The International Writers Magazine: Bags and Belts in New York Part Two
Fashion Asylum Pt 2: The Calderon Years
Eventually, Ernie Dornbusch came to pay me a little visit in his turn in the little room where Bill Daniels had stashed me away. When he came in the room, I didn’t even bother to look up from the stupid little pattern I was working on.
“Are you still here? he said, dripping venom. “I told Murray Nathan that I don’t think you’re the man for the job. You came here from Pearl?
That required an answer, so I looked up. “Yeah”.
“So, what did you do for Pearl?”
“I was the foreman in the cutting department”.
“What made you come here?”
“I heard there was a design opening”.
“Who told you that?”
“The union rep”.
“Well, I think I’ll give Pearl a call and ask her about you”.
I gave a shrug and went back to my pattern. If Dornbusch did that I was dead before I even got started. Basically, I was all bluff. Dornbusch was all bluff too. He was just a salesman, a misbegotten breed of loser if ever one existed. I didn’t know much about the industry, but I had years fo good styling expertise from sewing clothes for French customers, who are the most demanding customers in the world. Dornbusch’s whole past experience was shooting off a lot of hot air and contributing to global warming.
Oh, he was a wasted specimen of humanity! Back in those days the saying went that at age 50 you got the face you deserved, and Dornbusch was all jowly with unflattering fat deposits hanging from his face and shaking with rage, a Halloween reveller’s mask of ignorance and corruption, but if it wasn’t for all those superfluous flapping folds of flesh he would have had no physical characteristics whatsoever. Even being ugly is preferable to being a total non-entity. Heaven knows what visual aspect of horror was hidden inside his expensive gray suit. Nowhere in my life had I ever imagined being confronted by a total non-entity like Ernie Dornbusch. But he was my New York experience, a total waste of time standing between me and the money.
What did I expect? And endless cocktail reception at Cipriani with fashion models and Italian industrial magnates inviting me to pass a few months sailing the Mediterranean on their yachts? I don’t know that I expected that, but I felt as though that was what I deserved, and not these stunted freaks. In the meantime, I now had a crack at being broken in as a qualified industry designer, if I could get past this freakin scarecrow of a salesman.
Dornbusch finally got tired of trembling in rage and left the room. I went out for lunch but there was absolutely nothing open around there. Nothing. That part of town resembled the set of Scorsese’s “Mean Streets”. Finally I found a hole-in-the-wall bodega and bought a can of beer, which I drank on the street while I smoked some cigarettes.
That afternoon, Bill Daniels came to see me. “It’s all arranged”, he said. “I’ll take you to meet the man you’ll be working with”. He led me to the belt department on the third floor and introduced me to my two bosses, Louie Janz, the production designer, and Morris Schwartzwald, the floor supervisor. Both these jokers were in their seventies.
Schwartzwald had a German accent and a skeletal, funereal face lie a Mexican Day of the Dead illustration. He would not have been out of place in a shadowy walk-on par in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, that’s how scary he was. He was plug ugly and he knew it. Nevertheless, he had a framed diploma from a German technical institute hanging over his desk, and you had to respect that. I was to be trained according to the very exacting standards that he knew before he passed on to that big wienerschnitzel in the sky.
Louie Janz was the main guy. He had the hands. I would have a work table adjascent to his in the cutting section, where he would train me in the patterns, prototypes and in setting up the production runs as the orders came in. He was a stout little fireplug, real old school right down to the Depression era poorboy cap, like Leo Gorcey in the “Bowery Bums” comedy films. Louis was Olde New York, with a thick Brooklyn accent. “My bruddah”, “my faddah”, etc. Louie had never married. He shared an apartment with his bruddah in Sheepshead Bay and he had a boat docked in a marina. Fishing was his passion. Louie was the old-timer you saw on the subway with a folded copy of the Daily News opened to the center page that showed the crime photos.
If I could stick it out long enough to learn what these old-timers knew, I could go to work anywhere: belts, handbags, shoes and I could eventually weasel myself into the executive suite. Only, instead of all the frauds who had gotten there through bluff and nepotism, I would know everything from the ground up. I would be invincible. That is what I saw for myself, and freakin Ernie Dornbusch probably recognized that. They probably all did, because I didn’t try very hard to conceal my ambition.
Many years I had lain back in Montreal and plotted my conquest of New York City. Every time I produced a nice item for a customer in my boutique, Deans Boutique de Cuir, I had taken photos of it to add to my portfolio, for eventual use in breaking in to the New York market. I had photos of fantastic theatrical outfits that I had designed for my Halloween fashion show at Yuk Yuk’s Komedy Kabaret. WhenI finally determined that I had absolutely wrung everything I could get out of Montreal and had nothing left to gain from sticking around, I closed shop, put everything I owned in storage and caught the next train for New York.
As luck would have it, my timing was dead on. The last generation of true maestros was on its last legs and getting ready to retire, as illustrated by Louis and Morris. These old boys did not want to give it up, but the sands of time were running out. They were in their seventies and on their last legs. A couple of years sooner would have been too early and a couple of years later would have been too late, both for them and for the high end of the industry as well, as we shall see.
