Master men’s wear maker Martin Greenfield knows better than just about anybody that clothes create the man, so that’s why it’s not surprising his new autobiography, “Measure of a Man: A Memoir, From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents’ Tailor,” begins with a view of highly polished men’s footwear.
This story first appeared in the November 6, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“I could see my picture in the boots,” he recalled. The boots were more elegant than any Greenfield had ever seen, and they belonged to Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor infamous for his grotesque, criminal medical experiments. Mengele, who was also handsome and impeccably dressed, was about to do a selection on Greenfield’s family at Auschwitz.
Unlike most of the other high-ranking Nazis, who avoided the duty, Mengele enjoyed doing selections, eagerly seizing the opportunity to choose the subjects he was most interested in and who included identical twins, dwarfs and those with eyes of different colors. Greenfield, then called Maximilian Grünfeld, his father, Joseph, and sister Simcha were sent to the right — which meant life, at least for a time — while his mother, Tzyvia, sister Rivka and baby brother, Sruel Baer, were sent to the left, which meant immediate death. Of course, they had no idea of this at the time.
Greenfield, now 86, was also in the slave labor camp Buna and in the concentration camps Gleiwitz and Buchenwald. He managed to survive the war, the only member of his immediate family to do so. He last saw his father on his second day at Auschwitz, when Joseph, to his dismay, said to him that they must separate, explaining, “On your own, you will survive. You are young and strong, and I know you will survive. If you survive by yourself, you must honor us by living, by not feeling sorry for us. That is what you must do.”
His son writes in his memoir that this message, which he didn’t want to hear at the time, has helped to sustain him throughout his life. He said that he took part in Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Project, which has recorded the memories of many Holocaust survivors, so he would have tapes of himself talking about his experiences in the camps to give to his sons and grandchildren.
Read an Excerpt From “Measure of a Man: A Memoir, From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents’ Tailor” Here >>
When Buchenwald was liberated by the U.S. Army, “every country came looking for their survivors,” recalled Greenfield, who was from the small town of Pavlovo in the Carpathian Mountains of Czechoslovakia. “I wanted to fight the Germans, so I enlisted in the Czech army. But soon the war was over, and I was discharged. They let me keep the uniform, which made me very popular with girls.”
He went looking for family members and eventually ran into a man who knew that his father Joseph, like Martin, also had been in Buchenwald but had been shot only a short time before liberation. Martin never found any traces of the rest of his immediate family.
One day in 1947, a letter arrived for Greenfield that said he had relatives of whom he had never heard: an Aunt Elka and Uncle Irving and their families were living in the U.S., and another uncle, Antonio Berger, was living in Mexico. These were all his mother’s relatives, and they had left Czechoslovakia before he was born. They offered to send him a boat ticket and sponsor him in America. He arrived in New York in September 1947. Kalvin Mermelstein, a friend he had first met in the displaced-persons camp Gabersee, found Greenfield a job working with him at the top-notch men’s tailoring firm GGG, named for the three Goldman brothers — William P., Mannie and Morris — in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Greenfield, who by then had decided to change his name to the “more American” Martin Greenfield, began by sweeping the floor, and in 1977, 30 years after he first caught sight of the Statue of Liberty, he bought the building and the equipment, renaming the business Martin Greenfield Clothiers. Beginning with his first weeks of work, he had made himself indispensable. “I was determined to learn every single task at GGG,” he writes in the book, which was written with Wynton Hall and published by Regnery. “I wanted to be the best, to stand out. Hand-basting, darting, piping, facing and lining, blind stitching, pressing, armhole work, joker tags, fell stitching, preparing besoms, finishing — I would learn how to execute every procedure better than the person who taught me.”
He worked his way up from tailor to supervisor to head quality man. These days, his company is the only men’s tailoring firm left in New York which is a union shop employing more than 100 people. His sons, Jay and Tod, have long worked with him and now own the business. What makes a Greenfield suit special is the handwork, such as interior French seams. The firm’s highly skilled employees can be seen plying their trade in the firm’s Brooklyn workrooms. Greenfield said the hand stitching makes the suits “wear better over time.” He added, “Not like most suits, which look best on the rack, ours are able to mold to the shape of your body and fit better the longer you wear them.”
His father wanted him to be a doctor, Greenfield said, but as a recent immigrant with no money to sustain him during the years of schooling ahead, he didn’t see how this could be accomplished. “So, I became a suit doctor,” he said. But he didn’t make just suits. “We used to make vicuna coats for [President Dwight D. “Ike”] Eisenhower and for gangsters. It was a big thing.” One low point was men’s fashion in the Seventies, when, as he recalled, “My boss made me make the Nehru jacket, but it was the most beautiful Nehru jacket.”
The U.S. presidents he has dressed include Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Greenfield was making Eisenhower’s suits when he was President during the Suez Crisis of 1956. He felt so strongly about the course Eisenhower should take in this matter that he began writing notes to advise him about what to do, slipping the notes into the pockets of his suits — a gesture that, fortunately, Ike found rather amusing.
When Hillary Clinton asked for help dressing President Bill Clinton, Donna Karan recommended Greenfield. Today, the master tailor admits he was startled by Bill Clinton’s wardrobe when he was first invited to the White House to fit him. “This had to be one of the most pathetic Presidential wardrobes in American history,” he writes. “I had my work cut out for me.”
