The International Writers Magazine: Fashion Asylum Part Four
Fashion Asylum Pt 4
Some of the models were beautiful professional strippers from the Supersexe club, who didn’t mind showing a little female charm. Comedy and strippers, a concept from past ages that hark back to Montreal’s rich burlesque traditions. I would perform a comedy monologue interrupted by musical segments of the models parading onstage. As amateur fashion shows to, it would be fairly high-gloss and glitzy.
I sent a note of invitation to Iona Monahan, the fashion editor of the Montreal Gazette, and she responded that she would send one of her reporters, Beverly Mitchell, to cover the event. I knew this Beverly Mitchell. She was an obese, odiferous pachyderm of a person with a huge feminine ego. But this was out of my control.
The show went off great. My act was solid and the performers all had a lot of beauty and charm. The models paraded around while I did my monologue, and for a climax we had Michael Ross in a leotard, who did a slinky, sinuous modern dance around the stage, where the models were proudly assembled.
The show went off great. My act was solid and the performers all had a lot of beauty and charm. The club was happy because the show was sold out and everybody drank a lot. The show even got a good review on the radio.
The only person who wasn’t thrilled was the Gazette reporter, Beverly Mitchell, an obese meatball dressed in what looked like a Persian rug and too much lipstick that made her mouth cover half her face, like a grotesque circus clown. Who appointed this elephant a fashion expert? Oh yeah, her boss, another broken-down loser. She insisted on watching the whole show standing up in the aisle with her notepad and pen in her hand, like she was covering the opening of parliament, in order to bring attention to herself, the working press blah blah blah…
This Beverly Mitchell decided that she was going to slam me good in the paper and put me in my place – a place that she had decided for me – and what was I going to do about it! When the review came out it was a slap in the face. Mitchell took a high moralistic tone for her low, sarcastic digs, reminiscent of that Andrea Peyser, the resident moralistic den mother at the New York Post. She insinuated, without frontally accusing me, that I had stolen my styling concepts from a French Canadian designer who had just shown a few weeks previously. She used my own jokes against me to portray me as “tacky” (hey, I never disputed that!). She took a smarmy, sarcastic tone to suggest my show was dreary, derivative and boring. The point of the article was to publicly humiliate me and make me look like a laughing stock.
Remember, it was a Halloween fashion show in a comedy club. I wasn’t trying to compete with Yves St. Laurent. This Mitchell individual, an obese no-talent drip, was motivated by envy and resentment. I was operating a nice boutique on Ste. Catherine Street and doing a comedy act in the clubs. She couldn’t contain her envy.
My first reaction was denial. I reasoned, this is all a big mistake. They’ll never let her get away with this, out of fairness. The Gazette is a pathetic rag of bourgeois garbage. They’ll never let Beverly Mitchell get away with this malevolent slander. They aren’t totally out of their minds, right? I wrote a letter to Iona Monahan, insisting on a retraction. A few days later I got a response stating, in effect, that if you invite the Gazette to review an event, you have to accept whatever it chooses to publish. As far as the Gazette was concerned, the matter was closed. I was the patsy.
This really sent me ballistic. What was I, a sucker for a bunch of shabby newspaper writers? There was no internet at the time, so those stooges in the print media had a lot more power than they do now. All I could immediately do was to respond in a letter, using extremely florid language, instructing them what they could do with their paper.
I filed a complaint with the Quebec Press Council, to which the Gazette was forced to respond, and they said they never meant any offense, which was the first time they offered any explanation for their asshole behavior. I sent a letter to their twerp editor reminding him that I was a nephew of Saul Bellow, who was born in Montreal and who had just recently won the Nobel Prize for literature, and who was like a god to them – and I was his nephew and a longtime commercial resident of Ste. Catherine Street. Finally, I started going on stage and referring to various anatomical aspects of Iona Monahan and Beverly Mitchell in the coarsest possible terms. I went so far as to write, “The way I see it, I could go down to the Gazett building with 20-30 Hell’s Angels and trash the whole building, and the judge would let me walk”, which, because of the conditional wording I employed, does not exactly constitute a legal threat, but it was still enough to get me arrested.
