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The International Writers Magazine: Life Stories: Fashion Avenue

Fashion Asylum Part I
Dean Borok

Impossible to determine what music sooths the savage beast, but in 1982 Madonna was perfecting her formula, singing for dollars at the Danceteria Club on West 21st Street. Michael Bloomberg was taking his lunch at McDonalds, Bernard Madoff was watching Mr. Rogers and learning to spell P-O-N-Z-I, and young Rudolph Giuliani was having autoerotic fantasies imagining his first party dress.


The green shoots of what ould eventually become 21st century New York were springing from the manure pile that was 1980’s New York like the rose that grew out of the sidewalk crack in the old song “Spanish Harlem”.

Then, as now, the economy was like a Toyota that had run out of gas but was still cruising downhill on empty as Ronald Reagan crooned over the radio, like the Britney Spears of his day, singing the refrain from “Morning In America”.

Huge herds of rats overran the distressed terrain of the city parks and luxuriated in filthy ponds of accumulated waste water that collected under the trash-strewn subway tracks, the tiles lining the subway walls yellow and brown from 80 years use as an open-air latrine.

The streets were full of crackheads and crazy people who had been turned out of mental hospitals because of budget cuts, and at night even the best neighborhoods went into lockdown mode, but there were plenty of places you dared not go even in broad daylight.
Back in those days a fashion career was a surer route to making a living than being a musician and less stultifying than working in finance or legal services. I once picked up the guitar and learned a few chords, even going so far as learning “The House of the Rising Sun”, but then stopped because I knew that it would distract me from mastering my trade as a designer. I was right, but I was wrong too, because I have always been sure that I would have had a great band. I was right because during those years employment was always guaranteed for skilled hands and an agile mind, which explained how I was able to keep finding job after job despite landing in New York in the midst of a full-blown depression.

To my way of thinking, where did it say a man had to be gay or metrosexual to succeed in fashion, as the stereotype would have it? The way I saw it, a straight guy with an artistic sensibility, who admired women, adored them, might be preferable to an androgynous drip who wanted to emulate them. That concept always drove my motivation. I took my cue from my friend Guy Décarie, a French guy who was an ace with a sewing machine and always stunning, beautiful girls. My original motivation for starting out in fashion in the first place was to get a lot of women and make some money. I figured that the fastest way to get a woman to disrobe was to propose her something even nicer to put on. But being straight in the fashion business worked against me to some extent, and my problem with fashion is the same as that which I hold against society at large, in that the whole thing is run by a soft, white underbelly of effeminate males.
Calderon Bags & Belts was located at 443 Greenwich Street, an isolated armpit of a neighborhood cut off form the rest of downtown Manhattan by the entrance to the Holland Tunnel on the east and the heavily industrial Canal Street to the north. It is now an exclusive part of Tribeca, though back in 1982 you didn’t see any international heiresses pushing Italian-engineered baby prams. It was more like rejects from Ward’s Island or Creedmoor pushing supermarket shopping carts. Basically, nobody walked the street, which were lined with shattered warehouses and industrial installations. It was desolate even by New York standards, which was pretty bare.

Given the fact that the murder rate in New York at that time was astronomical, running on the order of 3,000 deaths a year, you had to step lively lest some deranged nut job jump out from a doorway or from between parked cars and pop a cap in your face. After a few years of living here I grew calloused to that reality, but at the time this account takes place, I don’t mind admitting to the reader that I was still a little tender, and I wasn’t the only one. Tougher men than me were apprehensive at the prospect of getting blown away, which explains the celebrity off subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz, or the popularity of the Charles Bronson “Death Wish” movies at that time. As one of the leather cutters at Calderon, a very large guy named Walter Dooley, lamented to me, “It don’t help to be tough. If the guy thinks you’re too tough for him to handle, he’ll just start shooting even before he even robs you”.

Nevertheless, you had to go to work, and I showed up at the Calderon factory at the appointed hour for my first day at work and crowded through the front door with the factory help, who were rushing to be at their places before the bell rang to start work.
Bill Daniels, the factory manager, took me to the same empty room where, the day before, I had designed the belt that had landed me the job. All the tools he had issued me, my knife, scissors, ruler and patternmaking curve, were still on the work table where I had left them. He told me, “We have to keep you in this room for now until we convince the designer you are going to work under to consent to train you. And that might be a hard thing to do”.

