ABE SCHRADER: STILL WITTY, SHARP AND PASSIONATE
Byline: Arthur Friedman
NEW YORK — He is a man who has walked as comfortably with presidents as pattern makers, with stock brokers as union leaders. He’s also probably the best living icon of the American apparel industry in the 20th century.
Abe Schrader, an immigrant who rose to become one of Seventh Avenue’s most successful and colorful characters, turns 100 years old on Saturday. He was a pioneer in garment contracting who was also one of the first to recognize the importance of a brand. He maintains a wit as quick as his decision-making capability, and a work ethic and passion for profit that has not wilted as the years have past.
Schrader, who will celebrate his milestone with family and friends at a gala on Sunday evening at the Plaza Hotel, has had a life and career best marked by the adoring way friends and colleagues have spoken of him over the years and continue to speak of him today.
Anyone who’s been around the industry long enough has heard Abe Schrader stories, from his contentious negotiations with ILGWU president David Dubinsky — who became his best friend — to his brotherly relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Schrader reviewed his life and times with WWD in a recent interview at his classically decorated Central Park West apartment, which he has called home for 49 years. Dressed in a natty dark gray suit and silk tie, Schrader looks to be a man 25 years younger, possessing the wisdom of his years in a humble, yet confident manner.
Proudly showing off his stunningly beautiful antique wood furniture, mostly designed or imported by his wife, Rose, who died in 1989, Schrader was as eager to talk about his past as he was to discuss today’s political scene, and his opinions are as current and pointed as might be expected from someone half his age.
“I normally go to work at 11 o’clock each morning, but today I’ll be late,” Schrader said, eyes bright and twinkling.
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.
“My first 20 years felt like 60, life was so terrible,” he frowned. “The anti-Semitism was terrible over there. It was so big you could cut it with a knife.”
During World War I, Schrader was inducted into the Polish army, based near the German border. Again, 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.
“I came here through Cuba,” he recalled. “I had problems with getting a visa from Germany. After trying for six months, I still couldn’t get a visa, so I went to Cuba. And from Cuba, I did get a visa, but it was a Spanish visa, and then I came to this country. I entered in Key West and from there it took me two days to come here, to New York, where I had an uncle and a brother living.”
After a short-lived job as a reporter with The Forward, the Yiddish daily newspaper, “My uncle said to me, ‘You’re not going to get anywhere working there for $8 a week, so come into the business.’ It was a coat company, where my brother was also working and he gave me $10 a week as shipping clerk.”
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.
“I was a contractor from 1927 to 1952,” he said proudly. “During World War II, I made a lot of money making uniforms. Business was good.”
Schrader said he made his first million in 1943.
A few years later, he made the symbolically long trip from Eighth to Seventh Avenue.
“In 1952, I decided that I became a rich man in the contracting business, so I decided to go into the manufacturing business and sell direct to the stores with my own name,” Schrader said. “It was a great success.”
Schrader was the founder and chairman of the Abe Schrader Corp., which became a $70 million dress and separates company aimed at the better customer. One of its signature looks was the shirtwaist dress. He soon brought his son Mort into the business, which he called the best decision he ever made.
“Mort was great on the outside and I was great on the inside, so we made a great team,” Schrader said. “Later on, he started his own division, Schrader Sport, and he quickly did three times the sales that I did.”
Schrader’s other son, Steven, also spent some time working for the company, but soon went on to a career in publishing.
Mort Schrader, now executive managing director of Newmark & Co. Real Estate, said one reason he thinks his father was so successful was that he has a special ability to obtain and retain knowledge.
“He’s always had the ability to analyze a situation based on his experience and has tremendous recall,” Mort Schrader said. “He also loved what he did. For him, work is a passion, and he always had a tremendous drive to achieve. Combined with his interest in politics and all sorts of literature and poetry — all these factors make the man someone special. Abe has always had something for everybody.”
Beyond his own company, Schrader has always cared about the industry as a whole, and was a regular at industry affairs and 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 administration of Mayor John Lindsay in the Seventies to promote New York as a manufacturing and design center.
“I was one of the ones who changed the name of Seventh Avenue to Fashion Avenue,” he recalled, accurately.
In 1979, Schrader started a license with Pauline Trigere to make coats under her name.
“The only problem with the five years I had the license was that if she made something, she didn’t want somebody else to help her,” Schrader said. “She said, ‘If my name is on it, I have to make the samples.’ So I said, ‘How about Calvin Klein? He has hundreds of licenses and he doesn’t make up every sample.’ I mean, Bill Blass doesn’t make the sample for the automobile. She was one of the greatest designers, but she wouldn’t let her business become big.”