I wanted to get arrested. Then the whole affair would have hit the papers all over again, only coast-to-coast, probably. Then it would have been minutely scrutinized and analyzed, how the Gazette wrote such an incendiary article about a nephew of Saul Bellow. The Gazette had no desire to reopen the affair, and for good reason. In all the years I had been reading that piece of garbage, they had never before done such a butcher job on anybody. But as skeletal Morris Schwartzwald had so contemptuously put it, summoning up as much loathing and vitriol from his emaciated corpse of a body, trembling like the leaf on a dead tree, “You, you are special!”
I later found out that upon receipt of this charming missive, the Gazette management enhanced the security procedures of their premises. Still, they did not contact the authorities.
I got a call from High Society Magazine in New York. They had heard about my fashion show starring comedy and strippers, and they wonted to shoot a pictorial feature in my boutique. They sent porn star Annie Ample and a photographer, and I got a three-page full color feature of me bare-assed with Annie. I put it about that the next issue would feature an article written by me describing a sexual encounter between me, Beverly Mitchell and Iona Monahan underneath the merry go round at Montreal’s amusement park. How’s that for class!
The Gazette went berserk and called High Society, pleading with them not to run the article, to which High Society responded that they didn’t even know what the hell the Gazette was talking about. Nevertheless, the impact was unmistakeable. The Gazette took Beverly Mitchell off covering feature stories for a long time, although they eventually reinstated her. She never bothered me again, that’s for sure. The only loser was Mark Breslin, of Yuk Yuks’ Komedy Kabaret. The Gazette refused to cover the club or to review any of its acts after that. Breslin had to close shop and go back to Toronto.
A few months later a French designer in Paris used my comedy format for his fashion show. I don’t know whether he had heard about my show, or whether it was just a case of great minds thinking alike, but it’s not often that an American beats the French to a fashion concept?
So, what were these broken-down guys like Morris and Louie going to do to me that hadn’t been played on me before? They could curse me out all they wanted, but they still had to train me!
But for anybody who thinks that fashion is just dreary little sketches in a notepad, drinking champagne and eating little sandwiches with the crust cut off, let these stories be a lesson to you!
I arrived in New York in May, 1982. In September, when I was working at Accessories By Pearl, I enrolled at FIT, taking the handbag design course. One month later I landed the design job at Calderon, jumping ahead of the class by several years and starting to get practical industrial design experience in the field even as the rest of the students were still learning to fold the paper.
I had taken the course in the hope of preparing for an eventual opportunity of breaking in as a designer, so I was tempted to drop out. But since I had already paid the tuition, which wouldn’t be refunded in any case, I decided to stick with the program and see what I could pick up, because although belts and handbags adhere to the same fundamental principles, there are subtle differences.
Not that I had much else to do with my time. I didn’t know a soul in New York and I was desperately lonely. I was very sexually horny.
One evening I was walking on Second Avenue in midtown near where I was staying, when a beautiful, elegant brunette flashed me a dazzling smile and bid me hello. “All right!” I thought. “Maybe my luck is changing”.
She was in my handbag design course and she recognized me. Her name was Claire Brilliant, and despite her French name she was a Spanish woman from Bolivia. She turned and indicated the white luxury apartment behind her. “I just live right there’, she said.
Claire was classically elegant, the right shoes, the right hair, dark Indian skin and angular features, just what I admired. “Hello, baby, this is the big bopper speakin’”…
With her seductive Spanish accent and intriguing allure, Claire could have stepped right out a Pedro Almodovar movie, and as I was to discover, she was living an Almodovar comedy of dysfunction, trapped in an unhappy marriage with a banker, and mother to an uncontrollable American child that she desperately adored. We exchanged telephone numbers and promised to meet for cocktails. Naturally, it was all just on a casual level, she being married and all…
A few days later Claire called me and invited me for a drink, which turned into several drinks and stretched far into the night. We discussed handbags and fashion. She told me about Bolivia and the Europeans and Indians of that society. I described to her many aspects of what I was doing and my ambitions.
Finally, I walked her home to her building. “Would you like to come in with me and sit in the lobby for a while?” she asked. No longer had we installed ourselves on a couch in the beautifully appointed lobby, then she asked, “Would you like to come upstairs for a nightcap?”
“What about your husband?”
“He’s out of town on business”.
