by Julie Earle-Levine
photography by evan sung | October 10, 2011 | Style & Beauty
Greenfield inspects a jacket collar that has been basted in place before the sleeves are sewn on
|Greenfield in his Brooklyn office, surrounded by photos of family members and famous clients|
|Bolts of fabric on the storage floor|
Eighty-three-year-old master tailor Martin Greenfield has the sprightliness of a puppy. He rises at 6 AM each day, is at work by 8 AM and works until sunset at his East Williamsburg factory, where he has been turning out exquisite, handmade suits for six decades. Today, he is zipping up and down the stairs between his office and the jacket shop where workers hand-tailor garments, then it’s up to the cutting room on the fourth floor to inspect materials, and back down again.
Greenfield’s office serves as little more than a pit stop for a quick cup of coffee and exemplifies his days spent on the go. Fashion magazines, newspapers, letters from customers and order forms waiting for his attention are strewn about, and the walls are adorned with family portraits. On the shop floor, Greenfield scrutinizes each garment, eyeing every stitch, pausing to steam a sleeve or to try on pieces as if they were his own, smoothing the lapels and seams. Every night he has a martini or a small glass of brandy with his wife of 54 years, to toast the suits completed that day.
A Sharp Look, Honed Well
It’s his fanatical attention to the subtleties of his craft—every single stitch is hand-sewn, even the buttonholes—that has presidents, business executives, athletes and the hottest designers knocking on his door. The best suits are “handmade in Brooklyn,” he says. “Look, this one is for Carmelo Anthony.”
It was during the Holocaust that Greenfield came to recognize the importance of appearances. At age 14, he was taken with his brother, two sisters and parents to Auschwitz. One of his many jobs at the concentration camp was to wash clothes. One day he tore an officer’s shirt and was beaten. He mended the shirt and wore it instead of his prison uniform. The guards and prisoners began treating him with respect. “I looked like somebody,” says Greenfield, who believes the shirt may have saved his life. The rest of his family, however, was less fortunate. “I had a very nice family, a huge family, and I was the only survivor.”
An uncle invited him to the US, and he arrived in 1947 with $10. He got a job at GGG Clothing as a floor boy at the factory, where he would help move unfinished garments from one seamstress to another. Later, he would learn how to blind stitch, fit and oversee manufacturing. Soon after World War II, one of the founders of a competing brand came to GGG to learn techniques for creating ready-made suits. “He was here two weeks to learn from my boss. I was so upset,” says Greenfield. “He let him in to our secrets!”
A Befitting Business
Greenfield bought GGG in 1977 and launched Martin Greenfield Clothiers Ltd. with six employees. His two sons, Jay and Tod, own and run the business with him and now employ 120 people. Greenfield recalls that every component was American when he started the company. “These days it is mostly imported,” he says, “but we make [the suits] here.”
In addition to boasting a celebrity clientele, the company now makes garments for labels including Band of Outsiders, Brooks Brothers and Rag & Bone. His work with passionate young designers excites him the most.
“That’s why I’m still working. They bring ideas, and we play with these ideas and make sure that the suit is balanced perfectly,” he says, examining a snappy green vest he’s making for Band of Outsiders.
“Two years after I began Band of Outsiders, I started making suits at Martin Greenfield, to really learn about tailoring,” says Scott Sternberg. “This was the only way to do it.”
Greenfield remains devoted to his company. “I will work as long as everything here works,” he says, pointing to his head. He jumps up to meet a customer, and it’s clear that he won’t be slowing down anytime soon.