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Christy Rilling in her New York studio. Photo: Alex Ulreich
Christy Rilling in her New York studio. Photo: Alex Ulreich

Good Tailoring Is Invisible, But a Great Tailor Stands Out

Christy Rilling fits celebrities for Vogue covers. (And the Met Gala.) (And the Oscars.)

Maybe this is a symptom of coming of age in a fast fashion time, but it’s easy to forget that clothes are living things. Not sentient, like a pair of pants with a ghastly plan for world domination, but living in the sense that design isn't a terminable thing. A sleeveless dress can become a long-sleeved affair, and a store-bought skirt can be reshaped entirely. If anything, clothing is more easily thought of as dying; you buy an inexpensive pair of jeans with the expectation that you'll patch up a torn knee or stitch a detached belt loop back on, until the crotch blows out irreparably and you send them to the great Urban Outfitters in the sky.

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Christy Rilling engages more than most in the life of clothing. She’s a tailor in New York’s garment district with a dizzyingly exclusive business — her small team fits and makes pieces for Vogue editorials, the Academy Awards, the Met Gala, and a host of private clients whose names she's not permitted to share. Rilling is the opposite of what you’d expect from a tailor, which is to say she’s not a little old man in spectacles. (Google the word. The image results more than affirm the stereotype.) Instead, she’s an expressive 37-year-old woman with long brown hair and a remarkable capacity for making sustained eye contact. More than the glut of impressive projects on her website and Instagram, it's that sort of professional grace that convinces you she’s the right person to fit Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama for magazine shoots.

Before founding her tailoring studio in 2010, Rilling worked as a costumer in theater ("Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway") and film. Music videos followed, and through those she met stylists. Eventually she landed in front of Tabitha Simmons, the stylist and shoe designer, who asked her to create some headpieces for an Italian Vogue shoot with Steven Klein in 2007. "I stayed up all night the night before," Rilling recalls. "I was still sewing on the RV that day."

The hats were a hit, and Simmons kept hiring Rilling for shoots. Soon, her name spread around the American Vogue office at 4 Times Square.

"[I was] tailoring for the shoots themselves, which at that point was when it started to be more celebrity-driven," Rilling says. "It was getting samples off the Paris and Milan runways and making them fit real body types, which doesn’t happen magically."

Christy Rilling's studio in Manhattan. Photo: Alex Urleich
When Rilling says that, it becomes immediately obvious that someone would be on set to make sure that Sienna Miller’s hot pants sit just right, but good magazine editorials possess the transportive magic that makes a reader forget about practical stuff like that. Besides, Rilling’s best work is essentially invisible. The eye registers an ill-fitting bodice on the red carpet, but a perfectly stitched gown just makes us murmur, "How pretty." Tailoring keeps us inside the fantasy.

Of course, building the dream is more scaffolding and nail guns than it is pixie dust. In the early days of running her studio, Rilling was constantly on the road, arriving at photoshoots with a small sewing machine in her backpack and a trunk full of ribbons, shoulder pads, and bra cups. With a staff of three full-time employees and a few swing hires, she's now able to delegate more often. For certain cover shoots, someone on Rilling's team will fly to a film set to fit an actress and make sure she likes the selection of clothing. "If there’s no time, then everything is done on set and you just make it work," Rilling says.

"Making it work" turns out to be a recurring theme in our conversation. During awards season, Rilling and her team post up in Los Angeles to service private clients and celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway, many of whom Rilling got to know through cover shoots. Even if they work on a gown well in advance of a red carpet event, they frequently deal with changes at the last minute. A shoe swap might necessitate a new hemline — that's a relatively simple and common alteration. But maybe the measurements were wrong, or an actress is suddenly pregnant — a much more demanding fix.

Everything on the red carpet gets tailored, even if it was custom-made. Fine-tuning a garment's fit lets onlookers sink fully into fashion's fantasy world, but it's also a defensive measure. Against tabloids, against bloggers, against any of us standing in the grocery store checkout line in sweatpants and a greasy bun, lazily examining an embarrassing photo of Dianna Agron's exposed nipple in the pages of a magazine.

Jennifer Lawrence Jennifer Lawrence and David O. Russell at the Vanity Fair Oscar's after-party. Photo: Larry Bussacca/Getty images

While Simmons says she almost always works with Rilling's studio on editorial shoots, the styling duo Jill Lincoln and Jordan Johnson, known professionally as Jill and Jordan, have relationships with a few tailors who can handle red carpet jobs. Rilling is on their list, as well as Mario Gonzalez, George Clinton, and Isa Kriegeskotte. Lincoln says they once employed a dry cleaner to handle an alteration, but that was "a very isolated moment."

