Making It Here: Martin Greenfield Clothiers
Walk upstairs to the second floor of an ordinary-looking building in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and you might suddenly think that you’ve entered a time machine.
Tailors mark up specially selected textiles with chalk; stitchers use foot-pedaled machines to sew horsehair fabric to hand-cut jackets; even the remnants of the gas jets for lanterns that lit up the shop floor a century ago are visible on the walls.
And perhaps you may not know where you are, since those same walls display both a Mezuzah and the bright red paper of a Chinese calendar; Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Ecuadorian flags hang from the windows; and desks boast pictures of Greek Orthodox Saints.
However, you are inside Martin Greenfield Clothiers, one of New York City's longest-running factories.
Owner and proprietor Martin Greenfield first found work at the factory in the 1940s, after escaping Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Later, when many clothing factories left New York City in the 1970s—initially for the southern U.S. and later for Asia—it looked like his workplace would do the same. But Mr. Greenfield purchased it, pledging to keep this refuge that he’d found in America open, and to employ high quality staff to make high quality clothing in Brooklyn, for as long as he lives.
Martin Greenfield Clothiers (MGC) has since employed thousands of New Yorkers to sew suits for celebrities, mayors, and nearly every U.S. President since Eisenhower. The factory even makes the period pieces for films and TV shows like The Great Gatsby and The Good Wife. All of the hand-crafted custom suits are created piece-by-piece, a process meticulously overseen by Mr. Greenfield, alongside sons Tod and Jay, who also manage more than 100 workers from all five boroughs with roots in every corner of the globe, as evidenced by the flags and other décor found throughout the factory.
We live in New York, we like New York, and our employees live and work here. We have a profit incentive, but we also feel a responsibility for the families of our workers.
- Tod Greenfield
New York City’s stature as a global fashion capital is deeply connected to its apparel manufacturing industry, since so many designers rely on close relationships with the people that make their creative vision come to life. At the same time, manufacturers need to stay competitive in the face of global pressures.
That’s why MGC applied for, and received, an NYCEDC Fashion Manufacturing Initiative grant, that was announced by Mayor de Blasio in February. The grant helped MGC to complete some much-needed upgrades to their steaming machines and to install new technologies like Lectra fabric cutting workstations. This allows MGC to better fulfill larger orders, using current technology to maximize efficiency while maintaining standards of impeccable quality in manufacturing Brooks Brothers' Golden Fleece series and MG brand suits sold by Gilt.com, not to mention almost all of the custom-tailored uniforms worn by New York City's doormen.
Ultimately, the Greenfields aim to strike a thoughtful balance between an old-fashioned reliance on human touch and the characteristics of a 21st century New York City enterprise.
“There are dozens of variables that affect how a single suit looks on any individual,” Tod told a Monday morning tour group organized by Open House New York and NYCEDC as part of the Making It Here series, a year-long exploration of the city's industrial heritage. “And the only way to ensure those are perfect is through the process and quality embodied by tailors like ours.”
The bottom line is that the quality you pay for means that your suit will last through a child’s birth, graduation, and wedding—to say nothing of dozens of dry cleanings—while an off-the-rack equivalent might fade after just a few years. It might be cheaper to manufacture somewhere else or with the newest labor-saving technologies, but the Greenfields insist they have a different ethic.
“When our cloth cutters retire, we’ll have the machines to pick up any slack," says Tod Greenfield.
Martin Greenfield Clothiers has not only been an important icon in New York City’s fashion scene, but also in the civic landscape.
Mr. Greenfield was a founding member of the East Williamsburg Valley Industrial Development Corporation (EWVIDCO), which works to retain, develop, and mentor small manufacturing firms in the area. The network of small businesses helps to ensure that New York’s firms can help combat competitive pressures together, by sharing knowledge and producing materials locally as much as possible.
Another member of the network, the National Bias Binding Corporation, a third-generation NYC family business, is now housed in the NYCEDC-managed Brooklyn Army Terminal industrial space, where firms receive city assistance to help reduce their energy consumption.
Martin Greenfield Clothiers’s main competitive advantage is the quality of their product. It’s a quality that’s ensured by the institutional knowledge that pervades their shop floor, and that is a knowledge that can only be crafted, honed, and passed down in that the very factory that existed in that very same Brooklyn neighborhood more than 100 years ago.
If Martin Greenfield Clothiers’s’s success continues, it’s a factory that may be there for another 100 years.