Behind the Scenes: Kinh Bui, Tailor

August 20, 2008

At an institution as large as U.Va., it’s easy to forget that it consists of many individually moving parts. We may take for granted the roughly 13,500 employees who keep the whole operation humming every day. Who, for instance, keeps all the UTS buses on the road? Who watches what students eat? Who flies critically injured patients to the hospital? The fall issue of U.Va. Magazine highlights nine such employees -- a few of the small pictures that make up U.Va.’s big picture.

In anticipation of the new academic year, UVA Today will in the coming days publish excerpts of the profiles, which were written by Sierra Bellows, Michelle Cuevas and Paul Evans.

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Every August, Martin’s Tailoring Centre is flooded with more than 100 new blue-and-white jerseys that belong to the U.Va. football team. The shop’s owners, Kinh Bui and his wife, Lan Cao, work tirelessly on their Liebersew sewing machines to stitch the numbers and player names onto the uniforms. Their bobbins are full of heavy-duty thread, a nylon-and-cotton blend that Bui tests between his fingers to demonstrate its strength. "We only use three colors of thread: white, orange and blue," he says, gesturing to the zigzag stitch he uses on the numbers. "Football has running, and players hit players, so there is very much damage. Zigzag is very strong."

Not only does Bui prepare the jerseys for the coming season but he also repairs the holes and split seams that often result from hard-hitting tackles. After each game, approximately 25 jerseys and eight pairs of pants require mending. "Number 91, Mr. Long, always had many holes. Three to six every time," says Bui, and he reminisces about the kids who would ask to have their photographs taken with Chris Long’s famous jersey. When asked if he’s ever met the illustrious football player, Kinh Bui chuckles and says, "I met him on the TV."

The football jerseys hang among the altered formal wear, wedding attire, military uniforms and suit jackets that constitute Bui’s other business. He’s also the tailor for the U.Va. baseball and basketball teams, and estimates that sports uniforms account for 10 percent of his workload. "Often the teams need rush jobs," he says. "Drop off at night. Pick up in the morning for away games."

Bui has been working six-day weeks since he bought the shop in the Meadowbrook Shopping Center nine years ago, just two years after he emigrated from Vietnam in 1997. His wife had lived in Charlottesville for several years before she returned to Saigon to marry Bui, her childhood sweetheart, and bring him back with her to Virginia.

"Charlottesville is very peaceful," says Bui, when asked about his adopted home. "Lot of beautiful views. The people are very friendly." Though it’s a half a world away, Bui’s hometown of Saigon shares a few similarities with Charlottesville. "Everywhere people love sports. In Vietnam, it’s soccer. I was a goalkeeper at the university in Saigon," he says.

Turning back to his sewing machine, he presses the foot pedal and pushes a jersey’s nylon mesh beneath the plunging needle. Stitch by stitch, Bui zigzags his way into the new season.

Photo by Jack Looney