Timeless Style
Timeless Style At Distanté, Charles F. Morrotta Jr. helps discerning Philadelphians of all ages and backgrounds dress with distinction
by Bill Donahue

At 8:30 on a Monday morning, hours before his first appointment with a customer, Charles F. Morrotta Jr. unlocks the door to his Sansom Street shop for an informal meeting. He’s been opening doors and letting people into his world for nearly 45 years.

As Morrotta sits down to a marble table near the back of his shop, a soothing classical composition by John Barry drifts from overhead speakers. It’s the kind of place that puts one at ease, makes one want to linger. He’s dressed stunningly, down to the last stitch: a double-breasted Harris Tweed suit and peaked-lapel waistcoat, cashmere paisley tie, washed-denim custom shirt with white cuffs and white collar—always that distinctive collar of his, the CMX, short for Chalie Morrotta Xtreme, now patented and trademarked—and his signature brown suede shoes.

Though his style is impeccable, even timeless, he looks as though he belongs in an era that has been long since forgotten. He dresses with the same degree of sophistication, more or less, every day. And he expects no less of his customers. In fact, he’s been helping men and women dress with distinction since 1969. He hasn’t lost one drop of the passion that inspired him when he first started out. If anything, his fondness for working with discerning customers of all ages and backgrounds—businesspeople, doctors and attorneys, even titans of entertainment—has only intensified.

“I love everything about this business: my relationship with my customers, how they have confidence in me to show them what to wear and how to wear it,” he says, as the music shifts to the silky jazz of Miles Davis. “I’m still taking care of the people that I took care of in 1969, and now I’m also taking care of their grandchildren. I knew from a very young age I was going to be in this business. This is not work to me; this is fun. I love coming to work in this place.”

“This place” is Distanté, which he opened in 1983, after years of perfecting his craft with some of the most prominent clothiers in Philadelphia and New Jersey. As “the last bastion” of style in Philadelphia’s sartorial history, Distanté is a holdover from a time when the city was rife with gifted custom tailors and specialty shops. This place is home for him, and he often arrives as early as 7 a.m. to review orders for the coming season, double-check alterations and fine-tune his 2015 collection—in other words, to be fully prepared for each of his customers. 

The conversation shifts to Morrotta’s plans for the year ahead. Although Distanté already features inimitable items from some of the industry’s choicest manufacturers, its stock will become even more exclusive in 2015, when Morrotta will launch the Chalie Morrotta Collection of clothing and accessories. This collection of shirts, knitwear and outerwear will be available in Distanté, as well as in a handful of other carefully selected retailers.

Morrotta wanders the shop to show some of these special items—“things you’re not going to find in other stores,” he assures: a waterproof Loro Piana Storm System overcoat; a Loro Piana cashmere sweater jacket, lined with shearling, handsomely outfitted with horn buttons and a removable collar; a cashmere dressing robe; a Nappa leather trench coat; a lightweight baby suede jacket that reverses to leather; and, of course, his head-turning tweed suits, available in assorted colors.

In addition, he is promoting his line of custom jeans, tailored toward the individual fit of each customer’s body, as well as his custom-knit cashmere and silk polo shirts. Each finely made polo shirt sports the same distinctive CMX collar that has become Morrotta’s autograph, a collar whose precise dimensions have become a closely guarded trade secret.

“I don’t sell custom shirts; I sell custom collars,” he says. “The collar makes the shirt, and the collar makes the suit. Your face should be the focal point, and it’s the collar—the way it surrounds your face, the height, everything about the collar—that puts the emphasis on the face. When you wear one of my custom polo shirts, the collar will stand up; it even has a pouch for collar stays. They’re no different than when I take measurements for a dress shirt.

“We’re not for everyone,” he continues. “I have people who will say, ‘Your shirts are expensive.’ They are expensive, because I go with the best. When I put a shirt on you, I want to make sure that shirt will last. I have shirts I wear for 12 or 13 years; you put on a new collar, new cuffs, and you’re good to go. … I have one fellow who I met three years ago, and within 28 months he has bought 157 shirts from me. Once I turned him onto the proper fit, the collar, everything about the shirt, he couldn’t get enough of it.”

Serious Work
Morrotta is many things: a showman, a concierge, an ambassador of timeless style. Ask him, and he’ll describe himself, rather modestly, as “just a kid from South Philadelphia with taste.” It’s this discerning taste—think “Boardwalk Empire” meets “Downton Abbey”—that has not only kept loyal customers coming to him for decades but also drawn in a new generation.

“Looking good is medicine,” he says. “When you put a suit or a shirt on and you look good, you feel it. You see people staring at you, and it feels good. It feels good to be different. … We’re getting young lawyers coming in, asking for pointers on how to dress, as well as college people going out for interviews, and I’m consulting them on what to wear and how to wear it. After 44 years and working in the best stores in the city, being respected by the best manufacturers in the industry—that gives me the right to say I’m a consultant. I take it very seriously.”

Morrotta has the know-how, the staff and the tailoring equipment to craft garments to customers’ precise needs. He sees this as essential, because anyone who spends $2,000 to $5,000 on a suit should have the confidence of knowing their garments are in good hands.

“I had one fellow who brought in two Brioni suits and two Kitan suits he had bought six or seven years ago,” he recalls. “The pants were too wide, the shoulders were too big. In my tailor shop, we cut the shoulders down, we shortened the coats, we tapered the legs, we tapered the sleeves. We brought his suits into the now. No one else does that. They’ll encourage you to buy new suits. But these are $5,000 suits. When you see the beauty of the fabric, how can you tell someone to just discard them when you know you can fix them in your shop?

“I also have people come in with ‘custom’ suits they bought online and ask, ‘Can you fix this for me?’” he continues. “There’s a lot more that goes into the construction of the garment than just measurements. I have talked people out of buying a $10,000 cashmere suit because it wasn’t going to give them the service they needed. I’m not looking at how much you’re going to spend; I’m looking at keeping you for a long time, and that I give you the right recommendation to put you in a garment that’s going to give you the wear you need.”

Morrotta considers the distinction of being “the last of the specialty shops” as bittersweet. In the same breath, he’s says he’s proud of the fact that there’s a good reason he’s the one Philadelphians call when they want to look and feel their best: “I have always done business the right way. But if you don’t have the right product and the right service, it doesn’t matter how nice you are.”

1510 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102
215-545-2850 | www.distanteclothing.com
Distanté works by appointment only.

Photograph by Jeff Anderson