America’s oldest equestrian tailor shop is built on presidents and perfection.
Main Line Times August 19, 2008
Attired in a classic navy-blue blazer, Bob Ermilio stands among the vintage wooden shops that are scattered around the lower grounds of the Devon Horse Show.
“Years ago, I went riding out past Newtown Square and got pitched into a seriously overgrown briar patch,” Bob says, chuckling at the memory—something he does quite often when spinning tales from the past. “The police had to come and cut me out of it. That’s when I realized riding wasn’t in my best interest.”
Apparently, some are born to be riders, while others are born to dress them.
A third-generation master tailor, Bob is the current patriarch of Ermilio Clothier & Specialty Shop. The Haverford store is considered America’s oldest and most venerable equestrian tailor shop.
As the designer and maker of distinguished men’s and women’s clothing since the turn of the 20th century, Ermilio’s boasts a roster of famous designs that includes Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s classic bomber jacket, golf’s coveted green Masters coat, and riding britches for Grace Kelly.
With a patrician touch, Ermilio’s crafts finely tailored attire worn for horse shows, foxhunting, carriage driving and clay shooting. Its reputation is driven by the love of tradition and the desire to maintain those traditions. To Bob and wife Kate, his chief assistant for 35 years, success equals respect and referrals. “Our patrons have a great appreciation for classic quality and tradition, and it’s reflected in the clothes,” he says. “We protect the name Ermilio. We take it very seriously.”
And the next generation is making its mark. The Ermilios’ daughter, Katie, a budding designer, created the mod black dress for Dancing with the Stars’ Julianne Hough for her appearance at this year’s Academy of Country Music awards.
The Ermilio journey began with Bob’s grandfather, Anthony, who emigrated with his brothers from Italy through Staten Island at age 11. In the late 1890s, Anthony opened a small, exclusive tailoring shop on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. It offered a wide array of gentlemen’s clothing, but catered to the carriage trade and luxury sporting set. The business moved to 1613 Walnut St. in 1905.
In the 1920s, Ermilio’s became the sole American exporter of the finest tweeds and gabardines to Europe. Quality wise, they rivaled the acclaimed British materials. As the business expanded, the shop produced 200 suits a week, cementing its reputation for sporting attire as it provided comfort and classic elegance.
Then one day, Gettysburg resident Dwight Eisenhower visited the shop. In a confidential meeting 18 months before the United States entered World War II, Bob’s father, Arthur, was asked to reconfigure the military officers’ clothing. In doing so, he traded the long double-breasted uniform with four large pockets for a shorter, belted waistcoat.
“Dwight was his friend and tailor,” says Bob, grinning. “Throughout his career, we made all his uniforms and his garments while in the White House, as well as his wife Mimi’s clothing. Looking to save material during the war effort, my father designed what became the original Eisenhower bomber jacket. It’s now on display at the Smithsonian.”
During the 1950s, Ermilio’s acquired the fabric from a legendary mill in England that was cut and sewn to create the first Masters green jacket. More recently, Bob obtained the material to produce signature plaids and jackets for the 400 members of the Pebble Beach Club in California.
Looking back, Bob recalls playing with spools of thread with his brother as a kid in the Philadelphia store. These days, the shop—which moved to Paoli before eventually relocating to Haverford—is reminiscent of an elegant English hunt club, with its dark woods, fireplace and sporting prints adorning the walls.
Ermilio’s clients total roughly 200 families, many in the elite world of show horses and equestrian competitions. After his father retired, Bob designed and created the carriage clothing, dressage coats and riding clothing for Augie Busch, late owner of the Anheuser-Busch company.
“A few years ago, I was in California and met a woman who had a coat with an L.R. Ermilio label in it,” he recalls. “The coat was easily 85 years old, and now the grandchildren are wearing it. I got to tell you, it looks brand-new.”
Bob is now the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “go-to guy” for proper equestrian attire. “When they need to know about leather britches from the ’30s, whether English or American, I can look at the sewing and tell,” he says. “It’s kind of funny.”
The couple travels each year to eight elite equestrian events in places like the Hamptons, Wellington, Fla., Menlo, Calif., and Washington, D. C.
“After all these years, we’ve made a lot of wonderful friends—and they’re almost family to us,” Kate says.
It’s a rainy afternoon in late May at the Devon Horse Show. The wet conditions don’t faze Bob and Kate Ermilio, who’ve done business at the oldest horse show in America for 35 years. Inside their wooden shop, there’s equestrian apparel for all ages, along with jackets, outerwear, ties and hats.
Bob breaks away to field a call from a wealthy patron in New York City who wants to schedule a second showing and fitting. He lifts a distinguished tweed coat from a rack, then lays it across a table to discuss some of the finer aspects of “building” it. Unlike with other designers and makers, there is no glue-dart or glue-gum construction, which tends to bubble when the garment is dry-cleaned. Every Ermilio’s product is sewn, and many are created by hand.
“It might take eight seconds to press a glue collar on; it takes eight hours to sew a collar on a coat,” Bob says. “It’s all bespoke sewing, the highest end. It’s the same sewing done in the Walnut Street shop a hundred years ago.”
Bob sketches and designs the garments for discerning clients. All are made in pieces and assembled at the shop by a chief coat maker and dressmaker. Bedros Mininsian, a native of Turkey, has worked as the shop’s chief coat maker for more than a quarter century.
The business employs 10 full-time and part-time sewers, many of whom ride the train from Philadelphia to Haverford to pick up the materials and patterns for a particular garment. A custom-crafted hunter coat can take about three months to complete and sells at three levels: $750, $2,200 and $2,700.
Ermilio Clothier also designs men’s suits, women’s suiting and evening dresses. The suits possess the craftsmanship of handmade button holes. “We cater to the entire family and virtually take care of all their clothing needs,” Bob says. “We keep with classic tradition and add a touch of what’s popular in today’s fashion.”
The Ermilios refer to their riding apparel as “motion clothing.”
“It has to be in harmony with the rider in the sport in which he competes,” says Kate. “’It differs from a street coat in that it is balanced. In other words, it weighs the same in the front as the back.”
Ermilio’s has taken the traditional gentleman’s coat and spun it into a functional piece of equipment. “A hunter-jumper coat should be longer in the back and shorter in the front, since the rider and horses jump over a rail,” says Bob. “The coat actually shifts down in the front and up in the back. Same with the sleeves—they need to be designed with different twists and cuts so the rider’s arms are comfortable while directing the horse as he goes over the jump.”
Charlie Davidson moved to Unionville from Boston three years ago. Searching for a tailor to make custom hand-sewn clothing that one might find in London or Milan, he was impressed by Ermilio’s clientele—which includes corporate powerhouses, ambassadors and Olympic equestrians. Davidson purchased several suits, and a hunter coat and vest.
“You want it to look great. But as a jumper, you want it to be comfortable in the saddle,” says Davidson, who, along with girlfriend Phoebe Brokaw, manages Chestnut Oak Farm, a boarding operation for foxhunting horses. “When you’re riding, posting and doing all these movements, in a Brooks Brothers coat, you could burst through the seams.”
Davidson likes the idea of being a traditionalist. “For generations, a gentleman had his suit made by the local tailor. Today, it’s Brooks Brothers or Polo,” he says. “It’s an expensive and tough business to maintain, so I think it’s important to support Ermilio’s and its very special heritage.”