I’m the last fashion manufacturer in the Faubourg St Denis. After I retire they’ll all be gone, and with them the skills. The Turks, the Greeks, the Yugoslavs who came here in the 70s had skills, we found jobs easily. Now that generation has retired and the new Chinese workers can only sew in a straight line, but fast. I hire people and I have to spend six months training them.

I worked for nothing for two years to learn my trade, in my home town of Fatsa on the Black Sea. If we did some alterations or sewed on buttons we could earn a few lira. And when you learned this trade you weren’t dealing with just anyone. My boss explained everything that exists in the world – history, politics, and the profession of tailoring.

Why did I come to France? Well, at school I took French lessons and I got nine out of ten. And I read a novel by Victor Hugo. In my head I had four windows and I looked all around the world, and decided that when I grew up I’d go to France.

To come to France you needed women’s tailoring. So I crossed over from men’s tailoring and learned it. When I returned from military service I opened a small boutique in Istanbul. One day a French tourist came into my boutique and saw some coats on a mannequin. She said, ‘You did this? Why don’t you come to France?’ And the door opened for me.

I worked for Madame Jacqueline and her mother for a year and a half, and at the end of the contract the boss died and we were left to fend for ourselves. I decided to set up a workshop at 3 rue Martel, Paris 10th. I’ve worked here ever since.


Ten years ago I employed seven people and now I’ve only got three. I don’t want to work like this but clients don’t pay on time. If money’s circulating you have the courage to hire more people and if it’s not you are afraid. I see the government like the father of the family, if it doesn’t get money how will it pay for hospitals, schools?

I know every aspect of the profession: pattern-cutting, cutting out, assembling, designing. This is why my clients ask me to do prototypes. If something doesn’t hang right, I know instinctively what to do. I’ll go to my cutting table with my perroquet and draw a new curve on the pattern. I do it by eye. When the garment is put together I hang it on the mannequin and there… I was right. I’ve done prototypes for Balmain, for Marie-Clemence maternity wear, and the ones I’m doing now are for children. My clients all come by word-of-mouth. I designed my daughter-in-law’s wedding dress, and sometimes I run up a pair of trousers for myself. A little larger each year, that’s how it goes.

I’ve been in these attic rooms for almost 40 years. My wife and I live in the flat below. We never need heating, the steam press keeps it warm. I’ve never redecorated the place. On the walls are fashion plates from Eva Negri, a client for 28 years, and a map of the world, a photograph of my brother who is a professor of cardiology in Istanbul, and a picture of Ataturk, the best of men. I also like De Gaulle, who came to Ankara when I was doing my military service. I listen to Turkish radio while I am working – music, news, and at the end of the day the music of the seraglio. This is a noble music from the time of the pashas.

In the evening I like to take a stroll. I’ve been here so long everyone knows me in the neighbourhood, but the French have gone, moved out to the suburbs. For me this is sad, because all I see is my compatriots. I would really like to see someone else, for example a Frenchman. But this quarter is very mixed, and that makes the quarter lively. It is the foreigners who bring their culture and their courage. It’s always better mixed. You see more poverty on the streets now, and while I might help an old person I won’t give money to a young person who could look for a job.

George has been sleeping in my workshop for 12 years. He’s from Gori, where Stalin was born. He came, he still hasn’t got work, he can’t pay rent, he hasn’t got money for food. He has got into the habit, he lives here, and there it is. But that is my idea, even in Turkey I’d do the same thing.

I grew up by the sea, and I swim 3km every Sunday in the public pools. Then in the summer, or when it’s Ramadan, I go back to Fatsa and swim in the sea there. I go back at least once a year. I’ve built a big house, 12 bedrooms, and we harvest the walnuts. It’s always a big party there, in the house, with the whole family coming from all over. I usually travel overland in my Volvo. It used to be me, my wife and my children but now they are grown up I take my cat, Minouche.

I planned to retire to Turkey, but now I don’t know. When you live in another country for 40 years and then return, you find almost nobody that you left behind. But if we stay here I would like to be naturalised. It’s late in the day, but why would we stay here as foreigners?


Photograph by gloryday

Jonathan Safran Foer | Interview