No one suits Brent Burns quite like Domenico Vacca, NHL's tireless tailor
PITTSBURGH — The tailor who outfits the stars of the sports world with dandy duds estimates that he spends 44 weeks on the road each year, excluding two more in Arizona for spring training, because he jokes that it shouldn’t count if he’s only driving between sites and not flying. This year alone he has logged 140,000 miles and puts his lifetime total near 3 million. He travels with three cell phones and two personal bags filled with folders of handwritten order histories, and ships to his initial destination two more suitcases loaded with 55-60 books of sample fabrics. Earlier this week, he called from a car somewhere between Pittsburgh, where he measured for the summer wedding of a front-office official of the Pittsburgh Penguins, to Buffalo, where a dozen NHL draft prospects at the combine await his expertise. “I’ve done it for so long, you get it down pat,” Domenico Vacca says. “It’s not that bad anymore. It’s just normal for me.”
This Thursday, in between Games 2 and 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Penguins and San Jose Sharks boarded their chartered planes at the local airport and headed west, many of them wearing suits crafted by Giovanni Clothes, a family-run shop founded in 1965 by Vacca’s father. Indeed, few men around the NHL have more wide-reaching impact than Vacca, who visits all 30 teams before each regular season begins and dresses upwards of half the league. “Every year, there’s got to be close to 300,” he says. “It varies. A few years ago, it was over 450 players.” He hesitates to mention specific names, out of his fear of appearing like a star-struck hanger-on, but autographed pictures are readily available at headquarters in Montreal: Wayne Gretzky, Barry Bonds, Dusty Baker, Rob Blake, Brian Leetch, Eddie Olczyk, Jeff Bagwell, and, on the far end of the fashionable spectrum, Sharks defenseman Brent Burns.
“Everybody’s a little different,” Vacca, 51, says. “Grays and blue suits, most of the guys. If I have 10 guys on a team, maybe three out of 10 will go a little brighter and bolder and different. A guy like Brent, he covers all the bases. You don’t know what to suggest him anymore. He’s got so many different things.”
Save perhaps Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban, whom Vacca does not count among his clientele, no hockey player dresses quite like Burns. His ensembles at the past two All-Star Games, respectively a blood-red jacket and a gray flannel suit, and the royal blue tuxedo for the 2015 NHL Awards? The jacket made of camouflage fabric, to honor Burns’ passion for the military? The green getup featured in my SI magazine profile that turned him into the world’s tallest leprechaun? The picnic-blanket plaid he debuted during these playoffs? The jacket with the skull and crossbones lining worn to Game 2 of the Cup Final on Wednesday night in Pittsburgh?
All courtesy of Vacca, who Burns simply calls, Gio.
“It gets you into the game mood,” Burns explains. “It’s just your routine. It’s like my dad going to work. He gets up in the morning, drums and has coffee. That’s his routine. I’m sure you have a routine you don’t even know about really. You do it every day. I get up, figure out what suit you’re going to wear. Alright, it’s a game day. It’s not a practice day. It’s part of the routine.”
Burns first met Vacca during his rookie season with the Minnesota Wild, placing his first order on Nov. 27, 2003—black, nothing particularly fancy. Soon, though, Burns and teammate Cal Clutterbuck began a stirring game of anything-you-can-wear-I-can-wear-better. “You can’t wear plaid with stripes,” Burns recalls saying. “Oh yeah? Let’s wear stripes with a plaid suit and a diamond bowtie. It was more fun.” Vacca’s latest creation is a multi-colored skull lining—Burns and his son, Jagger, share a mutual admiration for pirates—that looks ideal for a Day of the Dead parade.
“A lot of guys are just waiting to see what he’s going to choose,” Vacca says. “What’s his next new thing? A lot of guys talk about him. They’re always asking, when they found out I’m the guy who’s making that stuff.”
Vacca, for his part, began working for his father at age 13, cleaning sewing machines and making coffee on Saturday mornings, starting around 7 a.m. He continued after high school while attending college in Quebec, but dropped out to devote more time to the store. “I never thought that’s what I’d be in,” he says, but pretty soon he was helping outfit Montreal-area bus drivers, firefighters, police officers and even the RCMP. Today, he maintains a sprawling list of corporate clients, and is particularly entrenched in the United States’ liquor and wine industry.
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“It’s very easy to see what happened to the suit business,” he says. “Look at an old picture of the Montreal Forum, see how many people in the stands had suits on. Take a picture today [at the Bell Centre]. There’s not many guys with a suit on. Everyone wore suits, from bank managers to airline companies, the train guys. It was a pretty interesting business. We were touching a lot of different departments.”
Even so, Vacca stays plenty busy, particularly with athletes. He started locally in Canada, handling Montreal Expos like Rondel White and Gary Carter, but began traveling in the mid-1980s. His first NHL stop was in Vermont, where the New York Rangers held their training camp in 1988-89. The prices aren’t outlandishly expensive—$995 to $2395, everything except the shirts are sewn on site in Montreal—but Vacca stays mindful that, say, rookies might want something cheaper. Demand is high, too. When the 2004-05 lockout ended and the NHL ratified its new CBA, included was this new clause, currently listed under Exhibit 14, Item 5: “Players are required to wear jackets, ties and dress pants to all Club games and while traveling to and from such games unless otherwise specified by the Head Coach or General Manager.”
On average Vacca sees each player 4-5 times per year—once during the preseason, a follow-up trip a month later, an early January visit for the spring collection, and then another follow-up. He always informs officials (an equipment manager, a GM, the director of team services, etc.) before parachuting into town, partially out of respect and partially because it’s always better to set up somewhere at the rink, so the players can pop over after practice. At the invitation of new GM Ray Shero, this season marked Vacca's first in-person visit with the New Jersey Devils, since Lou Lamoreillo wouldn’t allow outsiders like him to enter Prudential Center; now that Lamoreillo works in Toronto, Vacca figures he’ll have to start meeting his Maple Leafs clients on the road.
“It takes years to build that confidence with guys,” Vacca says. “You don’t want there to be any problems and you get barred. I need them to allow me to see guys after the skates.”
Perhaps because Vacca has dressed Doug Wilson since the current Sharks GM’s playing days, or perhaps since Burns presents the most creative challenge to comb through fabric samples and find something else unique, Vacca’s NHL travels usually begin in San Jose each fall. “My home away from home,” he says, even though that could apply to plenty cities across the continent. He knows Ryan Getzlaf and Chris Kunitz from their AHL days with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks. He handled the wedding of Predators forward Mike Fisher and singer Carrie Underwood. He made Stars defenseman Jason Demers’ pink suit for breast cancer awareness, and a lavender tailcoat when pitcher Barry Zito tied the knot. “T.J. Oshie toned it down, a little bit this year,” Vacca says. “A couple years ago, he had these thick stripes and big, bold checks. He was really wearing wild stuff. Erik Karlsson always had a tight suit, tight and shiny.”
Here’s the catch, though: Vacca never actually gets to see his client don his work in person. He's always on to the next city before the order arrives. Sometimes, like when cameras capture Burns strutting off the team bus, friends will text him a notice. Did you see it? Last week, he was in Portland and Orange County. After Buffalo, he’ll head to Toronto and Ottawa. Next week, it’s Seattle, right around the time the Penguins and Sharks would head back to Pittsburgh if the series makes it that far, at which point his creations will again be displayed for the world to see.