Sotiris Papaleontiou opened Thimble, the alteration tailor’s in Thackeray Street almost 20 years ago, at an age when many men would be starting to think about retirement. He was 55. Perhaps even more surprising, he was recovering from a heart quadruple bypass operation. But then, from an early age Sotiris has not ducked challenges. He was born in a Greek village in Cyprus, not far from Famagusta – a place incidentally he now needs a visa to visit, as it ended up in the Turkish sector, after the 1974 invasion. He left school at 12 and at 13 joined his tailor brother-in-law. He spent the next 5 years as an apprentice learning the tailor’s craft – and, it's hard to believe these days, was unpaid for all 5 years.
Cyprus in the 50s wasn’t a happy place, with the EOKA campaign against the British and the inter-community violence between Greeks and Turks. And, in 1959, there were not too many jobs for tailors, either. So the 19 year-old Sotiris decided to seek a new life in London. Interestingly enough, he was the first to leave his village for the UK – but within a year, 20 more had followed him. It was a bold move, given Sotiris didn’t speak a word of English. But, as is often the way with immigrants coming to a new land, he did have relatives here – and with the help of a cousin or two, he soon found a job as a tailor in the East End. For 12 months he went to night school to learn English (though he still speaks Greek to his wife, Chrystalla, whom he met in London). He was a young man on the move and before long he had a job in the West End - in Savile Row no less.
Graduating from a village in Cyprus to the most famous tailor’s address in the world would have been enough for most people, but, as Sotiris explains, he likes excitement. And for the UK clothing business, the 70s were an exciting time. Those were the years when a lot of clothes were being manufactured in Britain. So Sotiris gave up tailoring and became an entrepreneur. Once again, having relatives in the business came in useful. With their help he opened a factory in Islington. Soon he had 20 employees on his payroll and was turning out 2000 skirts and trousers a week. This led to the purchase of a bigger company that supplied clothing accessories to over 250 factories. And that led to a heart attack. Excitement has its downside.
‘Stay at home and take it easy’ was the post-operative advice. But Sotiris got bored. He needed something to do. He saw an ad by Betty Barclay, the woman's clothes store in Kensington High Street, for an alteration tailor. He applied for and got the job. He had to take the clothes home to alter them. It was a good job, he says. But while he worked at home, he had an idea. Kensington residents obviously liked having their clothes altered. So why not open a shop to meet their needs? As it happened the premises in Thackeray Street were empty. (It had been a second hand clothes shop – and before that in the 50s, coincidentally, a tailor’s.) So in 1995 Sotiris set up shop there and within a few months, business was booming. Plan B, if the tailor shop had not worked, was to open a sandwich bar. On Saturdays there were even queues waiting to get in. And it’s ticked along nicely ever since. For the last two decades, he's been altering trousers and remodelling frocks for a large and appreciative Kensington clientele, among them Dustin Hoffman and Jonathan Rhys Meyers!
Now 74, Sotiris is beginning to take a back seat. The plan is for his elder daughter Angela to take over. She has his genes. Aged 10 she would come to the factory and make button-holes quicker than some of the adults. She went on to get a degree from the prestigious St Martins College of Art. She is already working in the shop. But there is a cloud on the horizon. Sotiris has a new landlord – an investment company. Its first move has been to demand a rent increase. It has no stake in the community. It doesn’t care that local businesses are still suffering the worst recession in living memory. All it wants is to squeeze as much money as it can from its properties. So if it asks for more than Sotiris can afford, he will retire, Angela will look for premises nearer to her home in North London and our neighbourhood will lose one of the businesses that makes it so special.
It would be a great shame.
Sotiris’ story is the quintessential immigrant’s tale. His journey has taken him from a two-room home in a Cyprus village to a house in Hertfordshire and his own business in London. Let us hope he can stay, as he has made a wonderful contribution to this corner of Kensington.