Textiles: The Godfather of Men’s Wear

Most everyone in the men’s wear business knows the rags-to-riches story of Samuel Beckenstein.

NEW YORK — By now, most everyone in the men’s wear business knows the rags-to-riches story of Samuel Beckenstein, who emigrated from Poland in the early 1900s and started selling fabrics from a pushcart on Orchard Street in lower Manhattan. By 1940 he had 80 employees and Beckenstein Men’s Fabrics was the largest family-run retail fabric store in the country. It’s right out of a Hollywood movie.

But times (and neighborhoods) change, and Beckenstein’s current owners, Neal Boyarsky, 59, and his son, Jonathan, 33 (Samuel’s grandson and great-grandson, respectively), weren’t interested in “running a charity.”

“By the late 80s business was terrible,” says Neal of their downtown location. “We were just supporting a name and a tradition.”

“We were lucky to see 15 people in a week,” says Jonathan, through thick curls of cigar smoke.

So, in May of 2004, they made the bold decision to move uptown, to 257 West 39th Street—smack in the center of the garment district, where their customers were.

It was an emotional time, especially for Neal, who had his son’s future to consider. “For me, it felt like the end,” he says. “I just sat in my car and cried. What if we don’t make it, I thought.”

“We had 15 people in our store on the first day,” both men now say. “Our business is 20 times what it was downtown.”

But now that they’re alongside dozens of competing storefronts, just who is shopping at Beckenstein’s? And what are they getting for their buck?

“There are a lot of people who want to buy their own fabric,” says Neal, himself surprised by all the new foot traffic because he deals mostly with the wholesale end of the business. (Neal is the stateside distributor for cloth merchants Scabal and Wain Shiell & Son, which make up 60 percent of sales.) “People find us to be very cheap,” he says.

He’s not exaggerating. The same shirtings that Beckenstein’s sells for $12 to $20 a yard cost $25 across the street; super 120s (from China) that retail for $100 elsewhere in the garment district can be had for about $40 to $50 here.

“Our customers here are also placing much bigger orders,” says Jon, citing “10,000 yards” as a typical purchase for designers like Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren. “We just weren’t getting that kind of business downtown.”

Neal and Jon also believe that the real profits are in the buying, not the selling. It’s a business strategy they inherited from Neal’s father, Irving Boyarsky, who was involved with the family business until his death in 2003.

Irving was famous for walking into a store and offering to buy all of the goods. He once told Neal to send a truck to 32nd Street to pick up a lot of buttons. (A lot meaning millions.) His father had just bought a cache of beautiful buttons made in France. Neal was intrigued and began making calls. They started selling them the next morning, first to the Metropolitan Opera ($20,000 worth), then to a small button company ($50,000 worth). The largest exporter of exotic accessories purchased $273,000 worth and they still had one-third of the buttons left, which they later sold for $200,000. The original purchase price? $125,000. The Boyarskys had tripled their investment in a matter of days.

As their fortunes grew, so too did their reputation. Neal, who calls himself the Fabric Czar, is an expert on 11- to 15-micron goods: “A ball of super 250s yarn weighs just 2 1/4 pounds and can circle the globe. It’s thinner than human hair,” he says, holding up a feather-light sample. A yard of super 250s fabric would cost $1,500 retail. Most suits require four yards, but some of Boyarsky’s biggest customers are almost seven feet tall and they use double that for their suits.

Customer service seems to be another reason people shop here. “We may make a lot of money,” says Neal, “but, we’re all about the customer.” If a customer is upstate or out-of-state, Beckenstein’s can refer him to 1,200 different tailors around the country with whom they do business. If someone needs a tuxedo in five days, Neal can guarantee on-time delivery.

“We address everyone the same way,” says Neal, “whether we’re dealing with the president of the United States or one of our employees.” As it turns out, George Bush, who wears suits made with Scabal, is indeed a customer, along with Fidel Castro, King Hussein of Jordan and several other world leaders.

Scores of Broadway shows and Hollywood films have also used Beckenstein’s fabrics for their costumes. A hefty percentage of Ralph Lauren’s Purple Label line comes from Neal. And every major department store, from Brooks Brothers to Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, has bought stock from the Boyarskys.

Upstairs on the balcony level, where the father’s and son’s desks face each other, hangs a pair of trousers with Bill Gates’ name on it. The phones ring nonstop. On one of the massive oak tables, a book for Thom Browne’s new collection awaits swatches from Neal. Every wall and shelf is home to Neal’s collection of memorabilia: tailor scissors, fishing lures, vintage alarm clocks, toy automobiles and baseball caps (he’s played baseball his whole life). There’s also a photo gallery of important people, like his father, Irving, and his godfathers: Otto Herz, Scabal’s founder, and J. Peter Thissen, current chairman of Scabal.

