From JC Penney suits to 007 attire, Baghdad tailor obliges US troops

Most popular is Mehmet Ozkan's "nine-piece special": pants, jacket, vest, two shirts, tie, belt, handkerchief, and cufflinks for $400. When his shop burned down recently, US troops helped him stay afloat.

By , McClatchy Newspapers

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    Mehmet Ozkan, a Turkish businessman, displays the custom-made suits he sells, mainly to U.S. soldiers, on Camp Prosperity in Baghdad, Iraq. With the help of friends and customers in the military, Ozkan recently reopened his Turkish Sew Shop after a devastating May 1 electrical fire.
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The fire snatched it all: Ed Hardy T-shirts, faux Versace sheets, knockoff Burberry bags and, worst of all, racks of bespoke suits ready to be picked up by American soldiers. The Turkish Sew Shop on Camp Prosperity, a small US base in central Baghdad, burned down on May 1, and with it, $500,000 in stock.

Other Iraqi shops and kiosks were also destroyed in the electrical fire, but the tailor is back in business, in large part because so many US soldiers – and high-ranking officers – had paid deposits on suits that had yet to be delivered.

With a massive troop rotation looming this summer, time is running out to get the suits to GIs who've dreamed of wearing their custom designs in places that don't require desert boots and body armor.

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"We're tailors, and the Army needs tailors," says the Turkish owner, Mehmet Ozkan, who now works out of a store the military lets him use rent-free. "We went to the Army with all these receipts, the ones that weren't burned, and told them how many soldiers were waiting on their suits. Thank God, they helped us."

Iraqi disdain for 'war profiteers'

With a reputation for the best fabric and stitching this side of the Tigris River, Ozkan might have been able to recoup his losses had this been 2003 or 2004. But he and other non-American vendors on bases already are braced for an uncertain future as the US military completes its gradual withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2011.

The Turkish tailor – along with the Lebanese contractors, Filipino hairdressers, and Ukrainian masseuses – has perhaps a year left before he must decide whether to exit alongside the troops or risk staying in business among Iraqis who largely view them as war profiteers.

The disdain is even greater for people such as Ozkan, a Muslim who speaks fluent Arabic and has Arab ancestry. "I'm a businessman, and I go wherever there is business," he says, shrugging off the criticism. "Now I'm just hoping to go to Afghanistan. If the Army says, 'Come, we'll give you a contract in Afghanistan,' I'll get on the plane tomorrow."

From bootlegged DVDs to tailored pants

Early in the war, an Iraqi businessman in Turkey told Ozkan about the money he could make working alongside US troops in then-occupied Iraq. Ozkan arrived in Baghdad in 2004, when the insurgency was in its infancy and business was conducted with suitcases stuffed with cash. He dabbled in bootlegged DVDs, running popular titles to US bases that were hard to reach for Westerners.

Then, he heard complaints about the lack of good tailors inside the Green Zone, the heavily fortified US and Iraqi headquarters in Baghdad. Scores of excellent Iraqi tailors had storefronts right outside the compound's concrete blast walls, but they were off-limits because of security restrictions on US forces and their support personnel.

Ozkan obtained the necessary badges and permits to conduct business on a US installation and opened his shop three years ago, sticking a photo of a business suit in the window. He invested his savings, bought thousands of yards of fine Turkish fabrics, and recruited the best tailors from his hometown.

'Nine-piece special' for $400

He still remembers his first customer, a US soldier who was so pleased with his suit that he brought in a dozen friends who ordered the same. The shop also sold handbags, jewelry, and T-shirts for a nonexistent Hard Rock Cafe Baghdad, but most customers were lured by Ozkan's $400 "nine-piece special": pants, jacket, vest, two shirts, tie, belt, handkerchief, and cufflinks.

"Everything but the shoes!" Ozkan says with a grin.

'I'd like the 007 suit, please'

Word spread, and the tailors got more daring with their custom orders. The men began asking for "the same suit Obama was wearing on TV last night, Ozkan says. Or, before that, it was George Bush." One soldier said he watched a James Bond movie and then ordered the same suit 007 was wearing.

Women brought printouts of catalogue pages from Nordstrom or JC Penney and ordered copies of designs. Soon, Western diplomats were lining up, along with Ugandan and Peruvian security guards, South African mercenaries, and others in the bizarre, polyglot communities that make up the Green Zone.

The fire broke out on a warm May afternoon, when Ozkan was out on an errand. By the time he got back, his shop along with the adjacent Iraqi-owned businesses had burned to the ground. The sleeping quarters in the back were also destroyed, so Ozkan and his employees lost their home in Baghdad, too.

US chaplain helps pick up pieces after fire

Imported jewelry was turned into blackened, distorted metal scraps. The plastic wrap on the T-shirts had melted into the fabric, ruining a shipment of several thousand shirts. The meticulously tailored suits were reduced to swaths of charred wool and pinstripes.

Within minutes, soldiers who were friends and customers of Ozkan's were at the scene, helping the tailors salvage goods. The military brought the Turks water and food, and found them temporary lodging.

Sgt. 1st Class Manuel Perez, an assistant Army chaplain from Seguin, Texas, arrived with tables and signs that read, "$5" and "$10" – then helped Ozkan unload the least damaged garments in an impromptu fire sale. Perez says many soldiers simply donated cash. "I gathered them around me and prayed for them," Perez says. "They know I'm a Christian, but they still stood with me."

'The Americans stood by my side'

Nearly two months after the fire, Ozkan's newly relocated shop is beginning to buzz again. He says he's so in debt that he can't even go home this summer to visit his wife and three children. Still, old customers are making their way back to the Turkish Sew Shop, albeit to find only a few racks of fabric where the colorful prints were once wall-to-wall. Business is picking up, Ozkan says, but he doubts whether he can fully recover before the troops withdraw en masse.

"Sometimes it crosses my mind: Will they still be here next year? But I have no option except to keep working," Ozkan says. "Really, the Americans stood by my side after the fire and, whatever happens, that's something I'll never forget."

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McClatchy's Inside Iraq blog

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