On the whole, she says, the pool of tailors capable of high-quality red carpet work is relatively small, since it requires a golden combination of specialized skill — knowing, for instance, how camera flashes hit different fabrics — and a calm, unobtrusive bedside manner in the face, and often the private residences, of extreme celebrity. Lincoln and Johnson's clients include Lawrence, Sofia Vergara, and Julianna Margulies.

"Christy adapts perfectly to whatever client is in front of her," Lincoln says. "I've seen her with the most difficult, demanding of people and the most impossible projects, and she's always cool as a cucumber."

In one instance, a client of Lincoln's was en route to JFK with an unfinished film premiere outfit in hand. Rilling hopped in the car, too, and stitched the whole way.

"It's pretty much universally known with people who have worked with her that there's nobody better," Lincoln says.

Christy Rilling at work. Photo: Alex Urleich

Awards season brings Rilling into closer contact with designers. She serves as a sort of extension of their workshops, the final step in the production process. "They’ll have made these brilliant, brilliant couture pieces, and they’ll often send maybe one person from their team to sew as well, but myself and my team normally just help to finish it up," she says.

During preparations for the Met Gala — which are now underway — Rilling describes her studio as a "home base atelier" for European designers, particularly ones that are on the hosting committee. Completing looks for the fundraiser is an intense undertaking, both in terms of scrutiny from the fashion community and in terms of the sheer volume of outfits to get through. One year, Prada dressed over 50 guests, nearly all of whom Rilling's studio fitted. About 100 Vogue staffers wore silk pajamas to last year's "China: Through the Looking Glass" exhibit, and her tailors churned through those, too.

To cope with the heavier workload, Rilling hires extra staffers from, among other places, the New York City Opera and New York City Ballet’s costume shops. They both nurture top-notch talent, she says.

Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, clients of Rilling, at the Met Gala in 2015. Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Beyond fitting pre-existing pieces, Rilling actually builds some garments on designers’ behalf for the Met Gala. She used to do the same for brands during New York Fashion Week, creating patterns and sewing the garments that come down the runway, which are samples of what goes into production once buyers have placed their orders.

"I got a lot of gigs in the beginning from new designers that maybe had some funding but didn’t know how to make samples. They may have booked their show, but had no collection," Rilling says. "I think people have amazing ideas, but don’t always know how much time it takes to make an entire collection that goes down the runway."

From the sympathetic look on her face, she doesn't seem to mean that in a harsh way. That's how clothing gets made: piece by piece, by many people executing a creative director's vision. The Council of Fashion Designers of America's database lists 100 businesses in New York that create samples for designers, and 68 that work in hand sewing. There are probably more. Rilling doesn't make runway samples that often anymore, though. In the same way that she came up just as celebrities began dominating magazine covers, the proliferation of famous people in the front row of fashion shows has turned her work toward tailoring their outfits instead.

Christy Rilling's studio in Manhattan. Photo: Alex Urleich

Rilling's wise to have identified and catered to cultural shifts like that, but the smarter move seems to have been getting into high-end tailoring in the first place. It's a relatively underpopulated area of the fashion industry, particularly among young people. When I ask her whether there's a population of young, hip tailors in New York, she says there is — those are the waters in which she swims — but that she hopes future generations will get excited by the profession, too.

That doesn't seem like a sure thing. Fiona Dieffenbacher, program director of the fashion design BFA program at Parsons, is in a week of back-to-back thesis presentations when I reach out to ask how many students in a given class pursue tailoring after graduation. She writes in an email, "While students might not enter a specific area of tailoring after graduation, they continue to use the training they learn to inform their approach to design and making by adapting the traditional techniques of this craft alongside future technology to propose new design solutions."

Parsons does offer tailoring classes as an elective and has brought in speakers working in the field. But when creative directors are fashion's superstars and the focus of so much industry gossip, a 22-year-old might not regard sewing as the most appealing career.

"Unfortunately, I think the sewing industry is dying in America. I’m hoping that I can inspire young people to not forget about tailoring or sewing as a career," Rilling says. "If we’re not careful it’s not going to be here anymore, because everyone’s getting older."

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