ABE SCHRADER DIES AT 100
Byline: Eric Wilson / With contributions from David Moin / Lisa Lockwood / Leonard McCants
NEW YORK — Abe Schrader, one of the last of the Seventh Avenue dress giants and an icon of American garment manufacturing, died early Thursday.
He had celebrated his 100th birthday last October with a lavish party at the Plaza Hotel, fox-trotting with friends and family and trading jokes with former mayor Ed Koch and Pauline Trigere, still such a sheer force of personality that most people there figured Schrader would outlast them all.
Although Schrader had retired from the dress company he founded in 1989, he continued to work every day, even as a centenarian, trading his own stocks from an office at the Wall Street brokerage house Bishop, Rosen.
He had recently undergone surgery for cancer at Beth Israel Medical Center, where he was a trustee for many years, and died of heart failure just after midnight, said his son, Mort Schrader, who went to work for Abe Schrader Corp. in the Fifties and is now executive managing director of Newmark & Co. Real Estate. Even during his stay at the hospital, the senior Schrader attracted a following of young nurses and aides who wanted to hear his stories of the 20th century.
“The man was an extraordinary genius, not because he was an incredible dress manufacturer, but because he knew everything,” said Trigere, a designer eight years his junior, who started a coat license with Schrader in 1979. “I found he had an insight into everything in life, and that’s something I didn’t think anyone had on Seventh Avenue.”
Schrader was without question one of Seventh Avenue’s liveliest senior figures. He was as likely to quote Jean Paul Sartre or Albert Camus as he was to quote the cost of a dress. His career is legendary, from his contentious negotiations with ILGWU president David Dubinsky — who became his best friend — to his brotherly relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Schrader was born in Poland in 1900 into a fairly well-off family. His father was a furniture maker, but the country was under the rule of Czar Nicholas and social conditions were difficult. During World War I, he was inducted into the Polish army, based near the German border, where he said the bigotry against Jews was so strong, “I couldn’t take it, so I made up my own papers, signed the colonel’s name and came to Germany.”
Schrader made his way to America on May 18, 1921, having first emigrated to Cuba, where he was able to obtain a Spanish visa. After a short-lived job as a reporter with The Forward, the Yiddish daily newspaper, he joined his uncle’s coat company as a shipping clerk, earning $10 a week.
After learning to be a cutter and gaining experience in other aspects of the garment trade, Schrader started his own dress factory at 575 Eighth Avenue, working as a contractor from 1927 until 1952.
Schrader once commented, “As a contractor, my capacity was 100 machines, but as a jobber, I can make as many clothes as I want, and I didn’t have to go to the bank when I became a manufacturer. I made my first million in 1943.”
Some observed Schrader did not like the obscurity of being a contractor and wanted to see his name in the clothes he made. He went into partnership with Leonard Arkin, who was already successful in making ensembles. Their line was a lower-priced version of Arkin’s, which undercut his business, but also formed the basis for Schrader’s success.
Betty Yarman, who with her husband, Morton, now publishes a public relations newsletter, was acquainted with Arkin and took her first job at the company.
“Leonard asked me if I’d like to come and be a ‘publicity girl,’ which was the title they used in those days, as much as I hated it,” Yarman recalled. “He didn’t treat me well. He used to ask me to go and buy him opera tickets. But Abe was very decent. In all the years I was associated with him, I never heard him use a dirty word.”
When it became apparent that Arkin and Schrader were headed their separate ways, Yarman said she repeatedly asked Arkin what would happen to her job, but couldn’t get an answer.
“Abe said if you want to come with me, there’s always a job,” Yarman said. “I said, ‘I want to come with you, because I want to be with real people,’ and Abe never forgot that. He even reminded me at his birthday party.”
Schrader made a success of his own company, building a $70 million dress and separates business aimed at the better customer with signature looks such as the shirtdress, eventually taking the firm public in 1969. He brought both his sons into the business. Mort eventually became its president, while Steven only spent a brief period there before moving on to a career in publishing.
But beyond his own company, Schrader always cared about the industry as a whole and was an advocate for domestic manufacturing and unionization. He was one of the founders of Fashion Capital of the World, an industry organization formed during the mayoral administration of John V. Lindsay in the Seventies to promote New York as a manufacturing and design center. It was this group that initiated the name change of Seventh Avenue to Fashion Avenue.
Schrader forged a great friendship with Dubinsky, despite sitting on opposite sides of the bargaining table in union negotiations, and it was through the former ILGWU president that he met Lyndon Johnson during a luncheon in 1963. Johnson became the man Schrader would most admire in life, because of his courage in the Civil Rights movement and his ability to stand by his convictions. He helped raise $500,000 for LBJ’s campaign in 1964, dressed the First Lady for the inaugural and later, she and her daughters came to buy clothes at his company.
