WASHINGTON — One day, a little over five years ago, Russ Lease decided that what the world needed was historically accurate, reasonably priced reproductions of Beatles clothing: stitch-for-stitch copies of the distinctive outfits the famous musicians wore in concert.
Luckily, Russ was in the position to provide them. He and his brother owned the Pants Plus clothing store in a suburban Maryland mall from 1976 until the mall closed in 2001. Russ knew the clothing industry. And he knew the Beatles. A fan since childhood, he's a leading collector of high-end Beatles memorabilia: signed letters, rare albums, old performance contracts, one of "The Beatles" drumheads from the front of Ringo's bass drum.
At a Sotheby's auction in 1994, Russ had paid about $5,000 for a tailored tan jacket, size 39 regular, with epaulets, pleated breast pockets and Nehru collar. It was the so-called Shea jacket, the jacket Paul McCartney wore when the Beatles performed at Shea Stadium on Aug. 15, 1965.
Recently, Russ, 50, slipped on a pair of white cotton gloves and eased a headless mannequin out of a locked display case. He unbuttoned the Shea jacket and removed it from the form. The fabric was clean and unwrinkled, although there were sweat stains on the acetate lining.
Russ's idea was to reverse-engineer the jacket and create an exact duplicate.
"All of the tailors I spoke with wanted to take it apart," he said. "I said, 'No, you can't do that.' "
Finally he found a master tailor in Lehighton, Pa., named Pete Camioni. The two spent four days poring over the jacket, taking measurements, making sketches. Today, you can buy a Shea jacket -- in tan or black, sizes 38 to 50 -- for $295 from Russ' company, www.beatlesuits.com.
Next, Russ duplicated the frock coat Ringo wore on the cover of the "Abbey Road" album. (The original -- size 34 short; Ringo is tiny -- is in another display case.) Russ also sells the collarless suits from the Beatles' early days, the narrow-lapel jackets and drainpipe trousers they wore on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and the velvet-collared sharkskin suits seen at the end of "A Hard Day's Night."
These outfits are a godsend for people whose job requires them to dress as John, Paul, George or Ringo. These are the hardworking Beatles tribute bands, made up of musicians who comb their bangs over their foreheads and master not only the chords of the Beatles' songs but also the distinctive bounce of the Beatles' heads, their knees-bent joggling stance, the slight eyeball flutter that accompanies a lusty "Woooooo!"
These groups -- with such names as the Mersey Beat, the Beat Club, BritBeat, the Beatalls, the Beatlads, the Fab Four, the Fab 5, Fab Forever and Almost Fab -- were cruising thrift shops looking for clothing that could be altered and made to look vaguely Beatlish.
About a third of Russ' suits go to "trib" bands. More recent rockers including Elliot Easton of the Cars and Doug Fieger of the Knack are also customers. So too are relatively normal folks.
"Some of it is kind of back in style now," Russ said of the clothes, made at a factory in Pennsylvania. "Then I think there are people who just want to have it to hang in the closet. I have a fair amount of women customers who want [the Shea jacket] in Paul's size -- not to wear it, not to give to their husband, just to have it in their collection, to put it on a mannequin in their Beatles room."