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Tailoring the American dream in Glen Cove

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This is part two in a series

Grzegorz “Gregory” Jon remembers how he felt when his mother brought home new clothes for him. Growing up in communist Poland in the 1970s, he experienced firsthand the economic crunch of Cold War scarcity. Stiff embargoes from countries west of the Iron Curtain against all of the Soviet Union’s satellites — Poland included — meant that new clothes were a rare luxury for his family. According to Jon, his mother waited in line for days for a pair of pants. But when they came, he said, “It was like a holiday.”

“That must be why I do it,” he added, gesturing to his sewing machine. Jon, 50, is a tailor who lives in Glen Cove and runs a humble workshop on Forest Avenue, next to a Polish deli, which he frequents for pączki, a type of filled doughnut.

On any given day, the tables in his workshop are full of spools of thread, scraps of fabric — silk is his favorite — and collages of illustrations and photos given to him by his clients to help him understand what they’re looking for.

Nowadays, Jon’s clients are locals, like Rosanda Filipovich, who recently needed a couple of dresses customized before a wedding. Jon had shortened and shaped a leopard-print dress for her, and had added sleeves to an elegant black one. “I’ve been coming here for years,” Filipovich said. She attributed her loyalty to Jon’s attention to detail, his perfectionism and the fact that “he does it exactly the way you want it.”

Another customer, Angela Feely, said that working with Jon is a true collaboration. “He listened to what my goals were,” she said, “and I listened to his expertise. It’s such a pleasure to work with him.”

Before he moved to Glen Cove to open his own studio in the early 2000s, Jon worked in a studio on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, the very pinnacle of fashion. There he tailored garments for stars and those in their circles, like Rachael Ray, Blythe Danner, Alec Baldwin’s girlfriend and Yoko Ono.

He remembered his first brush with stardom at the Madison Avenue studio: Barbra Streisand. “When she walked into the store for a fitting, I was frozen like this,” Jon said, dropping his jaw and raising his eyebrows almost to his hairline. Streisand must have been all too familiar with his look of surprise, because she rolled her eyes and said, “What?”

She told Jon to sit down and relax, he recalled. “She told me, ‘Who do you think I am? No. I’m the same as you. I just have a little more money.’”

When Jon came to America, he had no inkling that he would end up working with celebrities in a Madison Avenue studio. He didn’t even know he would be staying for more than a few weeks. In 1996, in the midst of Eastern Europe’s recovery from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he got a call from a cousin, a doctor living in New York, inviting him to visit for a vacation. “OK,” he remembers telling him, “Why not?”

When he arrived, he recalled, “It was a shock for me.” He flew in to Newark International Airport, where his cousin picked him up and drove him to his home in Queens, by way of Manhattan. “There was a lot of plastic garbage bags,” he recounted. He had arrived the day before a trash pickup. “Is this the New York everybody talks about?” he asked his cousin. “I think maybe this is not for me.”

But two weeks later, when his cousin suggested that he stay and try to find a job tailoring, he said, bells started ringing in his head. “When you’re crazy about your profession,” he said, “and you have a chance [to make it happen] in United States, in New York, you have to try.”