Interviews, Other cool people

San Francisco’s 5-Star Seamstress

Originally written for Journalism 1: Reporting
(and still relevant, if you’re in need of a tailor)

It’s exactly 11:30 A.M. in Marina and Meifei Alterations is already bustling with business. The store—roughly the size of a barely-livable college dorm room –isn’t packed with people, but it is packed with clothes of all shape and size and brand. The various items cover about every meager inch of workspace around, but Mei Fei is ready to tailor. After all, she’s been sewing for a long time.

Fei, the store’s namesake, has been working in San Francisco for almost 3 years, and a tailor for over 30. “My mother tailored, so as a girl I like beautiful clothes for myself. When I see clothes, I don’t want the same from other girls. I want be myself,” said Fei. Her passion for clothes grew with time, but initially led her to a less-than-exciting job at quality control for Liz Claiborne’s Shanghai branch. More exciting jobs didn’t present themselves until she moved to America, where even though “English no good, I worked at designer store for wedding dress, doing many, many things”

What Fei lacked in eloquence, she made up for with skill, earning a solid 5-star Yelp! average spanning her three years in business – quite a feat amongst notoriously finicky SF reviewers. “I no say I’m good tailor,” says Fei when informed of her Internet fan club, “but I want clothes as best I can. It’s skill, you know? But 100% I put my whole mind on how do it. If a customer no like [clothes], my heart hurts. If they happy? I’m so happy.”

True to her word, Fei’s face falls when an unhappy customer berates her for nearly returning the wrong piece of clothing to him. “I didn’t come for a hat,” bellows the customer, an older gentleman frowning down at a 90’s era Disneyland cap. In the seconds following, Fei identifies the proper piece of clothing—without further prodding from the gentleman –and returns it to him with a profuse apology. The result of this interaction? The customer gets his pants back, and frowns slightly less at the new hem that she excitedly points out to him. He leaves without further incident, and Fei continues working.

Even in the face of grumpy customers, and a heavy workload that Fei admits “leaves hands sore all day,” she’s satisfied with her job. Once, before opening Meifei, she tried working in the medical world. She worked at the VA for 5 years, aiding with unspecified cardiology research. Then, she worked at UCSF as an “animal technician – with animals!” Fei speaks quickly about her previous jobs, sparing few details and rapidly tying the conversation back to her favorite job of all – tailoring. “I like this one. I’ll never stop. Never stop. I still [sometimes] work cardiology research, but I like this a lot. A lot.”

Tailoring is a job that follows her home from work, permeating her thoughts as she commutes throughout the city. “I see people wear their work clothes and ‘I don’t like this one I see. What happened?’ Sometimes the clothes no fit, no very nice. At nighttime I go home thinking ‘why did they sew this? It no look nice.’ I think ‘I want to fix this wrinkle!’”

Fei’s commitment to mentally fixing wrinkles is just one aspect of the enthusiasm she holds for her job. “I like making customers happy,” she says for the umpteenth time, while prepping her workstation for the next round of clothes. Each dedication to customer service is as fervent as the last, and the sparkle in her eyes while discussing how to properly alter clothes is priceless.

The one detriment to her tailoring career is her inadequately sized store. “Too small shop,” says Fei, motioning to her current space. “I want the big one, for customers. Sometimes they wait a long time, they need place to wait.” So far, high property costs are proving a detriment, and keeping her anchored firmly in the Marina. Says Fei, “So much money! Too much!”

Fei finally returns to her sewing machine after ten minutes of discussion, deftly maneuvering the delicate fabric of a dress through its shining steel mechanism. She’s only an hour or so into work, probably several more hours away from hurt hands, and has one more question to answer before I leave: does she enjoy coming in to work each morning?

“Yes,” she says emphatically. “I like doing this job. People say, ‘where the money?’ but if I fix, I alteration and people can wear clothes, I very happy.”

She pauses, then after a brief moment of reflection continues–

“And customer happy too.”

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