“He was an incredible character who kept building over the years,” said Bud Konheim, chief executive officer of Nicole Miller. “He’s a guy and a time who we will never see again.”
“Abe was the last of an old breed of people who created Seventh Avenue,” said Oscar de la Renta. “I liked him a lot and thought he was a wonderful man.”
In an interview last year, Schrader himself said he felt like a relic from the previous century, representing a bygone era of vertical manufacturing. He was particularly disturbed by the turn of antiunion sentiment within the industry, noting that the influx of cheap imports and the focus of retailers on price was why he decided to sell his business in 1984 to Interco Inc. of St. Louis for $38.2 million.
“When a certain New York store sent a buyer to me at the end of the season and told me they wanted money, I said, ‘Why do you want money? I gave you clothes and you sold them. Give me back the merchandise if you can’t sell it and I will. They said they didn’t have it, that is was sold. I said, ‘I didn’t tell you to sell it so cheap.”‘
Interco at the time was a thriving diversified conglomerate with major interests in the apparel business. Schrader continued as chairman and always remained active in the operations of the firm, coming into the office on most days into his 80s. But in 1988, Interco, in a restructuring, began to sell off its apparel manufacturing operations.
Abe and Mort Schrader tried to buy the company back, but could not come to terms with Interco, and resigned from the firm in February 1989, the same year Abe’s wife of 63 years, Rose, died.
It was one of the few times Abe Schrader was noticeably unhappy. Another, Mort Schrader recalled, was upon the death of his colleague and competitor, Fred Pomerantz, the founder of Leslie Fay, 15 years ago. At Pomerantz’s services, he turned to his son and said, “I guess I’m next,” but Mort pointed out he could live to be 100.
“I was talking to John and Laura Pomerantz this morning about that,” Mort Schrader said. “That was the world — Fred Pomerantz, Jerry Silverman and Carl Rosen. It was as if the last of his contemporaries had died.”
But it was Schrader’s nature to smile, and it made sense he would be the last to go, Yarman pointed out, since he always wanted to be a winner. “He used to go to the horse races with friends, but he bought a ticket on every horse in the race so that when the horse came in first, he could say he won.”
John Pomerantz, chairman of Leslie Fay, recalled meeting Schrader in the Sixties, when he first headed a dress division, Kasper for Joan Leslie, at his father’s firm.
“I remember having a very strict, very tough father to work for,” Pomerantz said. “Abe told him to take it easy on me. Every time I had a fight with my father, he said, ‘Come work for me.”‘
Laura Pomerantz, John’s wife and Mort Schrader’s real estate partner in Newmark & Co., added, “Abe was the man of the century. He was so multi-faceted and had so much wit, humor and warmth. He was an amazing person to me. He lived a blessed life and lived his life exactly the way he wanted to.”
Marvin Traub of Marvin Traub Associates consulting firm and former chairman of Bloomingdale’s, said “Abe is absolutely a legend in our industry, not only for his dedication, but for his joyousness and his marvelous spirit. When he walked into a room, it lit up. He will be missed. It’s the end of an era.”
Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies for Kurt Salmon Associates, was Saks Fifth Avenue’s chief executive officer when he met Schrader, when Schrader was 80.
“He was still really swinging — always dancing late at night, always a presence,” Aronson said. “While the Schrader company was a collaboration between father and son, Abe was doing his own thing, making coats and suits for Pauline Trigere and others. He was always in there.”
He also held a gold degree from the Arthur Murray dancing school, Trigere recalled, noting she also met Schrader on the dance floor at a hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., and again at El Morocco in New York, where Schrader was known to tip Angelo, the maitre d’, for a good table so he’d look as important as Jack and Jackie Kennedy and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who were regulars.
“He hired me to do a collection of coats, and he was a very strict master,” Trigere said. “He used to tell me to keep quiet until he was finished speaking. But I quickly found him to be an amazing man who could quote Jean Paul Sartre and Camus.”
All through his career, Ira Neimark, a Bergdorf Goodman chairman and ceo, also knew Schrader.
“He was a gentleman of the old school, and always available to young merchants and older merchants to give advice,” he said.
Schrader’s sons said his willingness to give advice was evident to the end. Steve Schrader said that as his father was entering surgery, he quoted the story of Friedrich Nietzsche relating to a political prisoner who saw a sparrow at his windowsill and said it was an eagle.
“And Nietzsche said, ‘If you see an eagle, it’s an eagle,” Steve Schrader said.
“To me, he saw eagles throughout his life,” Mort Schrader added. “That was the greatest lesson I learned from him.”
Services will be held at 9:45 a.m. today at the Riverside Chapel, West 76th Street at Amsterdam Avenue.
In addition to his sons, Schrader is survived by three grandchildren, Jacob, David and Eliza.