Birmingham tailor hangs on by thread through COVID pandemic

Birmingham, Ala. — Robert Hill was small in high school, so small he couldn’t find clothes to fit him. It was the inspiration for a career that eventually led him to 3rd Avenue North in Birmingham, where he has operated Robert Hill Custom Tailors for 37 years.

Hill saw fashions come and go over that time. He experienced good economic times and bad. But he never faced anything that came close to COVID-19.

“We’ve had struggles before, but nothing like this,” Hill said. “This pandemic took us down a bad road. It’s been a tremendous impact.”

His shop shut down completely for nine weeks, generating no income as expenses continued. When he once again opened his doors, not many customers came through them.

The people who at one time filled corporate offices, law firms and other downtown buildings were still at home, by and large, working in casual attire.

Hill received help from the federal Paycheck Protection Program and the BhamStrong emergency relief fund, which was launched last spring through the city of Birmingham’s Office of Innovation and Economic Opportunity.

The local loan fund included $1.2 million approved by the City Council and an additional $1 million from area businesses. BhamStrong oversaw the public-private fund along with the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham and the Birmingham Business Resource Center. At least 85 local businesses received assistance.

While the assistance programs helped Hill provide for his family and pay his shop’s fixed costs, he remains concerned about the recovery of the custom clothing business.

“Right now, it’s a far cry from normal,” Hill said.

Hill is mindful of others in the business who are suffering similar impacts; he helped to mentor many of them. And he is especially mindful of friends, relatives and businesses that suffered even worse losses due to COVID.

“We’re very fortunate we’re still here,” he said. “We just hope and pray we’ll make it through.”

Hill is a Montgomery native who came to Birmingham in 1961 to study tailoring at Wenonah Vocational School. After a time spent with a master tailor in Chicago, he opened his own shop in Birmingham in 1983.

“I enjoy having my own business; it’s really nice to be your own boss,” he said. “But you’ve got all the responsibility.”

Because of COVID, he was not able to keep on his employees, and he has reduced the number of days and hours he is operating. The good news is that he can turn around alterations in no time. The bad news is that it’s because there’s so little business coming in.

The challenge is not knowing how long these conditions will last. As he enters what is supposed to be his busiest season, he’s heard from customers that their offices aren’t reopening any time soon.

Hill said all he can do is to try to outlast the pandemic, and it has helped to have more time to start BhamStrong repayments. “That makes me feel a whole lot better,” he said.

Robert Hill Custom Tailors is located at 2205 3rd Ave. North. To contact the business, call 205–252–0353.

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