Obviously, It is a rare man who is willing to train his eventual replacement. The guy might refuse to train anybody. He might put his foot down and become obstinate like a mule. Hell, I don’t blame him. Maybe if more people had resisted and refused to train their replacements there might still be some good industrial jobs left in this country today. Certainly, the guy would have had a lot of leverage. The fact that they didn’t just inflict me on him without first consulting him spoke volumes about his importance to the company.

Of course, the boss also has some leverage, of course. He’ll start off by assuring the guy that the new man is no threat to his job. He’ll remind him that with the heavy workload that’s anticipated the new assistant will be there to make his life easier. After all, he’s not getting any younger. And what’s he going to do – leave the company in the lurch when he does eventually decide to retire?

And, of course, the company will offer him a raise if he goes along with the program, which will be the clincher, naturally. And with that they will have him. Once he accepts the money, he’s locked in. But first, it’s better if he doesn’t physically see his replacement, if the assistant is an abstract rather than a physical reality.

In the meantime, I was to remain isolated, quarantined. To keep me occupied, Bill Daniels instructed me to work on a pattern for a 2” contour belt, which must have been the first thing that popped into his mind, because with all the belt patterns and cutting dies in the 5-story factory another 2” contour belt pattern was the last thing they needed. The idea was to keep me hidden and quiet pending negotiations with the designer, who was named like Louie Janz.

Not that I was completely incommunicado. As the morning wore on, as I fudged around with the pattern paper and the knife, the pencils and pins, I had a steady stream of visitors, initiates who had been let in on the big secret, Louie’s new assistant, and who wanted to have a look at me.

During the course of that morning I met Jacques Haim, who filled an indeterminate role in the design room, his main qualification being that of a cousin of Murray Nathan. Ahh the joys of nepotism! Jacques Haim I remember as the one presence at Calderon who was totally inoffensive, a refreshing meadow of tranquility in that forest of big pricks. Jacques had a wife and kid and a house in the midst of New Jersey with a big, soft recliner, and that’s all he cared about. I guess Murray Nathan felt he could at least do no harm, as they say.

The same could be said for Nathan’s sister, whom I called Second-Hand Rose, and she looked the part. Rose was a good person to know because she held the key to the storeroom that held thousands of discarded handbag samples, which were very expensive and desirable. For five or ten bucks, which went directly into her pocket, I could buy a discarded handbag sample that had cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to develop, only to be thrown in the junk pile if the department store buyers indicated that it didn’t mean anything that season. This resource fit in perfectly with my agenda of using fashion items to soften up females so that they would succumb to my advance.

The problem with my barter strategy is that New York women are a tough sell with et comes to exchanging merchandise for sexual favors. Not that they weren’t craven mercenaries. Obvioulsy, cash works best. But women don’t like to feel that they are being discounted. Let me give you an example. Let’s say I worked on Wall Street and I gave a girl a $500 handbag. She will immediately lay down, because the handbag represents $500 in real terms, plus the sentimental value of me going into a boutique and selecting it as a gift. Believe me, you don’t have to leave the price tag on. These girls are operating in multiple megabytes when it comes to calculating market value.

On the other hand, if she knows I’m in the handbag business, she’s going to deduce that I got the handbag on favorable terms, and she is going to be inclined to repay me in kind – nothing. She’ll tell herself, “If this guy thinks I am going to go down for him on the cheap, he’s craaaaazy!” Women figure that they are sitting on a potential fortune, which is why it’s better to go for a married woman, whose best asset is already somewhat depreciated, which is what I did. But more about that later.

I don’t know that Second Hand Rose ever had a man. Certainly, she didn’t need any handbags. Spinster would not be too harsh a qualification to describe her physical attributes. With her comfortable sweaters and wild hair, she never got with the program. I could picture her in a cozy Manhattan apartment with some cats, and having drinks with other equally misfit old girls, and would honk at each other like geese. In fact, physical charm was not one of the characteristics that you would assign to the Nathan family or the employees of Calderon. For a company that produced a line of luxury fashion accessories that graced the showcases of Saks, Neiman’s and Sakowitz and was featured monthly in the pages of Vogue, Bazaar and Vanity Fair, the owners and staff basically looked one step above Delancy Street fish market habitués. OK, to be fair, they most closely resembled the wones of the mom and pop notions shops that lined Sixth Avenue in the thirties. You won’t read this in Vogue, but it’s true.

