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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Fashion NY

First steps to Gladrags
Dean Borok

There was no point to sticking around Montreal any longer. It was 1982 and the economy was in the tank. I put all my things in storage, packed up my best clothes and my design portfolio, and caught the Montrealer express train to New York. I remember gazing wistfully over the hardscrabble Pointe St. Charles neighborhood as the train roared south.

When we arrived at the U.S. border, I had to show Canadian identification to the U.S. immigration and convince them that I was a U.S. citizen. They held up the train for a long time, deciding what to do about me. Finally they let me through.

Arriving in New York, I checked into the Pickwick Arms Hotel on E. 51st Street. At that time it doubled as a low-cost tourist hotel and an SRO. I convinced the manager to give me the SRO rate for a room facing the synagogue and garden across the street. Very charming and, unbelievably, only $160 per week.

Back in those days the fashion jobs were advertised in the classified ads in the back of Women’s Wear Daily. I wasn’t trying for a designer job. I was looking for something in production because the prospects were more immediate. I had no references and no resumé. All I had was my design portfolio of styles that I had designed and executed in my boutique in Montreal, and a fast line of talk.

At the time there were a lot of manufacturing going on in New York, with a constant demand for skilled help. My pitch was that even though I had no industrial experience, I had talent in the design and construction of leather garments and accessories. That at least got my foot in the door. A guy named Lou Smoltz took a chance on me. He owned a handbag factory that he called "New York Reptile" and he did contracting for the Etienne Aigner (which he pronounced egg-ner) handbag line. He was short and bald and not very charming. In fact, he was a total nut job, but he was a real handbag pro. He could fix every machine in the place himself. He stayed on top of his own production and he produced a beautiful product.

Lou Smoltz did not like me at all but he wasn’t making as much money as he could have because he didn’t have an effective foreman to push the work forward. My job was to receive the cut pieces that came from the Aigner cutting facility and put them through Smoltz’s factory, so that they emerged as finished handbags. This is a very useful skill to have, so I let him train me a little bit and then pitched right in. The guy immediately improved his daily production by 50%, strictly by virtue of me pushing the work forward. That is the value of employing a good industrial foreman. "You have good hands", he said, "and you work hard on a steady basis". Those were the highest compliments he was capable of giving in that business. Nevertheless he fired me. "We have a personality conflict", he told me.
"I don’t have any conflict", I answered.
"But I do", he said.

Nevertheless, ha knew I would be useful to somebody, so he referred me to this other turkey, Ed Stein, who had an office in the Empire State Building. Stein ran something called the National Handbag Council, which was a sort of industry association, I suppose.

Stein was a degenerate. "Oh, nice jeans you’re wearing", he exclaimed as he grabbed my crotch. Gay guys have always liked me a lot. Too bad I can’t elicit the same reaction from women! I put up with this jerk grabbing my balls because I needed a job, and fast. Ed Stein sent me over to see Pearl at Accessories by Pearl, a ladies’ belt company located in the 330 Fifth Avenue fashion market. She interviewed me with her husband sitting in the office. I showed them my portfolio and gave them my pitch. Only now I had Ed Stein and Lou Smoltz as references, just as though I had been working in New York for years. The only problem was, I didn’t know anything. Unbelievably, Pearl gave me a job running her cutting department, which was a big department of about 30 cutters. I spent the first couple of days making them clean up the impossible mess in that department, but after that I was clueless. I just gave out cutting tickets and hoped for the best.

At the same time, I enrolled in a handbag design course at FIT to learn specialized patternmaking for handbags, which could also be used for belts. FIT is a very good school for learning basic industrial techniques, but it is a wasteland when it comes to developing styling talent, in my opinion. I was there for a couple of years, so I figure I have a right to an opinion.

I had no clue about Pearl’s leather inventory and I didn’t know her business at all, so I managed to make a couple of expensive mistakes almost right away. They let me go, but not before I had met Joe Bergman, the union rep. I went to see him at the union office and he told me that Calderon Belts and Bags was looking for an assistant belt designer. He asked me if I was any good at belts. I responded, "Belts are easy", which he took the wrong way. Nothing is easy. What I meant was that belts are not as complicated as coats or skirts.

