New York Times
Johnnie Riley: Spot Remover to the Stars
OCT. 31, 2015
Photo Credit Alex Welsh for The New York Times
Interview by PATRICIA R. OLSEN
Johnnie Riley, 63, is a manager at Madame Paulette, in Long Island City, Queens
Q. What is Madame Paulette, and what is your role as a manager?
A. We’re a dry cleaning and restoration company. I’m in charge of the dry cleaning department, and I specialize in leather, suede and fur.
How did you get this job?
I answered a want ad in a New York paper 15 years ago. I had worked at my father’s dry cleaning company and for another dry cleaner after that. During the interview, the owner decided to test me on spot cleaning, and I thought, “Really?” I had a suit on. But I know chemicals and have the skills, and I wasn’t worried. I got the job. I became manager about 10 years ago.
How much of your work is trial and error?
I didn’t get to where I am without making mistakes. But I’ve also had training. In the mid-2000s the company sent me for training in leather and suede to gain more expertise.
What interesting items have you worked on?
I cleaned and restored some of Princess Diana’s gowns before they went to the Smithsonian, and I’ve worked on the clothes of numerous celebrities including Elton John, Oprah, BeyoncÃ© and Bette Midler.
What were your most difficult garments?
One was Lou Gehrig’s jersey. I had one day to clean it before it went to an auction house. Another was Joe DiMaggio’s jersey. The courier who brought it stood next to me the whole time I was cleaning it. I guess he was told not to let it out of his sight.
What’s been a highlight of your career?
I was hired to attend Donald and Melania Trump’s wedding to take care of her gown. I pressed it before the ceremony and then packed it for shipping to our facility for a follow-up photo shoot. I met so many politicians and celebrities that day, I was in my glory.
Has there ever been a spot you couldn’t remove?
When some dyes bleed, they blend with the pigment in the fabric, and there’s no reversing that. Sometimes clients talk to me directly about a stain, and I tell them upfront what the chances of removing it are. After 40 years of doing this work, all I need to do is look at it.