RIP Martin Greenfield - Tailor To The Stars - Tailor For The Films

RIP Martin Greenfield - Tailor To The Stars - Tailor For The Films

Martin Greenfield And His Sons – One Of New York’s Greatest Treasures

“No is not something we accept easily, that’s in our blood” Jay Greenfield

The story of Martin Greenfield is a much fabled and revered one which is now embedded in the American psyche. As a holocaust survivor of the second world war he asked a young rabbi,  Hershel Schaecter, who was acting as a US Army chaplain “where was God?” when his concentration camp was liberated. It was at this very same time that he first shook the hand of General Eisenhower, whom he would later make suits for in New York. After being liberated, Greenfield spent the next two years looking for his family. They were all gone. His father was killed just one week before his camp was liberated. At the age of 19, alone, Greenfield boarded a ship for the United States and made his way to New York City to stay with relatives.

In 1947 he began working for GGG Clothing, a suit maker in East Williamsburg in the borough of Brooklyn, a company that eventually he would come to own and occupy the same building where the business still operates today.

Martin Greenfield’s success and determination are a testimony to both the American dream and a human being’s ability to overcome adversity and remain positive in the face of human atrocity. He is the ultimate student of Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy – finding meaning and value in his service to his customers by making quality clothes with intrinsic value.

When I meet Martin Greenfield he is wearing a navy waistcoat, a yellow satin silk tie with polka dots and a sky blue shirt. He is well groomed, charming and with a movie star glint in his eye that appears slightly misty. He is old. 88 years on in fact. But this does not stop him from circumnavigating his factory floor, picking up a sleeve from one pile, inspecting it, lowering it gently, and continuing on to the next station. He goes about things quietly. I am told that I will be speaking to his son Jay because Martin is finding it hard to do interviews these days, but as he approaches me on the factory floor he intuitively sees that I need a line or a quote and he stops and looks at me.

“Tonight there will be a show on me across Russia….. (he pauses) … China… Canada… America. 900 million people will see it. Now everyone knows my name. Martin Greenfield”.

It seems to me as though he knows the act he has played and he is enjoying the applause before the curtains are lowered. It does not seem like braggadocio, it’s more matter of fact.

Jay, his eldest son, is proud to be a part of the business too. He trained at a dental college before joining the family business in 1981. He is mildly mannered in an American way I am unfamiliar with. His check shirt is open revealing grey chest hairs and a gold necklace. He has a white beared and a round face with very clear and charming blue eyes. He is wearing jeans and sneakers. His brother, Tod, also joined the family business in 1982 after training in set and lighting design. Jay explains that it was a tough business back then but they eventually found their groove, part of which was to agile and try new things. Back then the business was renowned for wholesaling suits for other businesses. Today it melange of ready to wear, designing ranges of suits for labels and working directly with film and television studios to produce character wardrobes and finally, their own bespoke suit programmes.

The Martin Greenfield today is veritable library of menswear too. They have an accumulated pattern database they inherited from GGG Clothing that goes back to the late 1800’s and as Jay explains, there is nothing that is designed these days that they haven’t already made in the past. He works directly with costume designers like John Dunne to create the outfits for over 165 characters in Boardwalk Empire, or with the creators of The Wizard Of Lies to tailor a suit directly on Robert De Niro when he plays Bernie Madoff.

This is the last of the great tailoring workrooms in New York and it doesn’t look like it is slowing down. Every floor is buzzing with migrant workers (Martin is proud to say his business’ backbone are the same asylum seekers that he once was) , many quite old themselves, dedicated to producing approximately 250 new suits a week.

And whilst most suit makers around the world have shut their doors as made-to-measure programmes run out of China force them out of the market, Martin Greenfield carries on undisturbed. In fact, as Jay explains, he loves MTM programmes.

“We feel MTM is a great way for customers who cannot afford a bespoke suit to get a taste for it. And when they don’t get exactly what they want, the next time they’ll come to us. My father likes to talk about what is out ‘intrinsic value’ and we don’t stray from this. We make our own patterns. Hand-stitch a full canvas. We are a traditional maker of quality clothes.”

It is perhaps for this reason, coupled with their extensive computerised archive of designs, that costume designers like Ellen Mirojnick, Catherine Martin and John Dunne line up to use their services for films and serials like Wall Street, The World’s Greatest Showman, The Great Gatsby, Gotham, The Wizard Of Lies or Blacklist.

And in turn this becomes a reflexive melting pot for so much culture that is derived from the United States Of America. The Greenfields have made slim and conservative navy suits for President Obama, broad shouldered and sweeping double-breasted crepe suits for President Clinton. For President Eisenhower they made three-piece suits, and Martin used to sew concealed notes and hidden messages for the President inside the suits on political issues he felt strongly about. And if you are not sure who else they made suits for, you just need to look up on the wall. The timber slat walls are filled with photos of Presidents, mayors, celebrities, movie stars, financiers, businessman, fighters, entertainers and musicians that is a veritable who’s who of the popular culture of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Martin’s desk is no different. It is so basic and unassuming that I reach for my camera and my grin goes ear to ear. A man who left Europe with nothing who went on to dress anybody that mattered. Colin Powell shakes hands with him in one frame wearing a more strict 3 button suit. There is Michael Bloomberg in a similar pose. On the wall is Paul Newman.

But despite all the success, business continues as usual, uninterrupted. Trousers are made on the ground floor, jackets on the first. Administration and bespoke is on the third. Appointments are normally done one after the other, rarely with overlap so customers don’t meet one another and offers some privacy. On Saturdays there are complimentary bagels and coffee. All the measurements are done by Michelle. Once she is satisfied the measurements are translated to a CAD pattern and then printed. From this the cloth is cut in their cutting room before being basted for a first fitting. It is as bespoke services always are, a custom service from start to finish. A tailor, as Jay reiterates, is critical to the process. The same person that makes your suit will alter and finish your suit. They control the total process. Martin’s ethos was that the customer should never feel that they paid for the fit out. All the money should be in the suit.

I ask Jay if he worries about the future. He shakes his head and responds “I know that we can’t make enough suits for the people that ultimately want us to make custom suits. We don’t advertise. We concentrate on what my father calls “the intrinsic value” and we don’t dilute. Look around, nothing is fancy here and we don’t open fancy shops in Manhattan. We just make great suits and with the internet the way it’s been, we get great press and everyone finds us on google.”

As I leave I am invited to peruse the two other floors and in doing so I get a sense of the scale of the business and what an anomaly it appears to be in a world which doesn’t allow for such businesses to be located in the United States, let alone Brooklyn.

Martin is softly walking about carrying on with his business and I can’t help but feel that he is the very embodiment of man’s search for meaning.

This article originally appeared in Robb Report 2018

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