I knew he didn’t think I would get the job. I went down to Calderon on Greenwich Street, which is now Tribeca. Back then it was a deserted, slightly sinister waterfront street. I got in to see the factory manager, Bill Daniels. Daniels was not a New Yorker. He was, like, an engineer from flyover country. Calderon was a big operation, and the owners must have felt they needed a real American to run the place instead of a wacko garmento thief who would rob them blind.
I showed him my design portfolio, which impressed him a lot. The girls I had used were all professional Montreal strippers made up by a professional French make-up artist. The leather suits I had designed for them were along the lines of things being showed at North Beach Leather, with lots of appliqués and fringed looks, some of them being direct knock-offs of North Beach Leather ads in Vogue and Bazaar. It was a pretty cool portfolio. Daniels looked up at me from the photo album. "Why did you leave?" he asked me, somewhat in awe.

He took me down to the design room to see the company’s owners and showed them my portfolio. They were a married couple, Murray and Joan Nathan. They were hard-bitten old timers who had started producing Mickey Mouse handbags for kids and moved up the food chain to the point where they had a five-story factory producing snakeskin accessories for Neiman’s and Sackowitz. They looked over my portfolio while I shot them my pitch, which now included Accessories by Pearl. Nathan finally told me "Come back tomorrow and bring your sketches".

Sketches? I didn’t have any freakin sketches! I ran to an art store and bought a sketchpad and pencils. After dark I went up and down Madison Avenue, sketching the belts in the boutique windows. I got some good designs. People walking down the street were saying, "This guy should be shot!"

Listen, when I was a kid growing up in Beverly Hills, I lived on Bedford Drive near Wilshire Boulevard, half a block from Saks Fifth Avenue. At night guys would set up tripods right there on the sidewalk, with pedestrians walking back and forth, to take pictures of the dresses in the windows. One guy with a sketchpad, that was nothing! Anyway, in the following years I learned everything about knocking off styles that you can possibly imagine.

I went back to my hotel room and copied my sketches into presentable form.. The next day I went back to Calderon and presented them to Murray Nathan. He was very impressed. Why shouldn’t he be? They were all the current European styles fresh out of the most exclusive Madison Avenue boutiques. He took the sketchpad and put it in his drawer. He never gave it back to me.

Now he took me to an empty design room and gave me a knife, a curve and some pattern paper. "Design me a belt", he told me. I quickly started on a piece I had seen the previous evening. It was a beige contour hip belt 4" wide at the left hip narrowing to 2" at the right hip, closing with a hook at the hip with a bow covering the hook. The body of the belt was three contour pieces sewn together separated with black handbag piping. Actually, I think it was two belts I saw combined into one. The pattern was a very amateurish job and the construction was not up to industrial standards, but I nevertheless produced a beautiful-looking fashion belt in a couple of hours.

While I was making it, I received a visit from the sales manager, Ernie Dornbush, who had sat in on one of the interviews. Dornbush was a tall, imposing man with a business suit and a booming baritone voice, exactly the sort of sales manager to appeal to a hick department store owner from Texas who describes things as outré. He wasn’t in favor of hiring me and he came to let me know it in no uncertain terms, hoping to demoralize me and shake me up. Forget him! I needed the job.

I brought the finished belt to Murray Nathan in the big design room. He put the thing smack in the middle of the design table, where all the buyers would see it. "You’re hired", he told me. "Come back tomorrow at nine o’clock". He left the belt in the place of honor for several weeks.

Dornbush was in the design room when I got hired. He was visibly upset.
Dean Borok September 2009

Healthcare Panic
Dean Borok
I am not here to debate the merits of universal health insurance. That is a given. I am complaining about the lunatic fringe of society – loudmouth sociopaths who are being bussed around the country and paid cash money by insurance companies to scream and yell

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