After 40 years of leather-crafting, pattern-making, trims, hems, and creating bespoke suiting for celebrity athletes like Malcolm Jenkins and Moses Malone, Larnell Baldwin knows just about everything there is to know about tailoring.
He’s even been dubbed a master tailor by his clients and apprentices. And since 1988, Queen Village’s Baldwin Fine Custom Tailoring, on historic Fabric Row, has been the hub of his business and fashion institute, where he’s helped nurture more than a thousand designers and tailors.
Yet, one of his most enduring memories likely will be the night of May 30, when his store was looted after the protests of George Floyd’s death. Even more, he’ll remember how his son and a former student helped raise more than $30,000 for repairs in less than a week.
It was around 8:30 p.m. that Saturday when Baldwin, 60, was closing shop, waiting for his Uber ride home, and watching on TV the tensions rise around Philadelphia.
“I was on the opposite side of the store and I got a phone call from another merchant on the block saying that someone was breaking my window,” Baldwin recalled. By the time he made it to the front of the store, looters had taken multiple leather jackets, dress forms, and face masks.
“I’m not upset,” said Baldwin on Wednesday, wearing a custom, embossed silk blazer. “I do understand the frustration of some of the individuals, but in terms of the looting, I don’t condone it. I’m just glad I didn’t sustain even more damage.” Baldwin said his was the only business on Fabric Row that was looted that day.
The next morning, news about Baldwin’s store spread through the neighborhood. His community of clients and former students, including Erica “Q” Mukai Faria, who studied under Baldwin two years ago, rallied.
“He’s such an important person to me, so I try to make sure I check in with him,” said Faria, who lives in Lansdale. “When he told me what happened to the shop, I had to go down there.”
Longtime client Colin Dixon said more than three-quarters of his wardrobe has been created by Baldwin. He usually visits once a month — more now that Baldwin is making his masks — so Dixon, too, went to check on his friend.
“They did a really bad job on the store. They really tore him down," Dixon said. “[His feelings were] hurt, but he handled it in a very sophisticated way.”
Baldwin said he had property insurance but didn’t think it would be enough to cover most of the damages.
Compounded by the stress of being closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the looting “really put him in a low,” Faria said.
She took to social media, where she says she’s posted about her beloved teacher many times, to ask for donations to repair the shop. “He didn’t even ask me to do it,” Faria said. “I posted a little bit about it, and I, by no means, have a large following. I think the right people started blasting it out.”
Her phone was overwhelmed with notifications. People were making donations to Venmo and spreading the word. Baldwin was shocked the fund-raising was taking off. And then his son, Chris, reached out to Faria to start a GoFundMe.
Between responses to Faria’s original ask and the GoFundMe, more than $30,000 have been raised so far.
“So now, it’s about keeping this black business strong, maybe stronger than it’s ever been," said Chris Baldwin, who lives in Boston but has been in Philly the past few days to help his father around the shop. “It’s been cool because it’s like a fresh start for my dad.”
Plans for the money are still being developed. Fixing the front window of the store, which is still boarded up, is a priority Larnell Baldwin said, “and then we’re going to be pushing the fashion institute and marketing that more," using some of the funds as scholarships.
Baldwin said that many people from the community have visited to show support and drop off donations.
“A lot of times, we don’t get that type of appreciation until we’re dead and gone,” he said. “But it’s really nice to see that outpouring of support while you’re still alive. It shows that you’ve done something right.”