Three stories above Newbury Street, master tailor Alan Rouleau weaves his magic in an office packed with bolts of cloth, bins of thread, and racks of suits that sell for up to $15,000.
When he’s not wearing cutoffs and his famous hoodie, Patriots coach Bill Belichick wears perfectly fitted suits that carry Rouleau’s name atop the inside breast pocket. So do Doug Flutie and a host of corporate titans and captains of industry.
But if you’re getting a mental image of a guy with a pencil-thin mustache, starched collars, and finely polished shoes tied a little too tightly, forget it.
This is a guy who rides motorcycles for fun. His office wall carries a photo of him and Peter Fonda of “Easy Rider’’ fame. He grew up in blue-collar
Leominster. He owned bars and restaurants before, at age 33, he picked up his first measuring tape in 1987.
“Did I know anything about clothes?’’ he said, repeating my question when I stopped by his shop this week. “No. But I didn’t know anything about restaurants and bars either.’’
He learned. He opened a Faneuil Hall shop and then, 25 years ago, moved to Newbury Street. His big break came when a Nantucket executive who had shed 100 pounds needed a new wardrobe.
“He proceeded to order $20,000 worth of clothes,’’ Rouleau recalled. “I had never had a client like him before.’’
That big break helped propel Rouleau to the top of his field. His business card now carries the cities where his customers live: Boston. New York. Palm Beach. South Beach.
Recently, he met a customer in Texas. He’d never had a client like him before, either.
His name is Reggie Bibbs. Now 52, Bibbs was born with a cruel genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis. It has left him with large tumors on the left side of his head. His left eye has dipped to his cheekbone. Because of tumors on his left leg, his ankle there is the size of his waist.
As a kid at school, he ate lunch alone. A pitiless teacher once asked that he remove his mask. “Some people were afraid of me,’’ he said. “Some would point and laugh. They didn’t want to sit next to me because they thought they might catch what I had.’’
Bibbs, enduring multiple surgeries to remove tumors that then grew back, lived his life in seclusion. He learned to upholster furniture. Mostly, he stayed indoors and watched TV.
As he grew older, he grew tired of the stares and grimaces with which he was frequently greeted. He took to carrying a business card with the words: “Just Ask.’’
And people began doing just that. What is it? How did you get it? Were you born with it? Does it hurt? He asked them to take pictures with him. No one refused.
Bibbs began blogging about his life story, a post that caught the eye of Trish Morris, who runs a nonprofit called the Courageous Faces Foundation. It works to raise awareness and battle stigma, ignorance, and fear — and to improve quality of life.
During a happenstance meeting in Boston last year, Morris found herself next to Rouleau. He learned that Bibbs lived in Houston, where Rouleau was headed for a conference.
Bibbs needed pants. Alan Rouleau had a better idea. “I’m going to make him a wardrobe,’’ he told Morris. And then he did. Shirts. Slacks. Sport coats. Suits. Some $10,000 worth of clothes.
As Alan measured Reggie’s arms and inseam, he took measure of the man, too — a man with a sly sense of humor, a guy who can bake a mean German chocolate cake.
“His deformity never came up in conversation,’’ Rouleau said. “He sees himself just as another human being. He’s just trapped in his body. But he’s got a zest for life.’’
The clothes Rouleau made for Bibbs have the tailor’s name inside them. They carry Bibbs’s name, too.
“I have never said this about myself before,’’ Reggie Bibbs told me. “I look pretty damn good in my suit. I don’t want to go overboard. But it has helped me see who I am. I just really feel like a better person. It gives me new confidence.’’
There was a gala for the Courageous Faces Foundation last month at the Marriott Copley Place.
Bibbs was there. So was his new friend, the master tailor.
“How do I look?’’ Bibbs asked.
“All you need now is a scotch and a cigar,’’ Rouleau replied.
“Damn, I knew I forgot something,’’ said Bibbs, delight in his voice.
In that moment, something rare happened for Reggie Bibbs. Something he has craved all his life. He was not the NF victim. He was not the man with a facial deformity. He was Reggie Bibbs, Alan Rouleau’s new pal.
There’s an old proverb that says the clothes make the man. That’s not quite right.
Bibbs’s new clothes make him look sharp. He loves that. But he loves this more: In their splendor, they expose his inner humanity — something that was always there for anyone who dared to look.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.