An afternoon with shirtmaker Freddy Vandecasteele

Freddy Vandecasteele. Photo credit: Juhn Maing.
Freddy enjoying a Belgian beer at a pub in Brussels. Photo credit: Juhn Maing.

Last month I had the great pleasure of reconnecting with shirtmaker Freddy Vandecasteele who recently retired from a 40+ year career as a shirtmaker in Los Angeles. We met in Brussels where he is enjoying his retirement. When I was living in LA about a decade ago, Freddy made the bulk of my dress shirts from formal tuxedo shirts to Western-style shirts and everything in between.

After relocating to the East Coast, I ended up having to find another shirtmaker. Even so, I have kept and still wear all of the shirts Freddy made for me, including the initial trial shirt. Thanks to a bit of proper care and a shirt rotation, none of his shirts have frayed or have had buttons popping off.*

Freddy does miss shirt making, which is understandable since that was his metier for many decades. Before leaving LA, he sold all of his patterns, tools and cloth. But with access to the right tools and workspace in Brussels, I suspect he might be amenable to making shirts in small numbers for a very limited group of clients. As far as he knows, there are no longer any suppliers of shirtings and trimmings in Brussels. Back in the 1990s, there used to be six or seven places he could go to. If you know of a spare worktable with the right equipment (i.e. button hole machine), let me know!

You might be asking yourself – how does a Belgian shirtmaker end up in Los Angeles? The question took on a special significance as we walked through Freddy’s old neighborhood, which is a completely different world than Los Angeles. Freddy grew up in the area around the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, where he was also a choirboy. It’s is a five minute walk to the picturesque and UNESCO landmark of La Grand Place (Grote Markt). By chance, I happened to be staying at a hotel the same area and as we were walking Freddy pointed out a couple of schools he attended as a child. The character of his neighborhood has changed dramatically as many of the residential buildings were converted to office space in the 1950s and 1960s.

If life had taken its normal course, Freddy would have most likely stayed in the Benelux region. After all, he was trained in Brussels and Paris and probably would have followed the footsteps of his father who was a tailor with his own shop in Brussels. However, his life path took a detour when Freddy decided to take a vacation to California in 1969. He loved it enough that he returned in 1972 to live and work in Los Angeles and ended up staying for more than 40 years.

Initially, Freddy worked with a couple of LA haberdashers including the famous Beverly Hills tailor Jack Taylor. It goes without saying that being a shirtmaker in Los Angeles often means working with interesting clients. But perhaps even more gratifying was is opportunity to work with a few truly exceptional clients from a personal and business perspective. For Freddy, one such client was the actor John Gavin whose film credits include Psycho and Spartacus. They were introduced to each other through Freddy’s contacts with comedian George Burns‘s inner circle.

Freddy at the Everard 't Serclaes monument. Photo credit: Juhn Maing
Freddy at the Everard ‘t Serclaes monument and good luck charm for locals. Photo credit: Juhn Maing

There is a very specific reason why Freddy regarded Gavin as one of his favorite clients, which I’ll develop in a future article. But it’s consistent with what I’ve heard from other craftspeople on what makes the most valuable artisanal customers. It helped considerably that Gavin was appointed US ambassador to Mexico under President Reagan. In a future post, I’ll expand on how to find and develop such exceptional customers from the viewpoint of a tailor, shirtmaker or other artisan. More on this to come!

I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with Freddy over a leisurely stroll through Brussels on such a sunny day. Between the Belgian waffles and beer we sampled and quaffed, I certainly see myself visiting Brussels again sooner rather than later. In the meantime, please give him a warm welcome him on Sleevehead Forum which he recently joined.

Interested in continuing the conversation with Freddy? Join Sleevehead Forum and chat with him on his artisan page in the Forum.

* Postscript: I owe a good deal of my shirt care routine to Freddy’s tips. For instance, after washing my shirts, I prevent shrinkage of the collar by holding the ends of each collar and pulling them apart firmly for a few seconds right after the washing cycle is done (i.e. while the shirt is still wet). Then I hang dry them. As I mentioned, all of his shirts continuing to hold well with no discernible signs of wear after a decade of wearing them on a rotational basis.

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