In 1984, Schrader sold his company, which had gone public in 1969, to Interco Inc. of St. Louis for $38.2 million. Interco at the time was a thriving diversified conglomerate with major interests in the apparel business. Schrader, however, continued as chairman and always remained active in the operations of the firm, coming into the office on most days into his 80s, a practice he continues to this day on Wall Street.
In 1988, Interco was restructuring and began to sell its apparel manufacturing operations. Abe and Mort Schrader, who was then president of the firm, tried to buy the company back. They could not come to terms with Interco, though, and both Schraders resigned from the company in February 1989.
Schrader said the secret to his success on Seventh Avenue was the experience he had being a contractor. He also built a strong relationship with the ILGWU, thus avoiding labor problems. Schrader said he personally costed every garment he made, making the right piece-goods decisions so that “I was never higher than somebody else, always a little less.”
Schrader’s passions have always extended beyond business, and he has thrown himself into his hobbies or political work with the same vigor. He and Rose were married for 63 years, spending some of their best times on the dance floor, he said, after they took ballroom dancing lessons from the Arthur Murray dancing school. Schrader became an Arthur Murray gold medal winner, and the couple was known to dance the night away at clubs like El Morroco, their favorite.
“I don’t know, I just loved it,” Schrader said of his fondness for dancing. “I guess it came to me from the Russian Cossaks I saw back in Poland. I used to dance that way, but I learned to love ballroom dancing. I used to go to El Morroco three or four times a week.”
Schrader also became active in the Democratic party starting in the presidential campaign of 1960, where he worked to elect John F. Kennedy.
But, it was with Johnson that he built a special relationship. He said 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.
Mixed in with his extensive library of books by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are several biographies, autographed by Johnson and his vice president, Hubert Humphrey.
Mort Sheinman, former managing editor of WWD who is now retired, called Schrader “the quintessential garment manufacturer.” Sheinman recalled how it was Dubinsky who introduced Schrader to Johnson in 1963 when Johnson came to Manhattan.
“In 1964, Abe Schrader and Dubinsky were at a luncheon fund-raiser for Johnson and his running mate, Hubert Humphrey, with virtually every manufacturing executive in the industry, crossing all categories and price points,” said Sheinman, who covered Schrader and the union as a reporter at the time.
“So, Abe was in the spotlight like never before. It was Abe’s job to introduce Humphrey. So, he got up there with a black eye patch,” Sheinman continued. (Schrader said he “worked so hard for Johnson, I strained my eye.”) “He starts to introduce Humphrey, and introduce Humphrey, and introduce Humphrey.
“You could see Dubinsky getting fidgety in his seat, and he starts looking at his watch. Suddenly, Dubinsky turns to Schrader and says loudly, ‘Time,’ which breaks up the crowd. So, Schrader pauses, and then continues to introduce Humphrey and introduce Humphrey.”
Schrader called Johnson the man he admired the most in life because of his courage in the Civil Rights movement and his ability to stand by his convictions.
“I tell you, I loved him,” Schrader said emotionally. “First of all, he was the one who gave us Medicare and the Great Society. I tell you, when I came here from Germany — I’ll never forget it — a fellow died at the sewing machine in the place where I worked and the city came and took him because he had no family and no insurance.”
Schrader said even in Germany in 1919, there was socialized medicine, and he was shocked to learn the U.S. had no such government program.
One Saturday during the LBJ years, Schrader went to Washington on business. Talking to a WWD reporter a few days later, he was asked whether he had happened to call on Johnson.
“I went there,” he said, “but he wasn’t home.”
The visit was not wasted.
“I told them who I was,” Schrader said, “and they invited me in for a tour. Not a tour like the tourists get. A special tour. They even showed me his office and let me sit in his chair. You know what I did? I used his phone. I called my buyer from Garfinkle’s and said, ‘You’ll never guess where I am.”‘
Then, the reporter wrote, Schrader paused and said, “Hey, don’t print that. He’ll see that, maybe he’ll get mad.”
On how the Vietnam War affected his friend, Schrader recalled during the recent interview an incident that acutely summed up Johnson’s frustration and feeling of being caught in a “Catch-22” situation involving the war.
“I once asked him at a party in Atlantic City, ‘Why don’t you end the war?’ He says to me, ‘Mr. Schrader, if anybody comes and tells you to end the war, ask them how, and I will do it.’ He said it two more times, in those exact words. He knew the war was bad, but he couldn’t find the right way out.”
