One Handsome Relic
By SUMATHI REDDY
H. Herzfeld is not a place where you're likely to find Occupy Wall Street protesters. Step into the shop, barely noticeable on a busy East Midtown block, and you enter Old New York.
You see, it's a haberdashery—a purveyor of only the finest of the fine for those whose sartorial tastes tend toward cashmere and bow-ties and Panama hats.Steven Holz, Michael Goldberg, Jonathan Cline and Ira Rothstein at H. Herzfeld Fine Men's Haberdashery in Midtown.
It is the kind of shop where the proprietor—in this case Jonathan Cline—will always be there to greet you at the door. And the tailor—Ira Rothstein—can size you up for a custom-made suit down to a quarter of an inch.
"Without the tape measure," he boasts.
The always-dapper Gay Talese is said to be a regular here. The white-suited Tom Wolfe has been in, too. Mr. Cline says Paul Newman stopped in a couple of times; the last was when a customer asked him for an autograph.
The late pianist Vladimir Horowitz was a steady customer, his cuffs different sizes because his stronger piano hand had a larger wrist. And Joe Namath once came and bought the largest pair of gloves the store ever carried.
Things don't come cheap here. A pair of Swiss underwear can run you $85 for briefs and $95 for a ribbed undershirt. (There's another brand for about half the cost, Mr. Kline points out.)
There are Carpincho hog skin suede gloves for $425. The highest-quality Borsalino hat, à la "Mad Men," costs $650. And the famous British Brigg umbrella starts at $295, though the coveted Whangee handle (made from the root of a type of Bamboo) is about three times as much."This venerable enterprise which has existed for so long is kind of a little bit of a victim of the new world," said concerned customer Michael Goldberg, wearing a bowtie from H. Herzfeld Haberdashery.
As might be guessed, these are tough times for H. Herzfeld. The fourth-generation independent shop whose roots stretch back to 1890 in Germany is holding on, a relic of a bygone era.
That's where the Committee to Save Herzfeld comes in.
Convened by Michael Goldberg, executive director of the National Basketball Coaches Association, the small committee of customers is working to help the struggling business makes its way in the 21st century. Mr. Goldberg has a motive: He's a longtime regular who's been hooked since the day his wife bought home a green Pringle cashmere sweater as a gift for their first wedding anniversary.
"This venerable enterprise which has existed for so long is kind of a little bit of a victim of the new world," said the fashionable Mr. Goldberg, dressed in a royal-blue sports jacket and bow-tie.
"Old-fashioned haberdasheries are closing all over the country," he added. "People are shopping differently….There's a niche for this particular type of store, especially in New York, where there's a small cadre of people that really want to dress well."
H. Herzfeld has 15,000 of those. Customers whose names, contact information, sizes and preferences are painstakingly typed out and fill eight rolodexes. They include men from as far as South America and Europe, who stop in a couple of times a year when they are in New York.
But since the fall of Lehman Brothers and the Bernie Madoff scandal, business has dropped, though really the gradual decline of business dates back to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
It used to be, Mr. Kline said, that "whenever my business went up the stock market went up, and whenever my business went down, the market went down."
"What recently happened was the market went up and then our business started going up, which is the opposite," he said. "What was isn't anymore."
H. Herzfeld was founded by Mr. Kline's father-in-law's grandfather, Alex, in Hanover, Germany. Mr. Kline showed a scrapbook filled with black-and-white photos of the original storefront and its founder.
Under his son, Hermann Herzfeld, the shop thrived until World War II, when he and his family were forced to flee to South America. They relaunched the shop on Madison Avenue in 1949. Someone anonymously mailed them the scrapbook years later.
Eventually, Mr. Kline's father-in-law, Wolfgang Herzfeld, took over. The Madison Avenue shop expanded five times before business began to decline and the high rent forced it to move to its current location.
Much of what Mr. Herzfeld sells is imported from Europe. There are items made in Italy specifically for the store.
Shifting cultural trends are noticed here. When the television show "Mad Men" soared to popularity, there was an increased demand for hats and double-breasted suits.
Soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks took place, no one bought anything except one item: Trafalgar braces (suspenders that come in different prints).
Recently, customers are more apt to buy sports jackets than suits. Fashion trends have changed and Mr. Kline realizes the store must, too.
Even his most loyal customers realize that.
Richard Parkoff, 63, has been shopping at Herzfeld's for 44 years.
"Their merchandise was always the best," he said. "It was from the old country, from the old time….It was just a nice way of shopping, which has been lost."
"I don't know how much of that clientele is left that can sustain a business like that," he added.
Mr. Parkoff said he still shops there. The other day he called in an order of 55 to 60 handkerchiefs. They were sent right away. He trusts the staff to pick out ties for him and others.
"Maybe their time has come and gone," he said. "I can't tell you. It would be sad."
Meanwhile, Mr. Goldberg is banking on finding a new investor. The committee is in the process of raising $150,000 in short-term capital to tide the business over. And the shop is planning special events and to introduce some new inventory, even possibly (gasp!) a women's line.
The modern-day haberdashery may never again be the same.