There were few qualified men to pass the baton to. I say men and I mean it. the exacting rigors and the rough-and-tumble nature of industrial production were too nasty for modern female sensibilities. FIT was graduating a lot of design students, but you needed a leather background to be trained as an industry accessories designer. And, sorry to say, most of the styling in the market was extremely pedestrian. There was nobody around who was suitable to be trained. It was like I had hit gold.
This fact was not lost on Dornbusch, Louie Janz and Morris. They were dismayed to see that I was sitting in the catbird seat. They all realized that new blood had to be brought into the industry, but not somebody as voracious as I was. As Morris once told me, barely containing his rage, “You, you are different!” They would have preferred to pass their knowledge on to somebody a little less, shall we say, comprehensive. In addition, I looked even younger than I was, and they couldn’t accept all that styling talent and combatitiveness coming from somebody who, from their perspective of ancient relics, looked to be a contemporary of freakin Harry Potter.
The first thing Louis Janz told me was, “Here we work centers”. That meant that patterns had to be balanced and symmetrical. Handbag and belt patterns are styled with a small, curved knife on heavy paper that is scored by a patternmaking pin along a straight edge and then folded along the score, sort of like a Japanese origami. That way, once you have your curved line you cut along the curve with your knife, and when you open it up you have a perfectly symmetrical curve. Naturally, all rules are made to be broken, depending how advanced you are, but this rule of symmetry is the natural alw of the universe and the cardinal rule of patternmaking.
We were not in the handbag business. That was another universe on the fifth floor, with its own set of natural laws and its own elements of design. But some of the principles were mutual. We made constructed items, which meant that a lot more component parts went inot our pieces than in a less elegant item. Louis would go down to the design room and receive a sketch and instructions from the anathans or one of their assistants, along with the buckles and ornaments, which were specially designed for us by Barry Kieselstein-Corde, and then he would give me a piece of the job to work on while he structured the overall piece. A lot of our time was spent worrying over the small ornaments with our little rulers and calculating by what means they would be fit into the overall item. Louis taught me to construct small cardboard “jigs”, as they were called, to fit the ornament flush so that it could be swedged onto the belt by means of a drill-press. A lot of belts had ornamental chains, and we would build jigs to measure lengths of chain so that they would drape from the belts precisely as we wanted them. He taught me to keep detailed records for later use in setting up the production runs. He taught me the detailed, intricate tricks of the trade as they had been passed down through the age, the way a Renaissance Florentine artisan would initiate his apprentice.
He showed me how to cut a piece of leather content filler, which is compressed fiber like drywall, into a shape, rivet a double hook into it, pare the edges thin, cover the top with a piece of 10-point paper to cover the bump of the rivet, turn a piece of snakeskin over it, fit a lining neatly over the hook using heat seal cement and a heat press. And voilà! You have a custom shakeskin belt closing with a hidden hook, cut to any shape you want!
He showed me how to make a pattern for a covered buckle, which we would submit to the machinist, who would cut us a metal frame. I would make a pattern for the buckle covering, spray it and the metal frame with rubber cement, wait for the cement to turn to a tacky state, carefully place the frame behind the covering and turn the cover over the frame with a piece of shaped bone, cut a lining, spray the lining, lay it precisely over the back of the covered buckle and press it on the heat seal press, clean it with benzine, put a prong on it. Voilà! an elegant covered buckle appropriate for the belt rack in Bloomingdale’s.
Sometimes Louie didn’t have enough work for me, or he didn’t feel like sharing the work. There were plenty of times that he would hold back from showing me things that he couldn’t bear to reveal to me, so closely held are the secrets of the métier. In those circumstances I did regular production functions for Morris. This old man was the kiss of death. An uglier, nastier, more ornery old coot never existed. Sometimes freakin Dornbusch would come onto the floor and confer with Morris. This imbecile salesman had no business in the production end of things, but he was like a god to the Nathans, and he had the run of the place. The two of them would confer and glare at me, and then Morris would walk over to me and start screaming like a Coney Island funhouse banshee, blood-curdling, about why my cutting board wasn’t oiled and scraped, or whatever. One time he told me that he had received complaints about my body odor. Real sophisticated stuff like that. Hey, when you’re at his stage of the game the options for entertainment are greatly reduced. What was he going to do, pick up a girl? Go play rollerblade hockey?
One time, just to piss him off, I made a phone call from the pay phone next to his desk and made a date with a beautiful girl to meet me at an outdoor café on Broadway. When I got off the phone he told me, “No more phone calls” ha-ha!
Continued in Fashion Asylum Part Three
© Dean Borok October 2010
Life in Fashion Hell
Dean Borok on Fashion Show Mayhem
If the world had evolved differently, I would have been at the top of my industry, with a beautiful Manhattan condo and a luxury automobile. Instead, I am stuck in a circle of hell.
Fashion Asylum One
Fashion Asylum Two
Fashion Asylum Three
Fashion Asylum Four
More life moments