The International Writers Magazine: Fashion Asylum. New York
Fashion Asylum Pt 5
Morris came to my work table and told me, “Come with me.” As we walked off the floor, Louie ran over to the kid, José, and told him something. The two of them turned and watched me as I walked out. Bill Daniels was waiting for me in his office. Morris did not leave, but sat in for the meeting. Daniels told me, “I’m letting you go.”
I said, “Well, naturally, that breaks my heart, but that was my way of saying, “C’est la vie!” Morris looked at me with astonishment, the way a kangaroo might regard something going on that was beyond his comprehension. Maybe he believed that he was going to enjoy watching me plead for my job, but I had anyway concluded that the present situation was untenable, so I just took it casually. Daniels must have been fed up after years of being bombarded with complaints about me from on all sides and on a daily basis. He knew exactly well that I was performing exactly as he and Murray Nathan had anticipated when they hired me, or I never would have lasted on the job. Finally, the frantic efforts of my detractors had born fruit when they were able to tell him “we have a replacement for Dean that we will all be happy with.”
In tacit recognition of the fact that the whole problem was due to personal animosity and office politics, Daniels told me, “Maybe you should work for yourself.” I didn’t respond. In my mind, I had always been working for myself. It’s all a question of outlook. Daniels told me, “I want you direct all reference calls to me personally.” At this, Morris gave a start. He was being bypassed. I’m sure that he intended as his little parting gift to me a reference that would not even get me a job as dogcatcher. The old geezer raised his finger as to make a point, but Daniels cut him off. “To me personally,” he reiterated.
I had succeeded at Calderon better than I ever had a right to expect. I was now fully trained to industry standards. In addition, the economy was not surging and there were jobs all over the place. I was even eligible to collect benefits. Compare this to when I first walked into Calderon, when there was a depression, I was hanging on in New York by my fingernails and I had absolutely no qualifications for the New York market.
A couple of years later I received a resume submitted by Jacques Heim, Murray Nathan’s cousin and my friend in the Calderon design room. I called him and he filled me in on the demise of my former employers. Ever the astute businessman, Murray Nathan had sold the house at the top of the market and for top dollar. Then the high end of the market collapsed, and the new owners closed the house. The end. That place was my school. These old guys, Louie and Morris, were my professors. Between the two of them, they represented over 100 years of practical experience, and I was the repository of that great commercial culture, which I retain in my hands. What they knew about the leather trade, you can’t get in a book, or at FIT. It was raw, and it was ugly, but it was art. I’d like to reiterate that my timing was impeccable. A couple of years earlier, and they would have refused to train anybody. A couple of years later, it would have been to late.
I was not a sympathetic child. I never paid any attention to the authority of adults, who gave every indication of being imbecilic and slow-witted (oh, how right I was!). In their turn, adults loathed me for discounting their authority. What’s the point of being a responsible representative of authority and a pillar of the community if you are being jazzed, ignored and ridiculed by a freakin kid!
I got beat up a lot, not by other kids but by adults – teachers, camp counselors, boarding school deans and relatives – because I was having so much fun jerking them around. How could it be otherwise? Adults were paper tigers and I had a visceral repugnance for the hypocrisy that bound the social order. Remember, as bad as phoniness and hypocrisy are today, they were even worse when I was a kid, when people were even stupider than they are today (if that’s possible).
The dysfunction led to a total breakdown in relations between society and myself. I went on my separate way, and catch me if you can.
On the way out the door, I received one last verbal blast from the middle class, a malediction that was absolutely society’s last word of judgment on me regarding its complete and unanimous verdict about me, consigning me to the lumpenproletariat underclass of untouchable trailer trash. This lady told me, with implacable and unyielding certitude, “You will end up working with your hands.” This was her, and society’s final judgment before slamming the dumpster lid of ignominy on me for eternity.
That lady was right about my hands, but she would have been dismayed to see how far they took me, to places she could never even imagine. Lame jerks like her have always been a pain in the ass to me. Trained hands are what built our material world. It’s all very well to have an agile mind, but if you can’t construct an edifice or manufacture a product, what are you? A tank of gas polluting the atmosphere and contributing to global warming. Sorry, but that’s my opinion. My hands got me far in life, and they would have gotten me even farther if globalization had not destroyed American manufacturing.
