While scribbling down notes at his previous shop in Alabama, he caught a client eyeballing his black and gold fountain pen as it zipped along the page.
"I see you like nice things," the man said to Smith, his eyes still locked on the dancing instrument.
This was an understatement.
The fountain pen, Smith explains, pulling it from his shirt pocket, is a Montblanc Meisterstück. The top-of-the-line "power pen" is coated with 18-karat gold and carries a price tag that starts at $400. Yet it's only one of the many lavish accessories locals may find the tailor wearing in his newly opened workshop on Lee Highway.
Within the lofty storefront, clients are likely to find Smith stitching together customized suit jackets, dress shirts and slacks from scratch, his finger protected by a custom-made thimble forged from 14-karat gold. If the tailor is feeling particularly fancy, they might spot cuff links made of 14-karat gold on his wrists, each studded with a 1-carat diamond. The set bears a price of $1,400, Smith says.
Among the sheets of cashmere and other luxury fibers lined up in his shop's showcase is one whose thin stripes are made from 24-karat gold carefully threaded into the fabric. A single yard of the cloth costs almost $1,000 — and a typical suit uses about 3 yards.
For the clients Smith hopes to attract, like professional athletes, the appeal of such subtle fineries is "just to say 'I can do it and you can't,'" he says with a shrug and a grin. But ostentation is not the driving force behind the Trinidad native's flashy display (despite the gray Maserati parked outside his shop that garners double-takes from pedestrians hourly).
The real motivation, he says, is to be a worthy fashion consultant.
"If you don't have the accoutrements, they're not going to take you seriously," Smith says. And when you work with the rich and famous, credibility is everything.
Brushes with Celebrity
Known to many as "Tailor to the Stars," Smith has outfitted a fair share of celebrities during his 46 years in the business. The most notable have included performers such as Little Richard, Martha Reeves and The Bar-Kays — though he says he will never forget the few near-misses, such as NBA legends Michael Jordan and Christian Laettner, who both stopped by for a consultation on a day Smith had closed up shop.
Smith first received the nickname in 1987, soon after he graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. The title was gifted to him not by a pop icon, but by David Smoot, owner of the office space Smith had leased after moving to Raleigh, North Carolina. Smoot had taken to greeting him with the moniker each time Smith strutted into the shop.
"C. Winston! Tailor to the Stars!" he would say.
"At the time, I didn't know any stars," Smith laughs.
Instead, he was tailor to the residents of Raleigh, starred on the map for its designation as the state's capital. But it wasn't long before he got a chance to live up to his new nickname.
In 1988, Smoot's wife, Jeanne, was commissioned by President Ronald Reagan to serve as a member of the National Council on the Humanities, and the couple knew exactly who they wanted to design their garb for the occasion.
After receiving directions from White House correspondents who instructed Smith on which colors were best for television, he crafted a blue silk dress for Jeanne Smoot, who had also served as director of the Office of Academic Programs at the United States Information Agency. His handiwork was seen on televisions all throughout the nation.
"You see?" David Smoot had declared. "Tailor to the stars!"
Smith's designs would once again grace the silver screen around 1990, when one of his pieces was worn by Reginald VelJohnson, best known for his role as Carl Winslow in the 90's sitcom "Family Matters."
Working through a clothier who contracted out tailoring jobs for the actor, Smith fashioned one of his signature "v-jays" for VelJohnson, who wore the vest-jacket hybrid to an awards show.
Over the next decade, Smith would use his momentum to gain a more prominent presence among those in the music industry, despite the skepticism voiced by naysayers from his high school days, when he first began to learn the trade.
"If I could do anything in my life, [I knew] this is what I would do," says Smith. "This [fashion] thing bit me, and I haven't looked back."
Even without his celebrity ties, Smith is a rare find. Bespoke tailors, he says, are a dying breed.
Smith defines bespoke as "tailoring of the highest quality. Period." Each suit is individually patterned and handcrafted from scratch to complement the wearer's specific body shape better than ready-to-wear and made-to-measure garments.
Even though more and more people are seeking out bespoke suits as they learn about the difference in quality, not many in the industry are able or willing to invest the time needed to meet those demanding standards, Smith says.
"You find plenty of people who call themselves bespoke, but they're not," he says.
To find clothing truly worthy of the bespoke name, many turn to Savile Row, a street in London known the world over as the "golden mile of tailoring." But with Smith stationed in the Scenic City, Chattanooga's fashion-forward might just be able to keep up with those across the pond — and then some.
Smith has developed a way to design garments that fit better yet demand fewer measuring sessions. The method works by creating a precise set of rules to take the guesswork out of traditional fittings using anthropometry, the study of human body measurements.
Typically, a tailor will ask a client to come in for four or more fittings before a suit is ready. With Smith's method, he says he can cut that number in half.
"And time is money, right? People don't have time to be coming back and forth to you, so that saves them money," says Smith, who plans to enroll in a doctorate program at Nottingham Trent University in England soon to further develop the method and standardize it in the industry.
In the end, however, the process is still a slow but sacred one, he continues, especially because it's about so much more than just making a garment that hugs the wearer's figure.
If a client has a bit of a potbelly, Smith explains, he designs a suit that makes the bulging feature disappear under sharp, clean lines. If a client has hunched shoulders that cause the back of his shirts to ride up, Smith prevents the bunched look by lengthening the back so it appears smooth and symmetrical when worn. If a client often wears a Rolex on his left wrist, Smith will make the cuff on the left sleeve of the wearer's suit or shirt a little bigger so it fits comfortably over the watch.
