly to Canada when most people had to travel by ship, or maybe because his brother was doing well enough here to pay for his ticket, Dimitropoulos wasn’t scared.
“I was lucky enough that there was a lady there, a Greek lady, and she translated to (immigration officials), because they wouldn’t let me go. She talked to me and I told her I had two brothers and a sister-in law-here, somebody should be here.”
Through someone’s good graces the lad was put up in a hotel, and next morning in the dining room he pointed to a plate of bacon and eggs at the next table to indicate what he wanted to eat.
Once his brother tracked him down, it was time go to work.
The brother had opened a tailor shop on Gottingen Street, in keeping with the family business back home.
“When I was nine years old, after school I would learn the trade,” said Dimitropoulos, whose first words of English were ‘How are you today,’ taught to him by a Mrs. Archibald, a customer who happened to come into the shop on his first day. He enrolled in night school to learn the language, but after two weeks the teacher said he was catching on so quickly there was nothing more she could teach him.
He also caught on quickly at the store in the days when, he says, most people had their clothes made.
“At that time, we just made tailor-made stuff, tailor-made clothing, alterations and stuff like that,” he said. “It would take three or four weeks to make a suit. We made everything 95 per cent by hand. It wasn’t big money. We made a pair of pants for 10 bucks, it would take us three days.”
Fabric was brought in from Montreal, mostly wool because cashmere was too expensive. Men got suits made to go to work, and fancier clothing, even tuxedoes, for parties. That was the bulk of the business, though women made up about 10 per cent of the clientele.
“Even the people who had no money, they used to come in and pay us a little bit at a time.”
The shop did strictly tailoring until 1974, when Dimitropoulos bought the building across the street and expanded into haberdashery to become Vogue Men’s Wear and Tailoring, even selling hats - fedoras and derbies and the like.
“This street, it used to be the best street in the city. Then it went down and now it is up there again.”
At his busiest, Dimitropoulos had seven employees, some of whom were with him for decades, but it’s just him and his wife now.
The racks of shirts are a burst of colour, stuff you don’t see elsewhere — “I like the funky stuff,” he says — and when possible they’re Canadian made.
“I prefer Canadian-made stuff, but now it is very hard to find anything made in Canada, very difficult,” said Dimitropoulos, who, with effort, can still get much of what he needs from Montreal. “All the manufacturers, that’s where they used to be. Not too many left, the last five years 80 per cent of the manufacturers have closed up, a lot of them they opened in China.”
He’s become enthusiastic about shirts from Turkey over the last few years, admiring the workmanship, and also stocks items from Italy and Korea.
Fabric for his still-thriving (until COVID) custom business comes from England. Before the pandemic, he was still averaging one customer a week coming in to get fitted for a custom suit that usually run about $1,200.
“It depends on the material you choose.”
The atmosphere at Vogue is pretty relaxed, except for the time an urgent call came from a movie production company that was filming in the Annapolis Valley. A scene had been added at the last minute and the person on the phone wanted to know how long it would take to make three full-length coats. They needed to be identical because it was likely at least one would be destroyed during filming. And they needed them quick.
“Like in 48 hours, or something like that. I said ‘You have the material?’, she says, 'yeah.' I told her to bring it in. They brought me a picture of what the coat is supposed to look like, and said they needed three coats exactly the same,” Dimitropoulos said. “We finished around 3:30-4:00 in the morning, we finished those coats, and the lady she was waiting here all night to take the coats. As soon as we finish, she had to take them down to the Valley, that’s where they were shooting the movie.”
He can’t remember which actor he made the coats for, but does remember details about the garments.
“They had a nice fur collar.”
Dimitropoulos has customers “from kids to the old people…lots of regulars, customers for 40 years,” including some who first came to the store as children and now bring in their own kids.
He turns 72 on Sunday, and his favourite things to do are still cutting cloth, measuring customers and stitching. There’s no planned retirement date.
“As long as the body stays good. Fingers still working so I can still cut.”