We established a routine where Claire would come to my hotel on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Her first gift to me was an immense tube of Vaseline. “For us”, she said. No gift can adequately express female love better than a big tube of Vaseline. We would go out for breakfast. Frequently, she would complain about her banker husband from Queens, whom she described as a cold fish, or a limp linguini ha-ha! Then we would take a stroll, where she would generally weep from guilt for what she was getting prepared to do with me. Then we would go back to my hotel room.
This went on for weeks, months. It was a perfect arrangement for both of us, leaving our weekdays free and meeting on the weekends.
At Calderon, I was given some exclusive belt buckles with the face of an Egyptian pharaoh and instructed to make belts for them that would be sold in the gift shop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as part of the Ramses II (or whoever it was) exhibition at the Met. I took the bus up to the museum to see my belts in the showcase. I don’t mind telling the reader how I burst with pride at seeing my work in the Metropolitan Museum so soon after arriving in New York. It sure was a step up from my little hole-in-the-wall boutique in Montreal. I was living on the East Side (OK, my hotel room was barely more than a closet, but the location, within walking distance of the UN, was really elegant!), a fabulous Spanish mistress and a design job at Calderon. This was more than most people can ever have the right to hope for!
After the handbag class ended at FIT, I decided to stick around a while longer. I took a flat patternmaking class for dress patterns and a draping class, cutting cotton muslin on the bias and draping it over a dress form as a preliminary step in making flat patterns. It was all so fascinating there are no words to describe it. I wish I had 100 years to spend at FIT to learn all the useful skills that they offer. The problem is that the place does not offering enough creative guidance on the artistic end of things. The instructors there had so much industry experience that they were worn out. The place was tired! Maybe there was no perceived need for more expressive fashion in the New York market, but the inspirational spark was missing in terms of a fashion attitude on the part of the faculty (where it is really important to inspire the students, a lot of whom come from a culturally deprived background, about the social importance of fashion). It was kind of blah, like a vocational institute instead of a fashion institution. FIT can offer some technical proficiency in production techniques, the courses all being taught by industry professionals, but there is no background and depth in installing in the students a cultural appreciation of the elements of style. That is why American fashion is stuck at the basic level, for the most part. In a sense, there is some truth to Anna Wintour’s throwaway line, “you either know fashion or you don’t". Then, there is the old saying, “Those who know don’t teach, and those who teach don’t know”.
I finally left off attending FIT. It was pointless. I decided to consecrate my resources and my time to a physical fitness regimen. I took out a membership at the 92nd Street Y, and started running and lifting weights like a maniac. In a short time I transformed my whole appearance and level of stamina. The change was striking. Claire was completely shocked. “You’re working out like someone in the ghetto”, she told me, not entirely in appreciation. She had been happy with me the way I used to be. I could tell that she was losing interest in me.
After a couple of years of training under Louis and Morris, I was beginning to feel as though I was getting the hang of it. I could handle any job that they gave me. Louie stopped checking my work and grabbed whatever I gave him, immediately incorporating it right into his own. Not only was I taking a lot of work off Louie’s shoulders, but the design room started giving jobs directly to me, bypassing him completely. I felt I was in a position to now ask for more money. I went to Jacques Heim, Murray Nathan’s cousin, and asked him to intercede with Murray Nathan on my behalf. A couple of days later I passed Louie on the back stairway, where there was nobody else around.
Louie accosted me angrily. “You went over my head!”
“What are you talking about?”
“You asked for more money.”
“What has that got to do with you?”
“I’m your boss. You’re supposed to come to me for a raise.”
This was news to me. I was given to believe that Louis was just training me. I didn’t know he had the authority go grant me salary increases. If I had reasoned that out, I would have asked Louie instead of Jacques. Finally, I don’t believe that would have been a successful initiative. Louie would have looked to obstruct me. Anyway, tough! “Sorry”, I told him.
“You bastard!” he screamed.
I walked away. I didn’t care about Louie any more. I didn’t need him anymore. Fuck Morris, too. As for Ernie Dornbusch, I complained to Bill Daniels about him. “This guy’s been harassing me for two years. I don’t mind a little hazing at first, but I think he should stop.”