It's all about accentuating each gentleman's best features while concealing the features that tend to distract, he explains.
"As brilliant as you are, people look at the outward first, and they judge you based on how you carry yourself," Smith says. "If you want to be respected and taken seriously, you need to carry yourself looking serious."
It's his goal that each client who walks through his door leaves dressed for success.
"There's an old adage that says the clothes make the man. When you dress in a certain way, you carry yourself in a certain way," Smith says. "So depending on the type of job that you're looking for or the type of job that you're in, you need to dress the part."
In 1997, while still working at Sid's, Smith heard R&B singer Martha Reeves talking on the radio.
Reeves, best known for her role as lead singer of Martha and the Vandellas, had come to Huntsville to perform, and where others saw entertainment, Smith saw opportunity.
The tailor turned to his co-workers and made them a promise: "I'm gonna make her my client."
Their laughter fueled his ambition.
"Give me one hour," he told them.
Wasting no time, Smith dialed up the hotel in which he assumed Reeves would be staying. It was the same one that had hosted Little Richard years before. When the desk worker picked up, Smith mustered his most authoritative voice and said, "Put me through to Martha Reeves, please."
"I didn't ask 'Is she there?'" he laughs. "So they figured 'He must know something!'"
Smith's gamble paid off.
"This is Carl Smith," he told Reeves when she answered the phone. "We haven't met as yet, but let me tell you what I can do for you.'"
Within hours, Smith found himself in Reeves' penthouse suite, surveying the singer's wardrobe. He told her he was not impressed.
"Can you do better?" Reeves asked him, amused. "Make me a dress. I'm in town for a couple days."
Since then, Smith has secured a spot as Reeves' designer and friend. Over the past 20 years, he says, he's made more outfits for her than he can count — though it hasn't always been smooth sailing.
When the pair first started working together, Reeves put her foot down on Smith's conservative garb.
"Carl," she told him, "I don't want clothes to go to church. I want clothes for the stage!"
Smith has since collaborated and shopped with the singer to design several dresses that were bright and showy but never sleazy, he says.
"How did you know I needed a designer?" she asked him early on in their partnership.
"I didn't," he admitted. "But my philosophy is nothing ventured, nothing gained."
Smith's true ascension to the stars began around 1995, when rock 'n' roll legend Little Richard found himself in Huntsville, Alabama — and in desperate need of a tailor.
The musician, known for his flamboyant sound and style, was expected to perform in town the next day, but had left two of the shirts he needed in California.
"He was panicking, calling around to different places," Smith says.
Eventually, Little Richard called Sid's Tailoring Shop, where Smith happened to be working at the time. Sidney Hutchinson, the owner, answered. When asked if he could make two shirts by morning, the man quickly declined, but before he could hang up, Smith convinced Hutchinson to give him a shot.
Still, that chance came with a disclaimer.
"My co-worker says he can do this," Hutchinson told the representative on the other line. "But I want you to know this has no effect or bearing on this establishment."
"In other words," Smith laughs, "if I screwed up" The message was clear.
Smith headed to Little Richard's hotel and quickly got to work, taking the performer's measurements and sketching out the requested design. But when the tailor asked for the materials needed to make the two shirts, he found that a seed of doubt had already been planted in the musician's mind.
"I don't think you can have two made by tomorrow," he told Smith as he handed him enough cloth for only one shirt. The tailor was eager to prove him wrong. Smith convinced Little Richard to give him the second helping of cloth, then hurried home with freshly brewed determination.
Smith spent the entire night cutting and sewing the silver and gold fabric. He returned to the hotel bright and early the next morning with both shirts crisp and complete.
The musician was impressed.
"He said to me, 'Man, you are good!'" Smith recounts. "'And you're fast! How would you like to be one of my designers?'"
The tailor liked that idea very much.
Over the next few years, Smith made about four pieces for Little Richard while continuing to work at Sid's, including the outfit the performer wore to the closing ceremony of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Though Little Richard has since set his iconic wig and brightly colored garb aside, his friendship with Smith has remained intact.
"You see him now, you would never know he's the same person," Smith laughs.
How can I spot the differences in a bespoke suit?
Lift the lapel. Smith advises those in the market for a new suit first lift the folded flap of cloth on the front of the jacket to inspect the underside. If you spot little ripples running along the underside, it means the suit was sewn by hand. If there are no ripples, it likely means the suit was fused together with glue, as most ready-to-wear options typically are. Pro tip: If you want your suit to last, never use your hands to brush the cloth. Your hands naturally produce oils that can seep into the fibers and cause them to mat, as well as attract moths to the material. If you need to give your suit a quick brush, use a handkerchief instead.
Check the sleeves. While machine-manufactured suit jackets have buttons sewn in at the wrist just for style, the buttons on Smith's suits actually unbutton, allowing the wearer to make more space for a watch or other accessory, if needed. Another easy method to determine suit quality is to run your fingers over all the button holes. Machine-manufactured holes will feel flat, while hand-sewn holes will feel textured.
How much does it cost?
The starting price for a suit at Bespoke Tailoring is $2,500. "I have always billed myself on being exclusive," Smith says.
How long does it take?
Each suit takes about six to eight weeks from order to delivery, though clients do have the option to speed up the process. Smith recounts the running joke he had with Little Richard, who would ask if a suit could be completed by the following day. "Yeah," Smith would tell him. "But it'll cost you $10,000!"