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How Tom’s Sons International Is Taking the Art of Pleating to New Heights

The art of pleating is nearly a century-long family affair at Tom’s Sons International. Now, the Lebanese-heritage company prepares for a new chapter

The restored Charles James dress at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art  

In the heart of New York lies a timeless institution that stays true to its craft. Tom’s Sons International Pleating, a Lebanese-heritage, family-owned textile company, is a testament to the enduring legacy of one man’s vision and the generations that followed. George Kalajian, executive director of the 92-year-old company, presides over a rich tapestry of tradition, innovation, and craftsmanship; one whose influence extends to Paris and Dubai.

Hagop at the Kalajian textile machine

The story of Tom’s Sons unfolds over four generations and spans 150 years. When Kalajian, a Lebanese-Armenian-American and grandson of the company’s founder, Thomas (Tom) Kalajian, embarked on a journey to trace his family’s legacy, he knew it started with his grandmother, Rosa Kalajian, an accomplished seamstress and patternmaker in Lebanon. But while researching his family history, he uncovered that the story starts much earlier, with his great-great-grandfather Krikor Tutunjian, who specialized in crafting unique jacquard fabric and managed a mulberry tree nursery for silkworms in Turkey. The family was involved in every step of the process, from breeding silkworms to weaving the fabric. Tutunjian eventually sent his son Hagop to Lyon in France, which at the time was a global textile hub, to master jacquard card punching and plissé. Hagop laid the foundations for the family’s expertise, and they moved their operations to the Middle East, establishing their first factory in Damascus. Here, the family started manufacturing textiles, as well as dyeing, printing, finishing, and sewing.

“Hagop’s niece and my grandmother Rosa ran a sewing school,” Kalajian shares. “He taught her the art of plissé. She rapidly excelled at it, becoming the driving force behind our family’s professional journey. We say it all started in 1931 because that is when she sold her first pleat under the family textile mill’s name.” In the years that followed, Rosa’s husband, Tom Kalajian, honed his expertise under her guidance, developing closely guarded techniques. As expected, their son Leon (Kalajian’s father), joined the family business during his teenage years.

In the early 1950s, the factory moved to Lebanon, and under Leon’s leadership, focused solely on pleating. With 200 workers, they distributed products across the Middle East, serving clients in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and more. “My father organized a fashion show in Lebanon in 1971 to demonstrate its potential,” Kalajian says. “He firmly believed that the Lebanese textile industry could compete with, if not outshine, European counterparts.” However, when the Lebanese civil war broke out in the mid-1970s, the family had to make difficult choices. One brother moved to Paris, while another remained. Leon, with his wife and son, started a new chapter in New York. By the early 1980s, Leon had launched Pierre Labiche, a label specializing in pleated garments. The company flourished until the Gulf war in 1991. In the following years, Leon exclusively concentrated on pleating with Tom’s Sons, and in 2010, Kalajian officially took over the reins from his father. “I felt a sense of responsibility,” he says, but he also saw it as his destiny, a continuation of their legacy. Years of collaboration with his father had allowed Kalajian to absorb the invaluable knowledge of the mastery of the craft, passed down through generations.

Leon and George Kalajian

Pleating can be traced back to the early civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The technique involving the folding and securing of fabric into uniform pleats, achieved through tucking, folding, or stitching at regular intervals to create a structured pattern. Kalajian emphasizes that at Tom’s Sons International, it is a complex blend of mathematics, geometry, and patternmaking, and understanding the relationship between sewing, grain lines, and fabric properties is key. The company prides itself on its complete grasp of garment construction. “We excel in seamlessly integrating pleating into a garment’s structure, thanks to our unique operating system developed by my father,” Kalajian explains. “This system sets us apart; it is remarkably holistic, and as far as I know, no other global pleater has considered all these aspects.” He mentions prominent figures who revolutionized the use of pleating in fashion: the Spanish designer Mariano Fortuny and his French wife, Henriette Negrin, who invented and patented a pleating machine used in the making of the Delfos gown in 1907; and Japanese designer Issey Miyake, who popularized everyday pleated fabric in the 1980s and is described as a “brilliant and innovative pleater” by Kalajian. “Miyake was a master of ready-to-wear, while my father excelled in couture garment construction,” Kalajian notes.

In the coming months, Kalajian will be launching Project Golden Bear, a nonprofit that he hopes will bridge the gap between traditional craftsmanship and the emerging skills shaped by technology and artificial intelligence (AI). “While AI and robotics excel at automating repetitive tasks, there are facets of craftsmanship that demand human hands and dedication to repetition,” he says. “This initiative serves a triple purpose: sustainability, sales of the bears funding children’s education, and preserving the craft.” The project involves making golden teddy bears from upcycled couture fabric remnants, cut by student apprentices. “We embrace technology to enhance our work,” Kalajian shares, explaining that their factory uses robotic cutting tables and 3D printers to create custom tools. “Our technology investments are thoughtfully chosen, aimed at boosting efficiency and precision, all while keeping innovation practical.”

The cape seen in ‘Gods Of Egypt’

As the widely acknowledge experts of pleating, Tom’s Sons has collaborated with Elie Saab, George Chakra, Khaite, SemSem, and Ashi Studio. The team also contributed to the costume design of the 2016 film Gods of Egypt, creating the intricate plissé of a cape, as well as working on the Broadway shows Chicago and Moulin Rouge!. Is there anything Tom’s Sons can’t pleat? Kalajian smiles. “We can fold almost anything – the key lies in the material’s durability and care.”

Originally published in the November 2023 issue

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