“I’ll talk to him,” Daniels told me. Daniels told Dornbusch not to talk to me any more. All of a sudden, there was a sea change in the place. The leather cutters who worked all around us couldn’t believe it. My physical appearance had radically changed. I was leaner and more muscular. I had authority. Louie, Morris and Dornbusch had been tamed.
Morris seethed. I didn’t care if I talked back to him. At one point Louis couldn’t contain himself any longer and threw a fit, like he used to do. I told him, “Kiss my ass!”
“You’re all ass,” he told me.
One of the cutters, Robert Hicks, came over and whispered to me, "I like the way you talked to him.” My standing up to Louie had given extreme satisfaction to those donkeys in the cutting section, who had been on the receiving end of his little mouth since time immemorial. I whispered back, “Stick around. You’ll probably see it again.”
I didn’t have a boss anymore. But they were plotting their revenge. One day, I walked in the place and there was a new cutter, a Mexican kid named José. He was a little more clever than the other cutters. Louie would go over to to José’s machine and talk to him. It was obvious that they were plotting to get rid of me and install José as Louie’s assistant. He was more what they were looking for, a Spanish guy who would never be a threat to the little piece of hell that they had established in that production facility.
Robert Hicks brayed like a jackass and kicked like a mule. Even though he was imprisoned in a poor man’s life, he refused to be a party to his own oppression. He could scream and carry on the same as Louis and Morris, secure in the knowledge that the union would never let them fire him. If Morris, as supervisor, tried to push him around, he would bellow, “Hug my balls, mother...,", and Morris would beat a quick retreat to a neutral corner. You didn’t want to go too far in provoking these cutters, for if they felt cornered they were capable of grabbing a knife-edged steel cutting due and swinging it like a baseball bat, tearing through flesh and sinew, cutting you to the bone.
One time, when I was cutting a job on the shear machine, I got into a kind of dispute with Robert, and when he came too close, I backed away from the machine, lest he grab the blade and chop off my entire arm. I had graphically seen the kind of damage the thing could do one time when a guy made a mistake and cut off two fingers of his left hand.
Generally, Robert was peaceable. He had a comedic way of scratching the top of his head like a moron, like a joke statuette of the three see-no-evil monkeys. Robert was funny. Robert’s passion was playing golf on Brooklyn’s municipal golf course. Nice life for these working men in Brooklyn, Louis with his boat and Robert with his golf. This was back in the days when a skilled workman could maintain a spacious apartment with draperies and carpeting and take care of his family on a skilled wage. Robert was putting a daughter through law school.
Robert was capable of keeping a continuous line of tedious conversation going all day long as we worked, like an idiot version of a Johnny Carson or Merv Griffin of the Leather Cutters Comedy Network. He’s start off a line of debate by asking Walter Dooley, “Did you ever notice that…?” or “Did you ever wonder why…?” “Did you ever wonder why the bus down Flatbush Avenue to the golf course runs so slow on the weekends?” That would provoke a panel discussion of idiots about weekend bus service in Brooklyn, driving me crazy. The only time Robert could be counted to clam up was when the bell rang for lunch. Then, when he was on his own time, he didn’t have time to waste on idle chatter.
Robert and Louis were from warring parts of Brooklyn, which is its own universe riven by intense bad feelings and hatreds. Robert would take digs at Louie’s part of town, referring to it as “the communist section of Brooklyn”, an allusion to the Russian Jews who were at that time crowding into Brighton Beach/Sheephead’s Bay. Robert took the nativist approach to Jewish immigration that was “stealing my money”. Louie rarely rose to the bait, considering a man “of my position”, to be above debating with trashy elements like Robert.
Robert found that by luring me into the discussion he could get a rise out of Louie, who considered me to be an insidious and subversive element that was at the root of everything that was destroying America. From his standpoint, that was a correct assumption. We didn’t have too much in common. I wasn’t in the mood to make an effort to adhere to the reactionary default positions which were the cement that bonded working-class New Yorkers. A “nice conservative guy” adopted the talking points that were fed to him on a daily basis by the Daily News and found a congenial acceptance is his neighborhood tavern. I wasn’t that guy. It was an abomination for Louie to have to share his precious secrets with somebody like me, who didn’t belong to the Brotherhood of the Racoon Lodge.