And the reason for it is that the Nathans did not start out at the high end of the market. If I correctly recall the story as it was recounted to me by leather cutter Walter Dooley, who had worked at Calderon when is was located in midtown, the Nathans started out as purveyors of cheap novelty garbage.. Like, they had the license for Mickey Mouse. How about that, from Mickey Mouse they rose to Anne Klein. They grew organically with the market. They went from cheap vinyl dimestore junk with little ducky patterns to exclusive cowhide, rattan, and snakeskin styling, and moved up from a sweatshop in midtown to a spacious, modern factory in a depressed area farther downtown.

But is was easier to upscale their line than it was to upscale themselves, and they remained a bunch of dorky misfits. That is the story of New York fashion in a nutshell, and, more broadly, that is the story of New York in general, freakin Madoff and all those Wall Street big shots like Maurice Greenberg, Sandy Weill, AIG’s Maurice Greenberg and Goldman Sach’s Lloyd Blankfein. Tons of money and no concept of class. One foot on a yacht and the other foot in a pickle barrel. But I only figured this out later.
Obviously, Calderon had grown so fast that the Nathans had felt compelled to bring in a real American manufacturing professional, Daniels, to keep it from spinning out of control the way Accessories By Pearl had (as evidenced by their very stupid hiring of me to run their cutting department, to give you the most obvious example). From what I could see with just my eyes, despite the global economic conundrum of the epoch there was still continual heavy demand for luxury fashion accessories.

Now, look, let me caution the reader on one point. This is not the official history of Calderon Belts & Bags. Given the knuckleheaded illiterate stooges that comprise the fashion industry, there will never be one. Writers don’t know anything about fashion, and fashion professionals, those that are still extant, and their numbers are receding daily (outside of China), are even stupider than people in the legal services sector where I currently reside, if that’s possible. In fact, for all its faults, this recounting could very well be the definitive history of the Fifth Avenue accessory market as it existed in its heyday before it succumbed to the overwhelming onslaught of the Asian hordes. But it is not documented in any sense like a freakin Ken Burns history of the Civil War. I’m just telling the story of what happened to me anecdotally, for laughs. It could be factually wrong on some points, but it is a true recounting of my experiences in New York fashion, and, believe me, you are getting it straight from the horse’s mouth (0r some other aspect of his anatomy). So don’t bother sending me any hate mail, because I will just use it to create some cruel jokes. I’m not here to take an indulgent or sympathetic view of humanity or New Yorkers. Quite the contrary. That’s why I am urging you to buy my book, so I can get the fuck out of town and relieve suffering all the way around.
I’m sure that whatever the fashion industry trends were, the Nathan family kissed the ground that their sales manager, Ernie Dornbusch, walked on. He brought in the orders that made them rich. Murray Nathan was able to purchase his own private tropical Caribbean island paradise, which is more than even AIG’s Greenberg ever had. (Of course, Greenberg with his billions could buy the whole island of Bermuda, but he didn’t care about freakin islands. His focus was on owning the entire world and everybody in it. Never mind that).

What Murray Nathan saw in me, with my French manners and the beautiful belt I designed for him, maybe he figured I could be the next big thing to make him even richer. I mean, he hired me on the spot, OK? Not the next day or a week later.
Dornbusch definitely had a different point of view concerning me. I had just arrived back in this country after many years in France and Montreal. I spoke French and I looked like what the fashion industry was supposed to look lik, and not some decrepit schlimiel subway rider. I had design talent. Who knows what other tricks I had up my sleeve? I was green, but who knows what I would eventually develop into once I learned the ropes? Dornbusch had no intention of letting me stick around long enough to find out. Form Dornbusch’s perspective everything was going fine just the way it was. Why bring in an unpredictable foreign element who might foul things up for him farther on down the line. Dornbusch couldn’t understand me in a million years, and he didn’t like it.
As it turned out, they were both right. Dornbusch was right because When I eventually got seasoned in the industry I developed into a very hard, unpleasant individual who would have delighted in kicking him in the butt for fun. Murray Nathan was right because I would eventually use the techniques I learned at Calderon to make millions for the company – but not at Calderon.
© Dean Borok September 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

More life stories


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