Schrader also recalled with great affection David Dubinsky, the longtime president of the ILGWU.
“He will go down in history as one of the greatest men, and he didn’t even go to college,” he said. “He was educated a little bit in the Jewish education and respected by everyone. Nobody could compare to Dubinsky. He was one of the greatest labor leaders in history.
“He was great, and I used to talk to him a lot because he was fighting the communists in the union and I was so against the communists from growing up in Poland. Later on, when I was friends with him, I used to tell him, because we went out for dinner at least once a week, ‘You cannot make the poor man rich by making the rich man poor. If you take away from the manufacturer and give it all to the worker, the manufacturer is going to go out of business.’
“He says, ‘I don’t want to put the manufacturers out of business, they’re my friends.’ He listened to me a lot. The two of us were like this,” Schrader said, crossing his fingers.
Their friendship endured, despite sitting on opposite sides of the bargaining table. And although Schrader maintained a good relationship with the union, he was very much pro-maker, too.
In 1963, for instance, in the weeks prior to the opening of contract talks with the ILGWU, Schrader and his peers kept repeating that any wage increases would be out of the question, that it was “a matter of survival.”
At a few minutes before 9 on the morning when the talks were to start, Schrader’s Cadillac pulled up to the old Summit Hotel, where the union would spell out its demands. As Schrader’s driver opened the door, one of the ILGWU attorneys, a man named Emil Schlesinger, came huffing up the block, his tattered briefcase bulging with paperwork, a well-worked cigar sticking out of his mouth.
Schrader emerged from his car, cashmere overcoat immaculate, freshly shaven cheeks glowing with good health. Schlesinger looked at him and said, “Good mornin’, Abe. I see you’re here to fight for survival.”
Schrader said he is often disturbed by antiunion sentiment in the country as a whole and the industry in particular today. He said the influx of cheap imports over the last quarter century has changed the way apparel firms and retailers operate and has often put price over people or quality.
“That’s the reason I went out of business and sold my company to Interco,” he said. “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 it was sold. I said, ‘I didn’t tell you to sell it so cheap.”‘
He said he does feel like a relic from the previous century who represents a bygone era of vertical manufacturing. Schrader said the Garment District today is full of marketers and sales people, but is not the home of manufacturing.
Politics is still high on Schrader’s agenda, and he is following the current election season with keen interest.
“I will vote for Hillary Clinton because she is for the people,” Schrader said. “As for president, I’m not decided yet, but I think it’s going to be Gore.”
Although he’s been affiliated with the Democratic party over the years, he said he voted for President Bush, because he was “a good man.”
Schrader continually talked not about what people did, but what kind of people they were. So, what attribute does Schrader feel is the most important in a person?
“I like people that think of other people, people that respect other people’s opinions,” he said.
For the last 10 years, Schrader has been on Wall Street buying and selling his own stocks with an office at Bishop, Rosen, a brokerage house.
“I am treated like royally there,” he said. “I did pretty good up until April, when it started going down, and I gave back a lot. I love it, I can’t miss a day. My car picks me up and drops me off everyday.”
Betty Yarman, who was Schrader’s public relations person for more than 20 years, said, “I’m not surprised Abe has been so successful, because he always had a passion for winning, for coming out on top.”
Yarman told a story of how Schrader used to go to the race track, and to make sure he was a winner, he placed bets on every horse in the race.
“He came back and told his friends, ‘See, I won,”‘ Yarman said.
Sheinman said he once asked Schrader if he considered himself to be a rich man, to which Schrader responded, “There are rich rich men, and poor rich men. I’m a poor rich man. You know, $2 million, $3 million.”
What’s the key to Schrader’s longevity?
“That I don’t know,” he said. “I would have to say a good doctor, and I take a couple of pills a day.”
Yarman, who is a trustee with Schrader at Manhattan’s Beth Israel Medical Center, said she believes the same combination that made him a successful businessman has helped him to live so long, and in relatively good health.
“First of all, he obviously has good genes and comes from good stock,” Yarman said. “But he has also lived his life modestly, eaten a lot of fish and wasn’t a big drinker. He’s been blessed by good fortune and good luck.”
Mort Schrader remembered when he and his father attended the funeral some 15 years ago of one of Abe’s colleague’s, Fred Pomerantz, the founder of Leslie Fay.
He said, “My father was quite upset and he turned to me afterward and said, ‘I guess I’m next.’ I said to him, ‘Sure, you’re next, but it could be five years or 15 years,’ and he’s still going strong.”