Beloved tailor sews up long career

June 1, 2017

By Katherine Keller

Hans Billerbeck wrapped up his 46-year-old tailoring business in May. He sold the building, 3118 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., in March. PHOTO Katherine Keller

Hans Billerbeck was 21 years old in 1959 when he left his home in Detmold, Germany, a small city about 60 miles southwest of Hanover.

The son of Marie and Karl Billerbeck, he trained as a tailor, following in his father’s footsteps.

But Hans did not learn the trade from his father. “I’ll be too easy on you,” Karl Billerbeck told his son. Instead he secured an apprenticeship for Hans with master tailor Christian Ritterman.

Hans trained with Ritterman four arduous years, beginning when he was still in high school. In 1958 his “brother-in-law’s brother,” a man who was employed as a barber at St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield, Wis., traveled back to Germany and visited Hans.

As he learned about his friend’s life in the U.S. and his employment at the military academy, Hans asked, “Is there a job there for me?”

“I’ll find out,” he told him. There was. Hans, with only rudimentary English, moved to Delafield and became a member of a staff of four tailors. By 1961 he had been promoted to manager. He continued at St. John’s until 1972, when he bought a tailor’s shop on Kinnickinnic.

He and his wife Sharon operated the Hans Billerbeck tailor shop for 45 years, until he locked the doors one last time May 25, shuttering one of the last old-school mom and pop shops in Bay View.

When Billerbeck established his business, he purchased his building, 3118 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., and its contents from Alois Bucher, also a tailor. He was an immigrant from Yugoslavia and had grown up near the Austrian border.

For a time after he bought the business, Billerbeck retained two part-time tailors who had worked for Bucher when Hans created handmade men’s suits.

“But then I got so busy with the other things, the uniforms and alterations, that I was better off doing (only) the alterations. To make a good suit takes 40 hours. And I had a couple of tailors working here in the beginning. It didn’t work out (financially). I said to myself, that’s enough.” He foresaw that in the long run he would be better off working by himself.

A military uniform specialist, Billerbeck said the tailors at St. John’s altered but didn’t make uniforms for its students, except when they needed to make a custom size for a student “who was a little overweight, very skinny, or small and short.”

He secured contracts with Midwest Express Airlines and the Wisconsin National Guard’s 128th Refueling Wing. He also provided tailoring services to Bay View High School Junior Army ROTC (Reserved Officers’ Training Corp), the Bradley Tech Junior Navy ROTC, and Marquette Army ROTC. “I was very busy with uniforms and doing the regular alterations for my customers,” he said. “I worked hard. I worked 60 hours a week many times.”

Sharon Billerbeck worked with her husband during the first 20 years in Bay View. “My wife came in with the kids. She helped with the paperwork. Took care of the customers. We worked hard,” Billerbeck said.

Sharon and Hans Billerbeck PHOTO Jennifer Kresse

Their Story Began on a Dance Floor 

“We both liked to dance,” Hans said. “I went to the Eagles Ballroom, which is now The Rave. They had ballroom dancing and all the Big Bands, like Guy Lombardo, came there. Sharon also liked to dance and that’s where we met. She was at Ripon College at the time. She had some of the most beautiful legs I’d ever seen on a woman. And she was a great dancer.”

“And he was a great dancer,” Sharon said. “You just fell into his arms and he led you all around and twirled you all around. You could do the whole ballroom.”

“It was fun,” Hans said.

“It was incredible,” Sharon said, allowing that she liked him as soon as she met him.

Five years later, in 1965, the couple married. They lived on campus in Delafield until 1972 when Hans left the academy’s tailor shop. They bought a home in Cudahy where they raised two children, a daughter, Brenda (Billerbeck) Bauske, and a son, Hans Billerbeck.

Sharon grew up on the south side. She lived in South Milwaukee until age seven, when her family moved to Cudahy. She graduated from Cudahy High School and attended Ripon College. Her father owned and operated a business that supplied paper and cleaning supplies to restaurants, bars, and other businesses.

After college Sharon taught in the Elm Grove school system until the couple’s children were born. In the mid 90’s, the skyrocketing cost of health insurance for small business owners forced the couple to change course.

“We got to the point where the insurance was so high we couldn’t stand it anymore. We were paying $1,600 a month for health insurance. $1,600 with a $2,000 deductible — and that was 20 years ago,” Sharon said. “It was terrible because we weren’t with a (big) group. We were with a small group…the number of people in our family. The family was your group. I missed teaching so I said, ‘I could go and sub a couple of days a week.’ And then I found out that if you do so many hours over a school year, you can get (health) insurance the next year. So then I started doing that. I subbed in Milwaukee for 14 and a half years. At Fernwood and Trowbridge…at Trowbridge a lot. I loved it.”

Hans Billerbeck at work in his shop in 1976, four years after he set up business on Kinnickinnic Avenue in Bay View.

Dedicated

Hans operated his business Monday through Friday and half days on Saturday, often working long hours.

“My husband was very committed and sometimes he’d get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and say, I’ve got to go turn the press machine on so I’ll come back for a little breakfast. He’d come back for breakfast and he was gone. And he’d come back as six at night for dinner and go back sometimes, depending on what he had to get done.

“It was the commitment. He had to do it. He had to have things ready. People would bring things in and say, I need it in a week and (asked if) he could do it. He’d do it right away. I’d say, ‘You’ve got all this time.’ And he’d say, “No, you never know what’s going to happen. It’s better to do it right away and get it done.’ It was always his commitment,” Sharon said.

