A dying art form with roots in old-world Poland is alive and well in the small corner of a shopping center in Vestavia Hills. Chet Poczatek came to Birmingham as a tailor with Brooks Brothers when they opened a store at the Galleria in Hoover 30 years ago. “I came here with big heart and big dreams, but you have to get it through persistent, hard work,” says Chet, who with three boys soon entering college decided to start his own custom tailoring and alterations business in Brookwood Mall. He then moved to his current location in Vestavia, where he’s been for 18 years. Fourteen years ago, Chet and his employee Irena, a custom designer and alterations virtuoso, became professional colleagues through a mutual friend. “Life brought me here,” says Irena, paraphrasing her circuitous journey from Warsaw, Poland, to the Heart of Dixie.
Although from different parts of Poland and on different journeys, Chet and Irena share a tenacious spirit and focused determination that is evident in their precision craftsmanship. But it’s also these qualities of fearlessness and thinking outside the box that brought them to America.
In high school, Irena started making her own clothes, which led to the school of fashion design, and eventually she launched her own business designing and manufacturing clothes in her native Warsaw, a communist country at the time. “I remember asking my father, ‘Should I stay or go to America?’ because I had a very successful business, but I was thinking of my son’s future,” she explains. “He said, ‘Go.’”
Irena moved to San Francisco with her then-12-year-old son in the mid-’80s, where she spent nearly 15 years before moving to New York shortly after 9/11. “People weren’t thinking about fashion at that time,” says Irena, whose friend in Birmingham urged her to come work with this Polish gentleman down South who needed a female dressmaker and alterations person.
Irena’s sought-after skill set marries precise, complicated maneuvers with the seamless beauty of gorgeous designs. “Some of my customers say, ‘I didn’t even know there was anything done,’ so I guess I have some kind of talent,” she says, downplaying the artistry of the technical skills that have carried her across the country. “Some people think alterations are easy. It’s not. You have to think about what you are doing and have the knowledge to do it. Sometimes I don’t even give the price because I don’t know how many hours it will take me. Every project is different.”
“It’s beautiful here. Birmingham is very pretty,” says Irena of her Southern home of nearly 15 years. And, while she admittedly misses the highly cosmopolitan societies and rich cultures of Warsaw, San Francisco and New York City—in Birmingham, Irena found a husband, a prominent local attorney. “It kept me here,” she smiles. “Otherwise, I may have retired somewhere else.”
Mirroring their training in Poland, Chet and Irena dedicate long hours of detailed attention to the technical and artistic aspects of garment construction and alteration, with Irena serving the shop’s female clientele and Chet serving the male clientele. Both are quick to point out that alterations are only an extension of the more in-depth training that they each received in Poland. Irena, a clothing designer and bespoke dressmaker hailing from the big city, and Chet, a custom tailor from a farm in western Poland, both have the ability to design and construct garments that are completely original and unique to each customer. Their vast knowledge of fabrics, the details of garment construction and proper fit for different body types is built on the experience of skilled Polish tailors whose trade, which traces back to the Middle Ages, was an integral service to villages for generations.
“When I learned the trade as an apprentice at 14 years old, it was eight hours in the shop, from 7 o’clock in the morning to 3 o’clock in the afternoon, then it was on the train to go to another little city for three or four hours in school,” says Chet, of juggling his apprenticeship and night school in fashion technology. “I left home at 6:30 in the morning, and it was 10:30 at night when I got home.” This unwavering discipline and focus continued when he owned his own business and did not go unnoticed by his three sons. “I worked 80 hours a week for the past 35 years. I mean, at one point, I had three boys in college,” he says, smiling as he reveals that all of them became doctors. He admits that they are smart, but he qualifies the unifying trait to their success, saying, “They are determined. They see how hard I worked.”
Before coming to Birmingham, Chet and his wife spent their first few American years in Detroit, where Chet worked at a small tailor shop. “When I came, I didn’t speak one word of English. And they called me for a fitting for a customer, and the Ukranian owner stands by my side and whenever I mark, I speak to him in Russian and he translates to the customer back in English. And we did that about eight months. And after eight months, I was good enough to communicate on my own with the customers,” explains Chet, chuckling at the memory. “I didn’t have time for lessons; I always work!”
In 1974, he filed for citizenship after the requisite five years with his green card. “I am very proud to be an American. Many people don’t understand how good they have it here. Most don’t. Once you live under a different system, and you come here, you can see the opportunity, and it is like day and night,” says Chet.
“We have the nicest customers. Even today after so many years, a lot of those customers from Brooks Brothers are still coming here,” says Chet reflecting on his career, “I love everything about my job, seeing the customer when they are pleased. That’s my life. That’s what I’ve been doing for 57 years now.”
Chet’s Alterations is located at 680 Olde Towne Road in Vestavia Hills. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call (205) 979-3009 for more information.