Brooklyn's Fashion Scene

Michael Turek

What makes Brooklyn so central to New York fashion? Departures gets to know the neighborhood.

It takes something special to survive in an industry as fickle as fashion: an honest love of labor, a healthy dose of optimism, endless reserves of energy—or, as we say in Brooklyn, chutzpah. Which explains why Martin Greenfield wakes up every day, dons his three-piece-suit and heads to his factory in Bushwick, Brooklyn, as he has for the past 64 years. Greenfield, along with his sons Jay and Tod, runs Martin Greenfield Clothiers, the most trusted hand-tailored clothing business in the country.

“We helped build this city. People were sharing things with other people. It was a very nice time to grow up,” Greenfield remembers. A Holocaust survivor, he immigrated to this country in 1947, at the height of an industrial boom that found New York at its bright, burning center. “When I came here, I thought I was in heaven, because I could do anything I wanted to do. I could get a job anyplace,” he says. The job he settled into was “floor boy” for GGG Clothes, one of the largest clothing manufacturers of its day. Greenfield learned his trade from the ground up, and after 30 years of working and refining, he bought the GGG factory, where his business is still housed. That experience explains Greenfield’s veneration for his 112-person, unionized staff. “The one thing I could tell you about Brooklyn: There is no place like it,” he says. “First of all, we have the best help that you could get, even today.” Though a lovely sentiment, this seems a bit idealistic given the fact that the garment industry has moved almost entirely overseas. But while Greenfield recounts his incredible personal history—hiding notes containing his political opinions in President Eisenhower’s pockets while tailoring his jackets; dressing pals like Paul Newman in the 1980s—the office phones are ringing off the hook. What could be the secret to this ongoing success that’s eluded so many others?

“Everyone else went out of business except for me because of one reason: I never gave up quality. I still make the same handmade clothing I did before,” Greenfield proudly explains in his Eastern European accent. “Every designer comes here for the same reason. Today everything is fitted and everything is short, but if you make it by hand, it moves with you. If you make it cheap and fuse it, it doesn’t move.” Here’s where Greenfield’s flexibility toward the whims of fashion comes into play. Remember the loose-fitting crepe suits from the 1990s? (I know we’ve collectively tried to forget.) Greenfield had a booming business churning them out for the likes of Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, not to mention Bill Clinton and Shaquille O’Neal.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the fashion pendulum swung the other way and the fitted trend captivated editors and buyers alike. Credit for the shrunken-suit revival should go to menswear designer Thom Browne—also a client of Greenfield’s—who believes all men should look like Dick Van Dyke. A crop of ultracool, retro-inspired designers quickly found their way to Greenfield’s door, including Band of Outsiders and Rag & Bone (both indie labels that have gone big time after being honored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America).

Today, there’s no sign of slowing momentum. The 82-year-old Greenfield whisks me around his bustling production floor—a 100-year-old building with hardwood floors and tin ceilings—where we meet a woman die-cutting jacket fronts, a table of six seamstresses dedicated to stitching silk buttonholes, men operating a row of giant steam presses. To make one jacket requires 108 operations. Greenfield grabs a sleek tuxedo jacket off the rack and reveals a written label in the inside pocket: “Mayor Bloomberg,” he flashes with a wink. Other VIP clients include Colin Powell and New York City police commissioner Raymond Kelly.

In a relentlessly changing industry, Greenfield is already working with the newest crop of young, promising designers: Freemans Sporting Club, Ovadia & Sons, Doyle Mueser and even the women’s label Holmes & Yang, recently launched by Katie Holmes and her stylist, Jeanne Yang. “I love what I do because I feel it’s the toughest business in the world, but if you know what goes into it….” He trails off, distracted by a gorgeous double-breasted cashmere jacket that will go to the set of Boardwalk Empire. Greenfield has dressed the male cast since the show’s beginning. He swoons: “It’s so beautiful, it just talks back to you.”

$ A custom suit starts at $1,700. For appointments and more details, call 718-497-5480 or go to greenfieldclothiers.com.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.

