Almost hidden away in a nondescript, tan brick building on the corner of Varet Street and White Street in Bushwick is Martin Greenfield Clothiers, a decades-old, family-owned manufacturing and tailoring company for handmade suits and tuxedos started by an immigrant and survivor of the Holocaust.
Within the walls of the giant century-old building, pieces have been tailored and made for U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and actors, including Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker, cast members of “The Great Gatsby,” Broadway performers in David Byrne’s “American Utopia” and a long list of others. One look at the suits and you’ll understand why.
One look at the interior of the production facility, and you’ll understand why it was recently used by the TV show “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” to depict the clothing factory owned by Mrs. Maisel’s father-in-law.
The upstairs offices of Martin Greenfield are beautifully aged in the style of those who are too busy for redecoration. It seems that decades worth of loose leaf papers are piled up on the desks and in the corners of the rooms. The hardwood walls and drop ceilings are reminiscent of a high school athletic director’s office in the 1970s.
Downstairs, in the production facilities where the suits are made, the constant sound from the buzzing of dozens of machines makes it feel like the building is alive. There are indentions on the wood floors from years of walking up and down isles. The machines lining the tables range in age from nearly a century old to relatively new (within the last decade.)
The suit factory wasn’t always named Martin Greenfield Clothiers. It originally opened near the turn of the century, over 100 years ago, explained Martin Greenfield’s son Tod Greenfield, who currently runs the shop with his brother Jay Greenfield.
Before immigrating to the United States in the 1940s, Martin had a tremendously difficult life. He lost his family during the Holocaust and was sent to a concentration camp, where he worked until eventually being freed by Eisenhower and his troops.
“He came only with the dirt under his fingernails,” said Tod, about his father, who soon after arriving in Brooklyn, in 1947, got a job working as an employee at the suit factory, then called GGG Clothes.
“He worked here for 30 years,” Tod continued. “He was hardworking. When he came here, he was working like an animal because he was used to it. My father started without the ability to speak English. He was just moving things from one part of the floor to another,” Tod explained while gesturing across the room. “Someone would say, ‘Those sleeves are finished, bring them over there.’ And the next time he walked by and saw a bunch of sleeves, he would bring them over there.”
“He was watching each person work,” Tod continued. “One day, someone was sick and he said to the supervisor, ‘Hey, I know how to do that job.’ And one-by-one, he did all of the different jobs. The supervisor eventually told him ‘you can help me supervise because you know all of these jobs.’ He learned English at St. Francis Prep during night school.”
Naturally, over 30 years of working at the facility, Martin grew attached to the building and, more specifically, the people who inhabited it. The suit factory gave him an opportunity and instilled a passion in him. As a Holocaust survivor and immigrant without a formal education, the operation allowed Martin to start a new life and put both of his sons through college.
That’s why, in the mid 1970s, when the owners of the factory decided to close down, Martin couldn’t let it happen. He saw all of his co-workers losing their jobs, explained Tod. So, he opened it back up. And after a couple of bumpy financial years, stimulated by the 18 percent interest loan he took out to open up Martin Greenfield Clothiers, things began to run smoothly.
“Here is a picture of six people my father hired or kept on when he bought the company in ‘77 who were still working for us six years ago when this picture was taken,” said Tod, while gesturing towards a photo taped to the wall next to the entrance of the production room. “Now, three have retired, but three are still working.”
Tod began walking photographer Rafael Fuchs and me through the isles of the giant production room, introducing us to his employees and pointing out machines, one of which Tod informed us has been used over 1 billion times over the course of its 80 or so years of existence.
Martin Greenfield doesn’t only make suits and tuxedos for presidents and celebrities. The bulk of the clothier’s business comes from people in business, lawyers, grooms and wedding parties.
The suit production process starts with a customer picking out a style and fabric and getting measured, in person, by a tailor. This part is very important, Tod explained, because for a suit to fit well, you have to be measured the right way.
“A tailor measuring someone in person and fitting the suit when it comes in, there is no technology that can do as good of a job,” said Tod. “These are all custom made, by hand, with the finest materials. There is no way to measure properly online. There are some apps for creating custom clothing . . . but they can’t know where you like to wear your pants. They can’t capture your posture. The average person stands a bit crooked. And if you stand a bit crooked, you need a crooked suit. And these gizmos, this technology, just doesn’t cut it.”
After the measuring is done, the suit is made. Jackets are made in the upstairs production room, and pants are made downstairs. The clothing items start at one table and go around to all of the following.
“My father used to say there are 108 alterations to make a jacket,” said Tod. “I’m not sure if that is exactly right, but it is close to that.”
Standing in the production room, it is hard to imagine that the place could ever go quiet. But, it did in March of 2020, when the COVID pandemic first hit. Tod told me there was a serious scare that after over 100 years, suit making would permanently stop at 239 Varet St.
“It was a scare for some time,” said Tod. “We ground to a halt right before the shutdown because customers stopped buying stuff. During the shutdown, it was almost like a relief, because we didn’t have any work to do anyway. But then, it was like a ghost town over here. It didn’t seem normal. This place had never shut down before. It was the first time it got shut down in over 100 years. It didn’t seem right at all. Walking through the shop, it was empty and quiet. It is usually making all these noises.”
During the shutdown, Tod found a story of a woman who was making masks at home. He thought to himself, “If she can make masks, so can I.” And so he did.
“I put together a pattern, and we made a couple of masks one day,” said Tod. “They looked good. I started cutting them. Then I called in one person to start making them, then two people. We had about 10 people here, spread out, making masks.”
“One of the TV news channels featured our mask on a story,” he continued. “We got thousands of orders within 20 minutes after that story ran. We didn’t have enough masks to deliver. I started contacting my employees. At that time, there was no testing. The virus was pretty unknown. I didn’t want to bring in anyone elderly for work. But, a lot of my workers are elderly.”
So, Tod started hand delivering boxes of parts to employees’ homes, and they began working from home. Using homeworkers and the people who decided to come into the facility, Tod was able to triple mask production.
“We donated at least one-for-one,” said Tod. “We donated at least 10,000 masks, probably closer to 13,000.”
Now, Tod said, his mask business has ended. But, suit and tuxedo production has started back up.
The starting price for a custom, handmade suit is about $1,700, said Tod. But, it all depends on the material the customer decides to use. Check out some options here.
And, before you go, please watch this video on Martin Greenfield.
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