Louis finally arrived at the determination that I wasn’t an American at all, but some kind of insidiouls foreign element, like the Nazi saboteurs who had infiltrated Long Island by way of a Nazi submarine during World War II, sort of like the present-day “birthers” consider Obama to be an Islamist sleeper agent. He decided I was a foreigner who had to be working in this country illegally, because the government would never issue a visa to a bastard like me.
For my part, I considered Louie, Morris and Dornbusch to be symptoms of the dysfunctional rot that was eating the country from the inside out. There was a Spanish cutter named Emilio, a very nice guy, who was one time out sick. I went through his box of leather scraps, looking for a piece of taupe-colored snakeskin and instead came up with a large roll of full snakeskins bound with a rubber band that he had evidently squirreled away to fence on the outside.
I showed the roll to Louie, but he just looked the other way, so I took it to Morris. “I found these in Emilio’s table”, I told him. Morris took one look and ran clear to the other end of the factory floor. Me, he had no qualms about confronting or harassing, but he was terrified of the help.
New Yorkers are such dyed-in-the-wool thieves that it’s factored into every minute of their working hours, like the air they breathe. I’m from Chicago, and I’m comfortable in the company of thieves, but I never met a sanctimonious gang of thieves like these New Yorkers, who steal just to keep in practice. The national animal of New York deserves to be the seagull, a humorless fuck of a bird that would rather steal the food out of another bird’s mouth than fish for its own. All the churches and synagogues are packed with sanctimonious thieves on the weekends, praying, “Lord, forgive me for all the thievery I did last week and give me the strength to go out and steal some more next week amen!”
All New Yorkers have little tricks for making themselves smarter than they actually are, little sound bytes, or phony accents or snippets of information that they picked up somewhere. It’s impossible to gauge the true intelligence of your interlocutor from conversation, like illiterate people who learn how to navigate their way around town by memorizing landmarks because they can’t read street signs. The surest way of finding out how much people know is to see something they’ve written by hand, which is usually at about a third-grade level.
My rule of thumb is to take New Yorkers at face value and then divide by half. Actually, I’m being charitable, the real figure being probably one-tenth of what they are letting on, which basically reduces people to the level of imbeciles, which is the figure I really have in mind. Basically, when dealing with New Yorkers, you can count on dealing with the mentality of a very stupid child. Based on this, my colleagues at Calderon were at the level of a very larcenous Hostess Twinkie.
Louie, Morris and Ernie Dornbusch were not adjusting to the new order of being compelled to relate to me in a civil manner. My relations with them were glacial. The dysfunction and mutual revulsion ran so deep that nothing could have corrected it. Even if they had given in and accepted the new state of affairs, it would only have been a matter of time before I seized the initiative and begun to terrorize them, so profound was my resentment over their initial behavior toward me. We were all highly skilled people who couldn’t get along. Imagine what conditions must be like in workplace situations involving less talented workers who don’t have any professional aptitude! That’s when the shooting starts!
It’s simple logic. Everybody had a lot to gain by just behaving professionally. I would have been happy to work in a harmonious environment. Unfortunately, Louie, Morris and Dornbusch had an exaggerated opinion of their own entitlement, and could not be satisfied unless they enjoyed enhanced standing, like a pack of wild dogs competing for hierarchical dominance. Unfortunately for them, in instances of animal aggression the young and the strong must inevitably prevail. No amount of snarling, barking and display of teeth can alter that eventuality.
Ernie Dornbusch was a piece of garbage, a salesman. But I should have felt gratitude to Louie and Morris for bringing me up to industry standard and giving me the resources to thrive in New York. Because of their training I had a dozen good years ahead of me (which is what they didn’t want to happen) and I would still be doing great today, had not the industry collapsed because of globalization.
Unfortunately, this professional legacy, as written by me, and which may have a long shelf life if I have any control over it, will be that of a couple of malicious retarded schmucks, because mine is the hand guiding the pencil. The writer has the last word, as Giorgio Vasari proved in Renaissance Florence. Just as the writings of Vasari immortalized Michelangelo as one of the foremost geniuses of the world of art for his adornment of the palaces of Italy, so do I hope to consecrate Louie Janz, Morris Schwartzwald and Ernie Dornbusch as the Three Stooges of the belt business, along with the bloated hippo Beverley Mitchell, in the pantheon of the eternal shithouse of fashion.
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
Fashion Asylum Five