Edgardo “Gallo” Ortiz welcomed us into his shop wearing a loud cream and brown retro polyester shirt that looked like it came straight out of the 1970s era and a measuring tape hanging around his neck.
“I have always liked brightly colored clothing,” said Ortiz, the owner of Trajes Gobernador tailor shop, about his shirt that he made himself.
Founded in 1927, Trajes Gobernadores is an institution in the town of Cabo Rojo, a coastal town loved by locals but relatively undiscovered by tourists.
Located on the southwest coast of the island, Cabo Rojo has some of the most scenic landmarks, beautiful beaches, and serves some of the freshest seafood at the many family-owned restaurants in the area. It is said that the infamous pirate, Roberto Cofresi, made this region his haven and buried some of his loot in the rugged caves along its coast.
Trajes Gobernadores is currently the only tailor shop left in Cabo Rojo, and the only one that designs artisanal guayaberas; an iconic shirt associated with the cultural life of Latin American and Caribbean men that is distinguished by its four front pockets and two vertical stripes of pleating and/or embroidery.
Men’s suits, shirts, pants, skirts, custom made dresses and guayabera clothing for women are other attire made daily in the shop.
According to Gallo, tailor shops worldwide are disappearing. “Nobody is learning the trade,” said 75-year-old Gallo about the business his father Santos Ortiz started in 1927.
“My father opened the store with a business partner and it was called Montalvo y Ortiz. They remained in business together until 1947; when they decided to divide the store so each could have their own space. In 1948 Luis Muñoz Marin was elected governor of Puerto Rico and he hired my Dad to design his clothes. At that time, my father’s tailor shop did not have a name and so he being a shrewd countryman decided to name it Trajes Gobernador (Governor Suits),” Gallo said referring to the store that was situated for 74 years in front of the town plaza and since 2001 has occupied a comfortable location inside a two-story building on Santos Ortiz Montalvo Avenue.
“My father worked day and night and I would go with him to the shop and fall asleep while he finished the work he normally did at 11p.m.,” stated Gallo about his first memories of the tailor shop that would end up dressing several Puerto Rican governors like Rafael Hernandez Colon and Anibal Acevedo Vila and politicians David Bernier, Hector Pesquera and Roberto Rexach Benitez, as well as musicians such as Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, who lived almost 20 years in Puerto Rico until his death in 1973.
“Pablo Casals was invited by Luis Muñoz Marin to come to Puerto Rico and when he arrived he called my father so he could design his clothes. I remember going with my Dad when I was 17 to Casals home in San Juan and from then on he became our client,” Gallo said.
Dozens of island judges also wore fitted robes designed by Trajes Gobernador. “We make the robes out of mundillo (handmade bobbin lace) made in Puerto Rico.
Gallo recalls when a mayor came into the shop who wanted to buy a robe as a gift to Sonia Sotomayor, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
“We designed her (Sotomayor) robe to look like the ones used by the judges in Puerto Rico, but it was different from the robes used by judges in the States,” said Gallo.
After that robe order, Trajes Gobernador received a phone call that Sotomayor was going to be in San Juan and wanted them to take measurements so she could purchase another fitted robe.
“About six months later yet another judge Elena Kagan called our store so we could design her a robe… now there are two judges in the U.S. Supreme Court wearing robes made from Puerto Rico,” said Gallo proudly.
What inspired Santos Ortiz Sr., who was born in 1905, to open a tailor shop 88 years ago?
The answer is simple. “Necessity made him to do it,” said Gallo openly. Santos Sr. began helping at the young age of six tailors in Cabo Rojo, a town with a port where in that era was frequented by many European tailors and seamstresses. “My Dad would run errands and iron clothes to make money.”
When Gallo turned 23, Santos Sr. turned over his business to his son. He did not retire from the family business at that moment, but he did get involved in politics that occupied most of his time. In 1964, Santos Sr. was elected mayor of Cabo Rojo by the Popular Democratic Party and remained in that post for 10 years.
Although Gallo was the manager of the tailor shop, his brothers also worked there. Yet, they have dedicated less time to the tailor work due to their original professions.
Santos “El Negro” is an engineer and was mayor of Cabo Rojo for 12 years. He was elected as an independent candidate, the only incumbent to get voted without belonging to a political party in the history of Puerto Rico.
“Before studying engineering, he sewed pants. He is retired and is currently responsible for handling the books at the shop,” Gallo said.
Santiago “Turcao” is an economist. Previously he was a fabric cutter at Trajes Gobernador until he began to work in a bank. He is now retired and spends most of his time at the shop.
While his brother Roberto, who has had a band for over six decades that is named after him, continued to work at the tailor shop with Gallo despite his music aspirations.
“My brother Roberto also worked in the government but when my Dad retired he asked him to stay working at the shop. He retired 12 years ago, he is currently 94 years old,” said Gallo, who unlike his brothers knew that, being a tailor was his professional trade.
“I never was interested in studying anything else and I do not regret my decision.”
A dying art
At Trajes Gobernador each of our 21 employees have their specialty. After we take the clients’ measurements and they select the fabric and details in the clothing, Gallo is in charge of designing the pattern.
There is someone who cuts the fabric, a person who specializes in making the shirts, skirts, jackets or guayaberas than after a meticulous process, the employee completes the final details by hand.
Men’s custom-made suits begin at $270.00 to $750.00, depending on the fabric; and linen guayaberas cost $100.00 and $90.00 for cotton, polyester, or cotton polyester blend fabric. Add $50.00 if you want detailed embroidery.
Gallo is aware that it is a possibility that he and his brothers are the last generation of his family to dedicate themselves to tailoring.
“Right now there is no one in my family who would continue the business,” said Gallo.
Even though there is a nephew who once in while works with him at the shop. “I have made a living from this family business and I would feel bad that it does not continue but life goes on,” Gallo concluded with his contagious optimism while he directed himself to attending various young clients who recently completed their studies in law and have arrived at the shop to get their measurements taken for suits to be used on graduation day.
The island is the Caribbean paradise for those who need to heal..
Read more »
There is so much to crave in Puerto Rico's traditional cuisine - outstanding flavor at the right price, often in unmatched mountainside, or beachfront ambiance.
Read more »