Photos: Tacuma Roeback
Frank Harris, one of Chicago’s most legendary tailors, is hanging up his measuring tape.
The owner and proprietor of Frank’s Alterations And Tailoring, the tailor shop that became a Roosevelt Road institution, retired over the weekend after almost 50 years.
“I’m sad and happy too,” Harris told The Chicago Defender late last week,” I’ve had this store for 48 years.”
Harris started his tailoring business on the West Side, opening a shop on Madison and Karlov around 1974. Then he opened a second shop on Roosevelt Road under another tailor, where he worked out of a room before eventually landing at his current location on the north side of Roosevelt, steps away from the Dan Ryan.
Being a professional tailor was his day job, but he worked nights as a Cook County Sheriff from 1980 to 2010.
“I went to work at 11 o’clock at night to seven,” said Harris, “I got off at seven and came and opened this door for 30 years,” he said. “I worked two jobs, 16 hours a day for 30 years.”
Tailor to the Stars
Remarkably, he would amass a clientele that reads like a who’s who of Chicago and beyond in politics, entertainment, media and sports. Upon entering his shop, the left and far right walls are filled with framed photographs of his most notable clients. It’s the Frank’s Alterations And Tailoring “Wall of Fame.”
He was a tailor to former Mayor Harold Washington, Muhammad Ali, Minister Louis Farrakhan, Chicago Bears great Otis Wilson, legendary soul singer Jerry Butler, political consultant David Axelrod, ABC7 Chicago News Anchor Cheryl Burton, Rev. Clay Evans and the U.S. Men’s Soccer Team from the 1994 World Cup, among so many others.
And when he mentions those customers by name, he can recall the service they needed and a small anecdote about them. While some interactions were simple customer transactions, others were much deeper.
When the Defender visited his shop late last week, Harris talked about his friendship with Rev. Evans and what the late minister meant to his business.
“Every place I opened up, he was here to bless the place and wish me well,” Harris said of the minister who passed away in 2019. “His family has always been just like my family.”
There’s the story he has about Ali.
“They would drive him to the shop, and he would always play games. He would sit in the car and tell me to lean over here,” Harris said.
“So I would lean my head over in the window of his SUV, and [Ali] would take his fist and go like this,” he said, bawling up his hand and putting it near his own face, imitating the late boxing great.
“I’ll knock you out.”
The Joy of Making People Look Good
Harris said he now has his sights set on resting and relaxing, though leaving the business and all those customers he has come to know over five decades makes his retirement bittersweet.
“I get the joy of working with people, knowing that I can take a piece of chalk and put a mark on it and make them look good,” he said.
When The Defender visited Harris, a longtime customer hugged and congratulated him, adding that he would be missed.
Harris talked more about his journey and how far he had come from Greenwood, Mississippi, where, in high school, he took a home economics class and learned how to sew and stitch. He recalled a Detroit mentor who gave him words of wisdom to serve him throughout his career.
“He said, ‘Harris, you know what, you’ll go a long ways if you keep people happy. You make them smile and do good work; they’ll always come back.'”
“And that’s how I kept his business going. I did the best I could in doing that work, and they always came back,” he said.
“I would say it’s a miracle because I had no idea I would meet this many people. I had no idea I would touch that many lives, but it happened, and it makes me happy.”