Cuenca tailor Leonardo Mocha keeps expats looking sharp at a fraction of North American prices
By Stephen Vargha
Everyone has heard the joke that the “world’s oldest profession” is prostitution. And it has been said the “world’s second-oldest profession” is spying because there are at least two dozen passages about it in the Bible.
Those two professions were nowhere near being some of the first.
Tailoring is considered one of the oldest professions in the world. Somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 years ago in Africa, the first clothier made garments.
The oldest sewing needles date back to between 41,000 and 60,000 years ago. Anthropological evidence indicates being a tailor is the third oldest profession in the world.
In 1588, the occupation of “tailleur d’habits” (tailor) was coined in France. Louis XIV decided that women could also make clothing, but that they would be called “couturières.” They were later known as seamstresses.
A rising numbers of tailors were making clothes to order in the U.S. by the 19th century. Because a good fit was key, many tailors devised their own systems for customers to measure themselves. Other tailors who knew how to sew, but not design, used other tailors’ creations.
“I did not want to be a tailor,” said Leonardo Mocha. “But my mother told me to learn a profession.”
Mocha is a highly respected tailor in Cuenca. He reflected on his childhood and how he ended up being a tailor.
“My mother told me that I could use that knowledge of being a tailor to make clothes for my children,” said Mocha. “That is when I agreed to do it.”
The 50-year-old tailor grew up in Baños de Cuenca. His father was a tailor, and his grandfather was a farmer.
As a child, he was immersed in the profession. “My mother used to iron and sew for my father,” said Mocha. “They needed more help with the family business, so I started to help them when I was 13 years old.”
Because he was around his working parents all of the time, Mocha knew what to do. “When I was eight years old, I used to play with the family’s sewing machine,” said Mocha. “By the time I was 14, I knew how to thread the sewing machine.”
That is when his father could finally buy a commercial sewing machine.
After graduating high school in 1991, Mocha attended school at SECAP – Servicio Ecuatoriano de Capacitación Profesional. The institution says on its website, “The training activity is aimed at the improvement and specialization of public sector officials and citizens in general, in matters related to public management, in order to enhance their capacities, projecting them to the transformation and modernization that the country requires.”
Thirty years ago, SECAP was training people who could not go on to a university. Mocha continued his tailor education with SECAP while helping his father.
“I was making no money helping out my father,” said Mocha. “I decided to get into construction, but it cost money to take a bus to and from work. It cost money to buy my lunches every day. And I only had one hour for lunch.”
His construction job lasted only a month. “Mom told me I learned a lesson,” said Mocha.
Two years later, Mocha ventured north to the United States for nearly five years. His first stop was Worcester, Massachusetts, followed by New York City.
It made sense that Mocha would end up working in the Garment District, located between 34th and 41st Streets, and west of 6th Avenue. Since the early 1800s, the Garment District has been the epicenter of the United States’ retail and clothing business.
“I worked in the factories sewing garments,” said Mocha. “During my time there, I learned English. Knowing English helped me get jobs in the restaurant industry.”
With that knowledge, he moved to Tampa, Florida changing carpets in buildings before moving back home to Baños in 1998.
At the age of 28, Mocha opened up his first shop in his childhood town. Being ambitious, Mocha opened a second shop in Girón, and a third shop in Santa Isabel. The third shop was 70 km. / 44 miles from his Baños shop.
“I don’t know how or why I did that,” said Mocha. “I would work a day or two at each location. There were times I worked all night cutting and sewing.”
By the time Mocha was 40, the 50 minutes’ drive to Girón, and 80 minutes’ drive to Santa Isabel took a toll on him. “I decided to close both of those shops as I recognized I was giving too much of my time to work and not to my family,” said Mocha. “I would be driving home to Baños and my shop in Santa Isabel would call me and say someone needed a suit and I would turn around go back to the shop.”
Like many businesses, the Covid pandemic shut down Mocha’s shop in Baños. “I knew God would help me,” said Mocha.
Of course, it helped knowing a caring and thoughtful American expat. “When I had my shop in Baños, the American would show up and we started talking about my business,” said Mocha. “He gave me the idea to start making alterations and custom suits.”
Mocha did some work for his American friend. And when the expat showed up at a wedding in clothes made by Mocha, people wanted to know where he got them.
“I ended up with a lot of work because of him,” said Mocha. “That is why I am doing a lot of work now for foreigners.”
Custom suits made by Mocha range from $240 to $380. It depends on the material used, but most cost $240 to $280.
“One American told me he could not get handmade quality suits for less than $2,000 back in the U.S.,” said Mocha. “A Canadian paid $280 for his suit that I made. He told me he paid $800 just for the labor in Canada. The material was extra.”
Prices for his work reflect the economy in Cuenca. “I try to give a fair price,” said Mocha. “It is not American prices.”
Mocha can hem jeans for $3.50 and shorten slacks for $5.00 as that is done by hand.
The tailor has reduced the size of suits for expats who have lost a lot of weight after moving to Cuenca. Anything is possible for Mocha as he reduces the size of shirts for $10, jeans for $20, and pants for $30. As far as leather is concerned, Mocha only does alterations.
Measurements and consultations are done at the client’s home as Mocha does not have a storefront. The cost of the visit is $5.
When working with expats, Mocha will speak English. “I understand when people can’t speak our language,” said Mocha. “Living in the U.S. and not knowing English gives me a good understanding of how it can be difficult to communicate so I try to help by speaking English.”
And expats have helped Mocha, too. “I like working with foreigners. Their culture is different,” said Mocha. “That includes being on time. I really like that. It helps me plan my day.”
Twenty-year-old daughter, Paula, is helping with the business. “I don’t like it. I am helping my father because he needs the help, said Paula. “I want to be a manicurist.”
Mocha’s wife used to have a hair salon, but the pandemic closed it down. She now goes to expats’ homes to cut their hair.
His son is a facilitator and a driver. “We all work for foreigners,” said Mocha with a laugh.
That laughter is one of happiness. Mocha has found his niche and thoroughly enjoys whatever it takes to help his customers.
“I will spend as much time to help my clients,” said Mocha. “I do not want to see my clients as money; I want to see them as my friends.”
Leonardo Mocha, Leltomm “tailor-Sastre”, email@example.com, 099-988-1633
Photos by Stephen Vargha
Stephen Vargha’s new book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats. His blog, “Becoming Cuenca,” supplements his book with the latest information and at least a dozen photos of his in each of his posts.