Greenfield writes that President Obama is “built like a fitting mannequin, a 40 long with an enviable 33½-inch waist,” and adds that he looks good in any color but prefers gray and navy for suits. Greenfield was introduced to Obama through Ikram Goldman, the owner of the Chicago boutique Ikram, where first lady Michelle Obama often shopped. Initially, President Obama intended to send one of his suits to the firm to copy, rather than letting himself be fitted. Jay Greenfield, however, dissuaded him from doing this, and he and his father went to the White House to fit the President. Obama ended up wearing one of the resulting new suits on a visit to Buckingham Palace.
Martin Greenfield likes to be called a maker, rather than a tailor. He and his firm have made private-label clothing for the likes of Neiman Marcus and manufactured men’s wear for Donna Karan, Alexander Julian and Brooks Brothers. He also has moved with the times and currently works with Rag & Bone, which features his firm’s name on the tag.
Greenfield was scheduled to do a fitting on George W. Bush in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001. This, of course, didn’t take place. However, he also had appointments to fit other men with Brooks Brothers suits at a trunk show in the city the next day. None of the clients cancelled. These men, it seemed, considered being measured for a suit a form of keeping calm and carrying on.
Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin were Greenfield’s clients at GGG. Donald Trump, Robert Dole and Donald Rumsfeld wear Greenfield suits, too. The tailor dresses Jimmy Fallon for “The Tonight Show” in Rag & Bone suits, which are specially modified because he’s always doing stunts on set and needs to be able to move. Michael Douglas, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Ben Stiller and Bobby Cannavale have also been customers.
Greenfield’s roster of athletes includes Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Michael Strahan and Shaquille O’Neal. “Patrick Ewing owns maybe 250 suits of mine that I made for Donna Karan,” Greenfield said. “First of all, he’s a very nice man. I know his father in Boston, took care of him [i.e., made him a suit]. And [Ewing] took care of his money. He is very different, and he’s very nice. We used to be such Knicks fans when we met him. I come up to about his navel. He’s 7 feet tall. ”
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg told WWD in 2013 that he gets all his suits at Martin Greenfield. “They’re cheaper than Paul Stuart, where I used to get my clothing,” Bloomberg said at the time. A made-to-order Martin Greenfield suit starts in price from about $2,000.
An exchange between the Greenfields is telling. “What people don’t realize when they see beautiful pages in a magazine is [that] part of the price of the suit is a lot of marketing,” Jay said. “With us, every penny goes into the suits we make,” his father responded. “It didn’t enable us to make fortunes of money,” his son said. “But we did the right thing.”
“Great friendships are like great tailoring: The stronger the stitch, the longer it lasts,” Greenfield writes. For Greenfield, his relationship with former Secretary of State Colin Powell has become one of these. Powell has been a client since he left the Army in 1993, and Martin and his wife, Arlene, have joined him and his wife, Alma, at their house for barbecues. Powell contacts them frequently, as Greenfield said, “with time he doesn’t have.” When Powell visited the Brooklyn factory for the first time, the suit maker recalled, he was moved because it reminded him of a workroom where his mother, who came from Jamaica, used to sew when he was a child. Powell also picked up Yiddish in his youth while working in a children’s furniture store in the Bronx.
Making film and television costumes is an area, Jay Greenfield said, that has just “exploded” for them. “This season, almost every network came to us.”
He explained, “The factory is 100 years old. We just did a movie called ‘Black Mass,’ about Whitey Bulger with Johnny Depp, which is set in the Seventies and Eighties. We know patterns, cuts. We can look through our archives, which go back to President Eisenhower.”
Greenfield dressed Steve Buscemi for his role as Nucky Thompson on the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” along with the rest of the male characters on the series, for all five seasons of the show. Greenfield writes, “ ‘You know the only time I ever heard anyone call me “handsome” was when I wore your suits,’ [Buscemi] joked, referencing his trademark quirky look. ‘Seriously, 90 percent of this role is the clothes. Any time I’m practicing and feeling unsure about a line or scene, I look in the mirror and realize you’ve already made Nucky. I just have to mouth the words. The suits do the rest.’ ”
When a character based on singer and comedian Eddie Cantor, played by Stephen DeRosa, appeared on the series, Greenfield was able to show the kinds of designs, cuts and cloth he used for suits worn by the real Cantor, whom Greenfield, early in his career, dressed and who used to perform for the GGG staff when he came to the factory.
In “Measure of a Man,” a “Boardwalk Empire” crew member asks Greenfield whether he had ever made any suits for “wise guys or mobsters” while he was at GGG. His response: “Are you kidding? Of course. Mob guys always made the best customers — they paid in cash.” And Greenfield told him about dressing Meyer Lansky, saying, “He wore a 40 short. He was so cautious about security that I never met him face to face. I just made up the suits the way he liked them, and we shipped them to the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida.”
The firm also has clothed characters on “The Good Wife” and “Law & Order: SVU” and currently dresses the men on the Cinemax series “The Knick,” starring Clive Owen and set in New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital in 1900.
“Brian Dennehy was sent here to be measured for suits for a new TV series ‘Public Morals,’ ” Greenfield said. “And he said, ‘Well, I’ll go, but good luck to you. No one can fit me.’ He couldn’t believe it when he tried the suit on.”
Because of the Holocaust, Greenfield was never bar mitzvahed, so he decided to have a bar mitzvah at age 80. He writes that he said at the time, “ ‘Did I survive because I’m a hero? No, I survived maybe because God wanted me to survive. Or maybe I was lucky — I don’t know. But I’m here. The biggest celebration of my life is today, because the odds were so against me. And I made it here, at 80.”