Master Tailor Martin Greenfield Dies at 95

Martin Greenfield, a Holocaust survivor who rose to become the custom tailor to several U.S. presidents and other luminaries, has died at age 95.

He passed away at a hospital on Long Island, N.Y., on Wednesday, according to an obituary in The New York Times. No cause of death was given but his son Tod Greenfield said he had been battling dementia for a while and had retired from the business about five years ago.

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Greenfield’s story, as well as his unparalleled skill with a needle and thread, has become legend within the menswear industry.

Born in the small town of Pavlovo in the Carpathian Mountains of Czechoslovakia, he and his family were captured by the Nazis and brought to the infamous Auschwitz prison camp. In his 2014 autobiography “Measure of a Man: A Memoir, From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents’ Tailor,” he describes in graphic detail how Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor known for his grotesque, criminal medical experiments, spared the lives of Maximilian Grünfeld, as he was known then, along with his father and one sister, while his mother, another sister and baby brother were sent off to their deaths.

Ultimately, Greenfield was the only member of his family to survive the war, although he was in the slave labor camp Buna and the concentration camps of Gleiwitz and Buchenwald.

One day in 1947, a letter arrived for Greenfield, who by then had decided to change his name to the “more American” Martin Greenfield, from relatives he had never heard of: 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.

Once here, he landed a job at the men’s tailoring firm GGG, named for the three Goldman brothers — William P., Mannie and Morris — in Bushwick, Brooklyn. He started off sweeping floors and eventually worked his way up to vice president of production. And 30 years later, he bought the factory and renamed the business Martin Greenfield Clothiers.

Inside the Martin Greenfield Clothiers facility in 2013.
Inside the Martin Greenfield Clothiers facility in 2013.

“I was determined to learn every single task at GGG,” he wrote in the autobiography. “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.”

His father had 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 ’70s, when, as he recalled, “My boss made me make the Nehru jacket, but it was the most beautiful Nehru jacket.”

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.”

Among those who also were fans were Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, as well as scores of celebrities and athletes. In the book, Greenfield recalled how he 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, Eisenhower found rather amusing.

When Hillary Clinton asked for help dressing her husband, 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 Obama is “built like a fitting mannequin, a 40 long with an enviable 33.5-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, Martin Greenfield’s son, 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.

Greenfield was scheduled to do a fitting on then-President George W. Bush in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, which, naturally, was canceled.

He also dressed titans of industry including Michael Bloomberg who told WWD in 2013 that he got all his suits at Martin Greenfield. “They’re cheaper than Paul Stuart, where I used to get my clothing,” he said at the time.

Over the years, Greenfield, who never marketed his suits under his own name, expanded his reach to the entertainment world as well when he created the wardrobe for the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” in the early 2000s. He also worked on other projects, including “The Great Gatsby” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Greenfield’s roster of athletes included 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. ”

Because of the Holocaust, Greenfield was never bar mitzvahed, so he decided to have a bar mitzvah at age 80. He wrote: “ ‘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.”

Tod, Martin and Jay Greenfield in 2013.
Tod, Martin and Jay Greenfield in 2013.

Today, the business is run by Tod Greenfield and his brother Jay, who together operate a union factory in East Williamsburg. Jay’s son David Greenfield has also been active in the business over the past two years.

Over the years, they’ve produced goods for companies as varied as Rag & Bone, Freemans Sporting Club, Neiman Marcus and Brooks Brothers, and they’re known for their handwork, such as interior French seams.

“We still work with emerging designers and certain custom tailors,” Jay Greenfield said Thursday, “but most of our business is taking care of individual customers here at our Brooklyn factory. We also do a pretty significant amount of work making clothes for movies and television shows.”

He added of his father: “Martin lived life to the fullest. It amazes me how many people he has impacted. We have always been here to help his dream of Martin Greenfield Clothiers succeed. Nothing gives us more pleasure than enabling so many people who love wearing the Martin Greenfield label close to their hearts.”

Hearing of the death Thursday, designer Joseph Abboud said: “Martin Greenfield was a true gentleman and so very passionate about our industry that he loved so much. He was emblematic of the civility and culture of the men’s tailored business…and was a cornerstone of the golden age of menswear. We will miss him and his extraordinary contribution to us all.”

Lou Amendola, chief merchandising officer of Brooks Brothers, added: “I first met Martin at Donna Karan in 1994 and we worked together again later at Brooks Brothers. He was an exceptional craftsman, and always had amazing stories to tell. I personally appreciated his sense of humor and how he made every customer feel like they were the most important person in the room.

In addition to his sons, Greenfield is survived by his wife, Arlene and four grandchildren. Services will be held on Friday at 11:30 a.m. at Gutterman’s Funeral Home, 8000 Jericho Turnpike in Woodbury, N.Y. The service will also be livestreamed.

— With contributions from Lorna Koski, 2014

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