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Brooklyn’s Best-Kept Secret

My lunch date at Brooklyn’s world-famous Peter Luger’s is 85-year-old Julian Hertling, aka Julie. Eating here is a Tuesday tradition he has dutifully carried out for more than 50 years, which explains why we are quickly escorted past the line of tourists. Julie is equal parts curmudgeon and mensch, a garment industry veteran as seasoned as they come. “I came out of the army in 1946 and went to work in my father’s clothing factory. Or was it 1846?” he says with a smirk.

Hertling Trousers—the latest incarnation of Hertling’s manufacturing business, which at one point occupied the entire six-story building on Driggs Avenue that’s now the linchpin of Williamsburg—continues to uphold the highest standards in ready-made trousers. Not only does Julie provide private-label trousers to the old guard of men’s clothiers like Paul Stuart and Orvis but he also works with the trendiest designers, from cultish boutiques like Epaulet in New York and Sid Mashburn in Atlanta to fashion darlings Billy Reid and Duckie Brown. Julie has had to keep reinventing himself at an age when most are completely stuck in their ways, let alone retired. “I don’t know. I like what I’m doing, and if I’m not doing it, I don’t think I’d know what else to do,” he shrugs, humbly revealing what is most likely the key to longevity.

Hertling trousers retail between $145 and $325; 718-784-6100.

The Cutting Edge: Brooklyn Brands

Four brands stitched to perfection in Brooklyn.

Doyle Mueser: This three-year-old ready-to-wear label in Manhattan’s West Village aims to replicate the experience of a Victorian bespoke shop (custom tailoring is also an in-house service). Menswear aficionados will know designers Amber Doyle and Jake Mueser’s first project, Against Nature, on the other side of town. Suits start at $2,700; doylemueser.com.

Ovadia & Sons: Twin brothers Ariel and Shimon Ovadia grew up in Brooklyn helping their father with his clothing business. Now their year-old label indulges the devotion they share to the bygone era of classic tailoring. Suits start at $1,695; ovadiaandsons.com.

Freemans Sporting Club: For summer, F.S.C. teamed up with Martin Greenfield to develop the Featherweight suit. Its soft-shouldered jacket, while fully canvased and hand-tailored, weighs only 14 ounces. Peak lapels and patch pockets complete the easy feel. Featherweight suit, $2,300; freemanssportingclub.com.

Holmes & Yang: Created in 2009 by Katie Holmes and longtime stylist Jeanne Yang, this women’s collection offers timeless suit pieces made by Greenfield, such as silk blazers with leather details, to solve that riddle of day-to-night dressing. Of utmost importance to the designers, everything is heritage-quality and made in the U.S.A. Suit, $3,945; holmesandyang.com.

J. McLaughlin's Brooklyn Roots

A preppy standard reveals its true colors.

J. McLaughlin may be a beloved fixture of Manhattan’s Upper East Side (the first store opened there in 1977), but the classic American-prep brand, synonymous with ribbon belts and Bermuda shorts, has roots further downtown than one might expect—Brooklyn, that is. Brothers Jay, 62, and Kevin, 60, launched the company with the seed money Jay earned in college, renovating 19th-century brownstones in Park Slope.

About seven years ago, the McLaughlins decided to move their operation to a huge, light-filled warehouse in Greenpoint (at the suggestion of pal Julie Hertling—see “Brooklyn’s Best-Kept Secret”—who shares the building). Bolts of the bright fabric their customers crave line the walls, and an efficient group of sewers whir in the distance. “Culturally, we embraced China,” Kevin says, referring to the company’s mechanized production method, “but we have survived by putting as much handwork as possible into a garment.”

That fine balance between sportswear and tailoring is what puts J. McLaughlin in a category of its own, and it’s motivated by a quality most businessmen as savvy as these brothers lack—nostalgia. Case in point: The top floor of their factory is filled to the brim with antiques of all varieties. Jay, who oversees merchandising and store design for the company’s 47 locations, uses some of these objects for window dressing. Kevin, who designs the collections, spends his weekends trolling vintage boutiques and flea markets for inspiration, often joined by his 15-year-old daughter. “She’s always picking out edgy stuff,” he notes, “so we have a bit of a sartorial tug-of-war.” Not unlike the Upper East Side and Brooklyn.

For store locations, go to jmclaughlin.com.