Georges de Paris: Tailor who travelled to the US and reinvented himself, going on to work for presidents from Johnson onwards


Click to follow

The Washington tailor Georges de Paris, who would become outfitter to the city’s power brokers and political elite, liked to talk of a romance that brought him from Paris to Washington but left him disillusioned, broke and living in a park. He said his fortunes changed when a woman who worked at a men’s clothing store found him work as a tailor’s cutter. He saved his earnings to purchase a sewing machine and, eventually, open his own work space.

“Petit à petit, how we say in France. Slowly, slowly I built it up, my business,” he said in 2010. But de Paris, as he fashioned himself, was neither born Georges nor was he from Paris. He was Georgios Christopoulos of Kalamata, Greece, and he went to the US in around 1960 after a stint in the Greek navy and tailoring apprenticeships in Germany and France.

There was a relationship with a woman, but it turned sour and he was briefly homeless. At some point he picked up the surname de Paris, a peculiar French accent and invented an early biography. Over the years, he had provided tailoring services to every US president since Lyndon Johnson. He displayed mementos and signed thank-you notes from the past commanders-in-chief at his two-room shop three blocks from the White House.

He said the suit that Ronald Reagan wore on the day of an attempted assassination in 1981 was a de Paris design, as was the black suit that George W Bush wore when he addressed the nation following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Most recently, he said he fitted Barack Obama for the black tuxedo he wore for his 2011 State of the Union address and his much-discussed tan summer suit from 2014.

Given some of his personal embellishments, de Paris’s professional claims might seem dubious. Just how extensively he worked for various presidents is unclear. However, former president Gerald Ford told the New Yorker in 2004 for a profile of de Paris: “When I was in the Congress, we were not as pernickety about our appearance, but when I became vice president and president it was almost mandatory that I spruce myself up... Georges was just the person to make me look presidential. My wife was always nagging me – ‘Jerry, you’ve got to improve your appearance’ – so Betty was very happy that I began using him as my tailor.”

Freddy Ford, a spokesman for former president George W Bush, said, “I know President Bush was glad to know de Paris and proudly wore his suits.”

Tailors are expected to be discreet, and for the most part, de Paris was. But later in his career he was more forthcoming about which presidents he preferred as clients. In 2002 he said Johnson was “nice,” Richard Nixon “cordial” and Jimmy Carter largely silent, while Ford “teased me about my small size by asking me whether I played on an American football team.”

Reagan offered him jelly beans and appreciated quality fabrics, he said. He found George HW Bush “not the most agreeable,” while George W always put him at ease. He found Bill Clinton “least pleasant... very demanding, cold and always occupied.”

Although most of his clientele were lobbyists, de Paris also did work for Cabinet members and other government personnel. He customised his handiwork as needed: a hidden zipper for a diamond dealer or an inside pocket large enough to conceal a gun for Secret Service agents.

He claimed to have been born to a well-to-do Marseille family and said he worked as a messenger for the French Resistance. He said his father, a judge, was assassinated in front of him by a man enraged by the sentence he had given a relative. He moved to the US for work opportunities, he said, and because of a budding romance he had conducted by letter with a tailor in Washington: he told the New Yorker that the photograph she had sent him bore an enticing resemblance to Brigitte Bardot.

They were soon engaged and he offered her his life savings, about $4,000, for safekeeping, he said. But upon arrival, she was no Bardot. In fact, he could not stand the sight of her. He said that when he refused to marry her she threw him out on the street and kept his money, leaving him homeless and penniless.

According to relatives, however, Georgios Christopoulos was the son of an impoverished farmer in Kalamata who began studying tailoring when he was 12 and served a year in the Greek navy before continuing his apprenticeships in Europe. Les Thompson, a friend, said de Paris did meet an American woman, but in person in France, not via letters, and moved with her to Washington. When the relationship ended he found himself on the street. Whatever the details, de Paris created a new life for himself, becoming an American citizen in 1972.

“People say, ‘You are a personality, famous.’ No. I am a very simple tailor,” he said in 2010. “I make my living, I pay my bills. I get more popular, my life no change. I’m very simple guy. I live alone. If I go out and people recognise me, do I say, ‘Oh, I’m George de Paris. Move away’? Hell, no. Hell, no. Not me. If you sleep in the street, you don’t thank yourself. You thank the Lord, and you thank other people. And I do.” µ MEGAN McDONOUGH  

Georgios Christopoulos (Georges de Paris), tailor: born Kalamata, Greece 24 or 28 September 1934; died Arlington, Virginia 13 September 2015.

© The Washington Post