“And these are my godsons,” he says, pointing to half a dozen pictures propped on his desk. “My little stable of boys who started out with nothing, and today they’re powerful people.” They also share in the behind-the-scene success story that sustains Beckenstein’s.

The youngest of Neal Boyarsky’s godsons really is still a boy: David Schottenstein, the 23-year-old founder of Astor & Black, a direct-sale custom clothier, manages from Schottenstein’s hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

According to Neal, “David hails from one of the wealthiest Jewish families in America.” (His grandfather helped found the parent company of Filene’s Basement, DSW Shoes, Value City and American Eagle Outfitters.) But Schottenstein had no interest in ready-to-wear, nor did he share his father’s interest in real estate. The only trait he inherited was expensive taste and a recklessness that got him shipped off to an Orthodox Jewish “reform school,” in Venice, Italy, of all places. There, his “habit” only worsened, or improved, if you see it from David’s point of view. “I spent a fortune there on clothing,” Schottenstein says. “I would skip class and spend all day in these small shops with Italian tailors and watch them hand-stitch garments.”

His truancy proved to be a smart investment in his future. By the time he graduated from high school he felt ready to run his own company. Well, almost. By talking up his ideas at a party, Schottenstein’s cousin Jon, 25, who was good friends with Neal’s younger son, Joshua, also 25, got him connected to the one man who could advise him like no other: “He came to New York wearing a yarmulke,” recalls Neal. “He was just a kid, like one of my own sons. We clicked instantly.”

“My goal was to have 10 salespeople,” says Schottenstein. “Neal taught me to think globally.” Within two years Schottenstein had 25 salespeople on the road and this number will go into the hundreds in another two years as Astor & Black expands in Europe.

Schottenstein’s family helped him build a factory in Hong Kong, where he trained tailors to sew to his Italian standards. “Never subcontract that part of the business,” he warns. “You’ll never get the quality.” And Neal has guaranteed Astor & Black’s accounts on occasion to help put money in Schottenstein’s pocket. “Especially if it helped David get to the next level,” says Neal.

Astor & Black suits are made with some of Beckenstein’s most luxurious fabrics. Especially popular are the Zenith super 180s cashmere from Scabal, which Schottenstein says “feels like poured milk on your hands.” Yet Astor & Black’s most expensive suit is only $1,250, a fraction of what competing bespoke businesses charge. “We keep our margins very low,” says Schottenstein, who makes up for the rest with high volume (customers usually spring for a couple of suits at a time) and accessories like ties and knitwear (another suggestion from Neal).

“My life would be a lot easier if I was daddy’s little boy,” says Schottenstein. “This job is 24/7 and Neal is the first person I call when it comes to my business.”

He’s not the only one. The Boyarskys get a ton of phone calls from people wanting to go into business with them. “We’re inundated with requests for sample books,” says Neal. “Do you know how expensive these books are? And how much work goes into making them?” So when an unfamiliar, young leather salesman by the name of Jared Margolis called him from Florida wanting “a full set of books,” Neal stalled and requested a client list. Margolis faxed him one, which looked legitimate. “You know, professional ballplayers and jockeys, as well as Fortune 500 business types,” Neal says.

The next day Margolis placed an order for 100 suits and Neal told him, “I want to meet you. I want to buy you dinner.” He flew down to Boca Raton and met Margolis, who was all of 18 at the time. “He looked like a kid … like my kid,” says Neal. That started the relationship and Neal became his right-hand man in New York. “We still talk two or three times a day,” says Neal.

In 2003, Margolis opened up his 10,000-square-foot “Jared M.” showroom in Manhattan, just a couple of blocks away from Beckenstein’s, “so we could always be together,” says Neal.

Margolis, now 33, just sold his business to Casual Male, where his Jared M. shops will become part of their Rochester Big & Tall stores. In April, three stores-within-a-store were launched in New York, Chicago and Atlanta. Eventually Casual Male will role them out nationwide. Margolis says more exclusive Jared M. showrooms will start appearing in key cities across the country as well.

“Neal has been a great mentor to me,” says Margolis. “Fabrication is a significant part of this business and I’ve been loyal to Scabal because of Neal.”

Boyarsky’s business has profited greatly from these exceptional partnerships, but mentoring has also fed Neal’s soul. “I’ve been lucky,” he says. “I’ve done everything in my life that I wanted to do and now I’m giving back.”