Even so, the couple took time off for family vacations.

Those were great years, Hans said. “When our kids were young, we had a Volkswagen camper. We did a lot of traveling. We went all over the country for sometimes a week and a half. The kids enjoyed it. They still talk about it, Wyoming and Yellowstone Park and Devil’s Tower, Williamsburg, Washington D.C., Ocean City, New York, Atlantic City.”

Sharon said they never took off for more than a week and a half because Hans didn’t want to inconvenience his loyal customers.

“Last year when I started to close Mondays, I felt guilty,” Hans said ruefully. “My wife said, ‘Are you out of your mind? You’ve been doing this for 50 years. Why do you feel guilty?’

“I said I can’t help it. I’m an expert tailor and if I do a job it’s gotta be perfect. I treated my customers with respect and if you do those two things, you’re going to be busy all the time, which I was.”

Hans modified his business over the past five decades as he watched trends and adjusted to change.

For three of those five decades, they carried a clothing line.

“We had a clothing line here. We were selling trousers, sport coats, ties. Leisure suits — polyester. But at the end I couldn’t compete. Those big stores like Men’s Wearhouse where they have 40, 50 suits for one size. I sometimes had three or four in one size but that wasn’t enough. People want to see more. I couldn’t compete so eventually I just sold trousers. I gave up suits and sports coats.

“We also sold ladies slacks. But we couldn’t compete,” Hans said. “That was part of the problem. They’d come in and say, ‘You don’t have very many to select from or many different sizes.’ Well, we couldn’t afford to put all that out, plus we didn’t have a lot of space. So that didn’t work out. But we did okay. I can’t complain.”

The Billerbecks’ clientele included many professionals. “But the whole clothing thing has changed,” Hans said. “There are still a lot of lawyers. But they only dress up when they see a client. When they go to the office, they go in casual clothes. They ask me, ‘Where am I going to go?’ I say I have no idea where you’re going to go. All the tailors I knew, now are all dead.”

Billerbeck also tried selling custom-made suits for his customers that were made out of state. He’d take a customer’s measurements and mail them to tailors in the eastern United States. “Sometimes that didn’t work out too well,” he said.

The work was inconsistent and on occasion, an order would arrive with the wrong color thread on the buttonholes.

When he closed his business, Hans Billerbeck put all the contents of his tailor shop up for sale, everything except his sewing machine. PHOTO Katherine Keller

A trend that Hans bucked was digital technology. Until the day he closed his shop, he worked with analog equipment. He used the German-made Pfaff sewing machine that came with the shop in 1972. “That machine only zigzags and straight stitches. No plastic inside, all metal. Still perfect,” he said.

Hans wanted to sell his sewing machine but his son told him he must not because he wanted his dad to continue altering his clothing, when necessary.

He reluctantly agreed. “I thought I was done sewing,” Hans said resignedly.

Hans also worked with a blind stitch machine for hems and a high-pressure-steam garment press that required a 45-minute head start in order to build up sufficient steam pressure to operate properly.

The Billerbecks have had a front row seat to the neighborhood’s changes.

When he bought his building there was a gas station on the opposite side of Kinnickinnic. It closed and an Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips shop took its place. When that business closed, the building was razed to make way for Walgreens.

“Now there are restaurants, bars — it’s booming,” Hans said.

Reflecting on nearly a half century of business, Sharon said, “It’s been fine. I think we both enjoy people a lot, so being able to serve people is absolutely super. The people have always been very, very nice. We’ve worked with some great companies, with the military groups. They’ve been really good, as well as the general public.”

“I liked being my own boss,” Hans said. “No one could tell me what to do. Except Sharon but she didn’t do that too often.” The couple shared a good–natured chuckle.

“It was worth it because I could do my own thing,” Hans continued. “Some of those who were the first customers in 1972 — they were young — are still customers. Meeting great people and good customers, friendly people… And when I found they were satisfied with my work, that made it worthwhile. I’m just thankful for my customers for all my years. A lot of steady customers.”

What will retirement hold for the Billerbecks?

Hans Billerbeck sits in the back room of his tailor shop where he altered thousands of garments over the past half century. He said his customers were the part of his business he loved most. PHOTO Katherine Keller

They plan to spend a couple of months each winter in Texas where their daughter teaches German at a community college and in a high school. Their son, a headhunter, lives in Cudahy.

What does Hans plan to do with his free time?

“That’s a good question,” he said. “In the summer I could play golf. I can stay busy in the summer. Winter? I don’t know. We’ll see. I’ve got to find a hobby. I can’t stay home all day, I’ll go crazy,” he said.

Hans said he doesn’t want to upset Sharon with his restlessness. “We’ve been married 51 years. It worked out to this point. Let’s not spoil it.”

Billerbeck sold his building in March and said he doesn’t know what the new owners’ plans are for the building or the site.

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Comments

2 Comments on "Beloved tailor sews up long career"

  1. Becky Peelen on Fri, 2nd Jun 2017 7:17 am 

    Best of luck, Hans and Sharon. We will miss you.

  2. Another Reason We Need Single Payer Health Insurance in the US | Blogging Blue on Mon, 5th Jun 2017 9:04 pm 

    […] is the local monthly print newspaper in the Bay View neighborhood. And the June addition has a very notable feature on well know Bay View fixture, Hans Billerbeck. Mr. Billerbeck ran a high quality personal service tailor shop in Bay View for […]

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