I believe that manual dexterity and the use of tools is what got us out of the trees, as well as actuating the part of the brain that inspires language comprehension. That is why human evolution is moving forward with the astonishing velocity of Gregor Mendel’s fruit flies instead of remaining static for hundreds of millions of years like ants or crocodiles.
Pity the poor New York writers, whose hands are useless appendages, who never held a job, and have no experiences to recount, who are forced to invent pointless controversies to get noticed because they don’t have anything to say. Who appointed Anna Wintour the ultimate authority on fashion? With 14 years of working for myself and 15 years of intense, hands-on experience in the accessories industry, I feel my voice is more valid than any writer at Woman’s Wear Daily, who never picked up a pin in their lives, regardless of what the reader feels about my aptitude for narration.
I believe that my styling talent and mechanical aptitudes make me far superior to most New York writers, who are wasting the reader’s time. And the fact that I am Saul Bellow’s nephew and portrayed in “The Adventures of Augie March” propels me so far into the stratosphere of world literature that the other New York writers are as the apes in the trees by comparison.
Jacques Heim told me that shortly after I left, Calderon was raided by immigration agents, who took away half the workers, who were highly skilled, including the kid, José, whom Morris and Louie had handpicked to replace me. Haim told me that Louie was particularly distressed over José’s arrest. I deduced that it was Louie himself who had dropped the dime on the company to get rid of me, and saw the whole thing backfire. Louie thought I was an illegal immigrant and tried to get me arrested, and instead he got 50 innocent people locked up.
When I got let go from Calderon I felt as though I had been relieved of a heavy corpse I had been forced to carry around for almost three years. Even though the people totally stank, what I learned there would enable to move forward and upward in the industry, and would practically guarantee me a good living for my whole working life in New York even if things didn’t go the way I planned.
I had never had a resumé before. I had always worked for myself, and when I came to New York I got all my jobs as a result of pitching my design portfolio. Back in those days it was enough to get your foot in the door and talk directly to the boss. Now, however, I wrote a resumé detailing all my various skills, mot of which I had learned at Calderon, and I did a mass mailing to belt manufacturers I found in Manhattan Yellow Pages. Back then, there were no fax machines or email, but there were JOBS!
A couple of days later I received a call from Jack Callari at Harmal Industries in Long Island City, inviting me for an interview. Like Calderon, Harmal had relocated from midtown to an industrial zone in search of more space. They had gotten too big for the little rabbit warrens that served as manufacturing spaces in Manhattan. I had an interview with Jack, who was the factory manager, and Irving Malawar, the company president. Jack then showed me around the place, which took up the whole top floor of a massive manufacturing building overlooking the Long Island Railroad rail yard. It was enormous, like an airplane hanger, producing a vast quantity of junk merchandise for the mass market. It was junk, but what the hell! My concept of fashion was in the styling, not so much rich fabrics. During the Nazi occupation of Paris the handbag manufacturers, lacking access to their usual sources of raw materials, made beautiful, constructed handbags out of old newspapers, among other things. You can do styling in any medium. Pablo Picasso made priceless sculptures from rubbish that he found from prowling the junkyards. They can be seen in the Picasso Museum in Paris today.
I signed up for unemployment benefits, but I never collected a check. That same week I saw an ad in Women’s Wear Daily seeking a belt designer for Morris Moskowitz Handbags at 1 East 33rd Street, right across from the Empire State Building. When Louie Janz had ever referred to Morris Moskowitz Handbags, it was with the supreme reverence you might accord to Valhalla or Mount Olympus, an unattainable goal. “Once I almost had a chance to go to work for Moskowitz, but it didn’t work out”, he confided wistfully. To the old-timers’ generation, when women dressed up to kill with dresses, hats and gloves, Morris Moskowitz was the ne plus ultra of the Fifth Avenue accessories market.
In fact, from my years of doing styling for the Montreal counterculture during the nineteen seventies, I derived a whole reverse theory of fashion, that styling out of affordable materials for the masses would find its way up the chain when designers for the better houses would hit the streets looking for ideas, which is what Yves St. Laurent and Kenzo were already doing. Kenzo derived entire collections of street wear, taken from an exciting street culture that no longer exists today, tragically.
