Sewing and creating with textiles was his destiny, says Robby Brookins of Robby’s Quality Alterations, who began sewing in early elementary school with his mother, Nora Brookins, in Glendale where he grew up. He could not have foreseen back then that he’d end up in Wyoming with his own business. But after 30 years in Wyoming’s Business District, he says he’s happy fate brought him here.
With a broad smile and a cheerful greeting for all who enter his shop, Brookins has become a business icon in the community, part of a network of small businesses that give Wyoming its small town atmosphere and its neighborly familiarity. He takes pride in knowing his customers’ unique needs and often goes out of his way to deliver orders to a longtime client’s doorstep if necessary.
He also takes pride in offering a bit of joy to everyone he meets, and he’s quick to proffer an inspirational bit of wisdom on the importance of keeping a sense of perspective, a particularly valuable habit during the anxiety-filled times of the past year. “It’s been a blessing to be a blessing,” he says with a laugh of this unique quirk.
As he celebrated his milestone 30th anniversary this past year, Brookins looked back at his career and recalled the changes he’s seen since starting in the tailoring industry shortly after he graduated from Princeton High School in 1976, and how he came to Wyoming.
He took an interest in sewing from his earliest days, recalling many hours spent working with his mother at her sewing machine as she created custom drapes for local stores.
“My mother started me off,” says Brookins. “She introduced me to the sewing machine so I could alter my clothes myself. While other kids were playing with Tonka toys and trucks, I played with the sewing machine.”
In high school, Brookins attended a two-year vocational program about clothing and fabric at Scarlet Oaks Vocational School. As a track and field athlete at Princeton High School, he often adjusted his own clothing to better suit his athletic frame, and his skills as an athlete and as a tailor ultimately led to a track scholarship to study fashion design at Morehead College. From there, he went on to the famed Parsons School of Design in Manhattan to complete his education.
“I love clothes. There’s no better feeling than putting on clothes to fit your mood.”
After graduation, he came back to Cincinnati and worked in the tailoring departments of multiple local retailers, from Sears to Gentry’s. He also earned his Master Tailor certification.
“I had my own creativity and started going from place to place because I could. Each new place was like taking another course. I developed my own style, and here I am.”
Along the way, Brookins broke through more than a few barriers as one of the only Black tailors in Cincinnati, in an industry that had largely been dominated by immigrants from Europe. In his early days inside department store tailoring shops, he noticed he was placed in work areas that were far from the eyes of customers, while white sales staff or tailors would go to the sales floor to assist with fittings.
Eventually he went to work for a private alterations business, A-1, in Pleasant Ridge. He noted that many of the customers were from Wyoming. He knew he eventually wanted to launch his own venture, so he decided somewhere near Wyoming might be a good choice.
He first found a small shop in Lockland for rent in 1989. As he anticipated, many of his customers were from Wyoming. Just months into his lease there, however, he was told of an open space near the Pastry Shop in Wyoming. He admits he was reluctant at first to inquire about the rental, worrying a Black tailor might not be welcome in the predominantly white suburb of Wyoming, especially since there were no other Black-owned businesses in Wyoming at the time.
In June 1990, Brookins moved into his current space at 509 Wyoming Avenue, and roughly five years later hired Irina Vertilny, who had emigrated here from Russia. He said it was one of the best decisions he ever made as Irina was a valuable co-worker. She was a talented tailor in her own right and also helped with fittings for women clients.
Vertilny spent 16 years in the shop with Brookins and her gentle personality and strong Russian accent were as much a part of a visit to Robby’s Quality Alterations as Brookins himself was. Sadly, Vertilny was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 and took her own life that same year. It was a terrible shock to lose her, Brookins recalls, and he still misses her today.
Over the years, Brookins says things have changed in his business and in Wyoming. Everyday fashions have continued to trend more casual, meaning suits and fine apparel have largely become obsolete. At one time, tailoring was about creating men’s suits. Today, it is mostly alterations. This is the bread and butter of his business today – altering and re-styling existing clothing to better fit customers.
Although he attracts clients from all over Cincinnati, the bulk of his customers are walk-ins from Wyoming. He says he’s seen more than one generation in the community now and he’s noticed subtle changes. The recent outrage when a pride flag was burned by an unknown vandal on Worthington Avenue is an example of how things have evolved, he notes.
“I don’t think I would have seen pride flags in Wyoming 30 years ago,” he says with his usual laugh. “That’s something new.”
Black Lives Matter signs in local yards are also an indication of changing times. The community is a little less conservative, he notes. He says it no longer feels out of the ordinary to be a Black business owner in Wyoming. It feels like he belongs here.
Through it all Brookins has raised four children with his wife, Suzanne, and they now have five grandchildren.
He says he has no plans to retire at this point, but when he does, he’d like to continue his love of fashion and tailoring by teaching young people the craft he’s learned. Until then, he says he’s here to stay. “Old tailors don’t retire,” he jokes. “They just cut their hours.”