Words by Pete Anderson
Photos by Albert Thomas and Pete Anderson
Martin Greenfield Clothiers
239 Varet Street Brooklyn, NY 11206
Martin Greenfield is glad to be making clothes like he used to. On a rack on the third floor of Mr. Greenfield’s Brooklyn factory, the pants are long-rise, the jackets long and lean, the fabrics unusual--bright, napped, three-dimensional. “Everyone wears English high backs,” says Mr. Greenfield, referring to the high-waisted, split-back trousers favored in English tailoring. These pieces are not the work of a young designer with an anachronistic vision, but rather the suits and outerwear Greenfield has been turning out for HBO’s Jersey gangster epic Boardwalk Empire.
Martin schools me.
Greenfield needed to make two coats--one would be worn in the rain.
The Boardwalk Empire work is only a tiny percentage of Greenfield’s business, but it’s clearly disproportionately enjoyable for Martin and his sons, Tod and Jay, who help run what’s become a family trade (before joining his father, Tod worked in theatre). After giving me a tour of the facilities, Tod let me pore over binders of fit test photos for the actors in Boardwalk Empire. Steve Buscemi (Nucky Thompson) and Michael Pitt (Jimmy Darmody) are half in-character, half out in polaroids taken in Greenfield’s wood-panelled third floor fitting room. More binders contain 1920s catalogues and swatches to help Greenfield get the cuts and details true to the setting.
Fok and Tod Greenfield talk shop.
“They’re very careful,” Tod Greenfield says. “You’ll see the lower-level gangsters in worn-out suits, the styles are supposed to be two or three years old. The top guys are wearing the current stuff.” Current via 1921. “We’ve been doing some really interesting stuff for Harrow. Do you know the character? You really start to like him toward the end of the first season.” I assume as much as one can like a ruthless henchman in a tin steampunk mask. Tod relates that they turned one suit over to HBO in pristine condition, only to have it come back for alterations 24 hours later, tattered. The costume department had washed it in a machine with bicycle chains to add some character. It’s not the first time TV and film have turned to Greenfield. “I made the suits for the first Wall Street,” Martin tells me. “But not the new one. After, Michael Douglas asked to keep every one.” Douglas’s request is not surprising--although Wall Street’s costumes are 80s icons, the workmanship and consideration that went into making them are just as relevant to customers today.
A tailor at work.
Those customers, increasingly, are designers that you wouldn’t necessarily guess would seek out an old-school maker like Greenfield. On the floor during our visit were dozens of jackets for Scott Sternberg’s Band of Outsiders, probably the slimmest, most modern take on prep-wear around. Also in the works were pieces for sharp-tailored Rag and Bone, country-by-way-of-the-LES Freeman’s Sporting Club, and one of Greenfield’s major customers, Brooks Brothers Golden Fleece.
Band of Outsiders in the works.
Tod gives me the full tour. On the second floor of the building, which still features gas outlets for lamps, dozens of employees are working on tailored jackets. Although there’s not a formal decor scheme in the factory, a theme is pride. There are American flags, flag stickers, union posters, and dozens of photos of the people who put the suits together for Greenfield--they look like family photos, except Danny Glover is in some of them.
Greenfield is one of the last union shops making clothes in NY. At one time there were thousands.
The room is laid out in stations against the exterior wall, making it easy to follow the piecing together of jackets. A suit jacket or sportcoat may seem simple garment to lay people, but here in one of New York’s last cathedrals to suitmaking, the sophistication is clear. Men and women cut fabric for the chest and lapels, then baste in the “canvas,” the fabric that gives a jacket shape in the body. Greenfield uses a camelhair blend. “We use fabric from Italy. We used to buy our canvas in the United States. Soon we’ll have to buy it from China.” Tod Greenfield visits again and again the theme of America’s severely depleted garment industry. “We just bailed out the auto industry, but we did nothing [for the garment trade].” It’s all going abroad, “and it didn’t have to go.”
Presses line the walls.
Tod shows off some handiwork.
Tod turns a shoulder inside out to show the handstitching on the armscye, where the sleeve meets the shoulder. Employees in the factory work on a wide variety of machines, from old Union Special and Singer sewing machines (one Singer has been in use since 1938) to presses that shape the evolving garment, to higher tech machines only a couple years old, but certain processes still need to be done by hand in order to get the right structure, according to Tod. A Reece Imperial cuts buttonholes before they’re handsewn. The machine has run 727 million cycles over its century of work. As we follow jackets around the floor, some are just coming off the presses, and Tod turns them to show off the work. Greenfield has found success using traditional methods but being flexible on style.
Greenfield's oldest running equipment dates to the early 1900s, when predecessor GGG was already making clothes in Brooklyn.
Ooh, ticket pocket.
Tod is reluctant to describe a “house style”--it’s all dependent on the customer, whether it’s one of about 20 designers or 30 tailoring shops currently working with the factory. Tod says the business these days is about half made-to-measure and half off-the-rack suiting. Although Greenfield is not generally open to direct visits for made-to-measure suits, they recently sold a number of suits directly through Gilt Groupe, a site that sells a large volume of men’s and women’s clothing online, mostly at a discount from retail.
Greenfield house label.
This lady was FOCUSED.
“I didn’t think there’d be guys out there willing to pay,” says Tod. After all, suits were selling for nearly $1000, and Gilt shoppers were used to cut prices. But the suits and sportcoats sold very quickly. “When Gilt was getting leftover stock from designers, they weren’t getting staple pieces--like navy suits--in standard sizes. It was patterns in small and large sizes.” The “average guy” with a need for a wearable, domestically produced suit didn’t have a lot of options, and they jumped at the chance to get a Greenfield-built piece.
This part of the shop is a virtual greenhouse, maintained by a green-thumbed employee.
Tod shows me some of the more interesting pieces currently being produced. One designer had ordered a sleek suit with hidden buttons and an organza-like lining that allows the wearer to see the interior construction. Another jacket, a sample being rushed through, was made with a herringbone fabric that’s coated on one side for water fastness. The flap pockets were a small victory, as doubling the fabric and keeping it workable was no small task.
The red marks rush orders.
Coated herringbone fabric was a litte harder to work with, but Greenfield can work with almost any fabric, a possibility, Tod said, more modern shops with newer equipment do not offer.
As we walk around, feeling fabrics and looking over shoulders at the intricate work being done, Greenfield’s employees barely take notice. This is the last suit factory with over 100 employees in NY, but it’s still a factory, after all, and they’re at work. They’re also used to interlopers from the press and design world. David Blaine had just been in to work with Greenfield on a dinner suit with properties particular to the demands of a planned performance. While we were taking photos, a designer unobtrusively goes over patterns with another Greenfield worker. With a Brooklyn accent, administrative staff pages the Greenfields and other staff when they’re needed. From the outside this is just another brick building on a Bushwick street choked with dirty snow, but inside everything is humming.
Custom sleeve linings.
Trousers are made on the ground floor, although the trouser shop has moved a few times, even to Manhattan. The third floor has offices and room for fittings. That’s also where all the Boardwalk Empire goodies are kept. Martin presides over it all, as he has since he bought the business in 1978. He worked there, when it was known as GGG, for 30 years. So that’s 63 years of tailored clothing expertise discussing Steve Buscemi’s new, old suit. “When I was younger, if you needed a suit, needed a jacket, you went to a tailor. You got it made.” Martin Greenfield tells me. That’s not the case for 99% of suits purchased in the United States today, but the Greenfield factory beats on, a boat against the current.
Maybe I should have dressed up.