‘Clothes Don’t Just Make the Man, They Can Save the Man’
In his memoir ‘Measure of a Man,’ Martin Greenfield recalls how he survived Auschwitz to become an iconic tailor to the stars
Martin Greenfield is a legend in men’s fashion. He has hand-tailored suits for President Obama and President Clinton, as well as for such celebrities as Michael Jackson, Shaquille O’Neal, Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Pacino, Jimmy Fallon, and Johnny Depp. His Brooklyn-based company—Martin Greenfield Clothiers, which he runs with his sons Tod and Jay—creates custom suits for labels like DKNY, Rag & Bone, Ovadia and Sons, Band of Outsiders, and Brooks Brothers. Greenfield has even made his mark in Hollywood, creating suits for the TV shows Boardwalk Empire and The Knick, as well as blockbuster films including Ben Affleck’s Argo and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.
But if Greenfield’s suits are famous, his personal story is less well-known. Now, in his new memoir Measure of a Man, Greenfield goes back to the beginning of his life—before he got his start in the American garment industry, to his childhood in Czechoslovakia and his time in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Greenfield—then known as Maximilian Grunfeld—grew up in Pavlovo, a quaint Czechoslovakian village near the Hungarian border, overlooking the Carpathian Mountains. His father was an electrical engineer, his grandfather well known for building the synagogue, and the tight-knit town of some 50 families would eat Shabbat meals together every week.
The Nazis surrounded Pavlovo on the second day of Passover in 1944 and gave the Jews an hour to pack their belongings before they were stuffed into cattle cars and shipped to a ghetto in the Ukrainian town of Mukacevo. From there, Greenfield’s whole family was sent to Auschwitz, where he lost his parents, grandparents, brother, and two sisters—when Dr. Josef Mengele selected him to go right (life) and his relatives to go left (death). Greenfield remembers Mengele precisely because of the quality and shine of his black leather boots.
It was in Auschwitz, of all places, that Greenfield first learned how to sew. He worked in the concentration camp’s laundry room, where he stitched up a ripped SS shirt that had been thrown in the trash and wore it under his camp uniform. With his first stitch, Greenfield learned the power that clothing possesses. The shirt, he found, provided him with an unspoken elevated status, and as he writes in his book, he realized that “clothes don’t just make the man, they can save the man; they did for me.”
“Nobody in the concentration camp had a shirt, and it was a crazy thing to do but I put the shirt on,” Greenfield told me in his office on a recent visit. He sat in front of a wall filled with framed newspaper clippings, awards, and pictures of him shaking celebrities’ hands; a photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe stood discreetly in the corner. “The shirt taught me that I had to be tough. Everyone thought I was important because of the shirt, and I was treated more nicely.”
Greenfield’s autobiography details the physical, psychological, and emotional abuse he endured under the Nazis. Morning call in Auschwitz was 4:30 a.m., when the prisoners stood in line for hours, freezing; they had hardly any food to eat and worked under horrible conditions with the constant fear of the smokestacks from the crematoria nearby. Prisoners were beaten frequently and shot at random. After Greenfield took a particularly gruesome lashing several months into his Auschwitz imprisonment, a merciful German reassigned him to the sub camp, Buna. Once the camp was bombed by the Americans in December 1944, the Nazis forced the most physically fit of Buna’s 10,000 prisoners on a death march, where they trudged 50 miles in the snow to the Gleiwitz concentration camp. Greenfield was then transported to Buchenwald, where he remained until the war ended.
Greenfield’s punishing experiences helped him develop an armor of gallantry—and an unprecedented level of chutzpah. In one incident soon after the war, a recently liberated Greenfield traveled back to Buchenwald’s neighboring town of Weimar to seek revenge on the mayor’s wife; when Greenfield had been assigned to do repairs on the mayor’s house after it was bombed, she had ratted him out to the SS for stealing pet food. Greenfield returned to her house with the intention to kill her, but once he pointed a gun at her head, he changed his mind. Instead, he stole her Mercedes Benz.