After a brief interview Ackerman hired me on the spot and instructed me to return the next day to start work, conditional on a recommendation from Bill Daniels at Calderon. I knew that Daniels would immediately tell Morris, who would tell Jou Janz, that I had been hired at Moskowitz, which would cause them no end of anguish, knowing that their training had enabled me to land a job at a top place. That’s what happens when you interfere with people. You end up having a personal stake in their failure, and if they succeed it’s a defeat for you.
If only they had known the internal truth about Moskowitz! It was on its last legs. The original ownership had bailed out and left the place in the hands of the salesmen, led by Ackerman, who were now trying to flip it to qualified manufacturers. My job was to build a belt line to fill up the showroom, so that when prospective buyers came in they would see a smart product line.
The most immediate danger sign was the guy Ackerman had taken on as factory manager, a pineapplehead named Tlny Russo, whom I had known from FIT. Russo was a big fat idiot who knew nothing. However, he knew that he was not the boss. Nothing is more pathetic than a boss who knows nothing and is trying to cover it up. Fortunately (for him), there was no production going on at Moskowitz. All there was was me and a handbag maker and only the most essential factory employees. It was a skeletal operation in search of a takeover.
Ackerman gave me a looseleaf binder of sketches that he instructed me to make into prototypes. After the complicated pieces that I was accustomed to working on at Calderon, these were child’s play! Some of the styles were so old that I had made them years earlier in my boutique in Montreal.
I had a nice little room to work in with a window over Fifth Avenue. Everybody left me alone except for Russo, who would come in a couple times a day to remind me that he was the boss blah blah. The only time I emerged was to choose my leather and supplies from the storerooms, to get something stiched or to use the machinery. Otherwise, it was solitary bliss after the harsh Calderon environment, with the racket from the sewing machines, the thumping of the die-cutting machines and the heat and dust.
My design room was adjacent to the Moskowitz administrative offices, and I got kind of friendly with the receptionist, named Robin. One day she remarked to me, “I’ve started getting an obscene caller who curses me out and hangs up. He sounds like an old guy. It’s very unpleasant”.
I said, “Have you been getting these calls for long?”
“No, they started about the time you came here.”
I figured that the caller had to be Louie Janz, who must have been sooooo steamed up about me landing that job at Morris Moskowitz! In my mind’s eye could see him waddling over to the pay phone at Morris’ desk, inserting a dime and giving Moskowitz a piece of his mind.
Marshall Ackerman came and told me to rush out as many samples as possible in the next few days because Dooney & Bourke were coming up to inspect the operation with an idea of taking it over. The Dooney & Bourke handbag collection was modern, inspired and technically superb as portrayed in the pages of the fashion magazines, and I redoubled my efforts to turn out my line in anticipation of their visit. I didn’t know what to expect, but I imagined that they would be well-turned-out fashion professionals.
Imagine my astonishment at meeting them that they were two of the most mundane people I had ever met, dressed like backwoods hicks from rural Connecticut. They were both wearing seedy raincoats, like subway flashers, and one of them was wearing a leather cowboy hat. After a few years of working in New York, nothing much shocked me anymore, but still…When I left the building to go to lunch, I saw them fussing over their wreck of an ancient Lincoln town car. The hood of the car was held down by a length of rope tied through the grill.
It was apparent that Dooney & Bourke would not be taking over Morris Moskowitz and that the house would soon be closing. Marshall Ackerman informed me that he had been unable to find a buyer for that dinosaur, and that this week would be the company’s last.
Having nothing to lose, I placed a call to Jack Callari at Harmal and, to my surprise, he seemed happy to hear from me. “I lost your telephone number,” he told me. “Irving wants you to come and work for us. When can you start?”
“Would Monday be too soon?”
“Good. Come Monday”.
I told him, “You know, Jack, it’s a damn shame. I have been building a beautiful line for Morris Moskowitz. Listen, Jack, I have a huge book of designs that they commissioned, that they are never going to be able to use”. Without missing a beat, Jack Callari told me, “When you come, bring the book”.
The following Monday, almost three years to the day from my arrival in New York, I took the subway out to the Harmal factory in Long Island City, bearing Morris Moskowitz’ last line under my arm. That historic fashion house would live again, downgraded to junk status. Fatefully, the date was April 1, 1985, April Fools Day.
© Dean Borok
More life stories
Fashion Asylum One
Fashion Asylum Two
Fashion Asylum Three
Fashion Asylum Four
Fashion Asylum Five