Greenfield wandered around Europe for two years after liberation, searching for a family he’d never find. Eventually, in 1947, he boarded a ship to America to live with wealthy, long-lost relatives. He changed his name, and with the help of a fellow immigrant he found a job at Brooklyn’s GGG Clothing, where he started his career as a floor boy, running items like fabrics around the shop to the factory’s hundreds of employees. The owner, William P. Goldman, took a liking to him and showed him the ropes. Greenfield made sure to learn every aspect of suit-making—hand-blasting, darting, piping, lining, blind stitching, pressing, fell stitching, armhole work—and quickly worked his way up the food chain. He was promoted, from blind stitcher to assistant supervisor, then to supervisor, then to head quality inspector, then to an executive.
GGG had a long roster of A-list clients. Everyone in the entertainment industry wore GGG suits, including such celebrities as Eddie Cantor, Paul Newman, and Walter Cronkite; so did major political figures. Greenfield had the chance to design suits for President Eisenhower in the 1950s, he felt a special connection to Eisenhower, who had liberated Buchenwald as a general in the U.S. Army. To offer the president unsolicited advice on how to end the Suez Crisis of 1956, Greenfield slipped notes into the pockets of Eisenhower’s suits.
“He’s got total confidence and has this amazing amount of trust in himself,” his son Tod mused inside the factory, shouting over the loud hum of sewing machines. “Rightfully so, he trusts his own feelings. He’s made it through all these things.”
In 1977, after 30 years at GGG, Greenfield bought the East Williamsburg factory from the Goldman family, renamed the company Martin Greenfield Clothiers, and continued serving a superstar clientele. He had developed an impeccable reputation by then and continued to work with big-name celebrities and political leaders. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, he established relationships with department stores like Neiman Marcus, Barneys New York, and Saks Fifth Avenue to make their suits. He also mentored some young fashion talent in the ’80s, including Alexander Julian, Perry Ellis, and Isaac Mizrahi.
Greenfield returned to the White House once again to design clothes for President Clinton. (He snooped through the president’s closet, he recalls in his book, gasping at the number of track suits.) By this point, his notes to Eisenhower had become somewhat notorious in the White House, so Clinton told him when they first met—before Greenfield had the chance to slip any notes in any pockets—that if he had advice to offer, he should send him a fax.
Despite experiencing difficult financial times throughout the years, an advantage to keeping his near-century-old factory open in Brooklyn is the ability to boast “made in America,” which is a credit most retailers who flock to foreign countries for cheap labor cannot brag about. A suit made at Greenfield can retail for up to $2,700 because of its handmade craftsmanship.
Greenfield explains in his book why his suits cost so much: “I refused to compromise. We would only use the highest quality materials and methods. My suits would feature hand-shaped full-canvas fronts, Italian and English woolens and cashmere, handmade horn buttons affixed with a smart button stance, endless hand-pressing to mold the jacket’s form, hand-stitched and functional buttons and collars with a gorge done right to ensure a snug fit around the collar shirt. And above all, only over my dead body would any suit made by Martin Greenfield ever feature fused or glued interlining.”
Between designer lines, assignments from Hollywood, and private clients, Greenfield’s operation is making 15,000 suits a year for some very dapper clientele. His approach has won him accolades from customers and fellow designers alike. Scott Sternberg, the celebrated founder of fashion line Band of Outsiders, wrote to me in an email: “Martin taught me everything I know about classic tailoring, in his kind and colorful and story-infused way. What’s wonderful about Martin is that he’s not stuck in the past. We’ve always maintained a healthy dialogue about the classic, ‘right’ way to do things, and my desire to try something new—a shape, fabric, technique. He has a respect for both history and the need to innovate and move forward.”
Ariel Ovadia, one of the twins behind men’s luxury brand Ovadia & Sons, told me: “When we first started, Martin took out the time to work with us on developing our clothing. His knowledge and expertise is a lost art and we are grateful to have the privilege of working with him and his sons.”
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who’s been a longtime client, said of Greenfield: “Frankly, I’m in awe of him. We’re talking about a man who fought to survive some of the worst mankind has ever shown, came to New York with nothing, worked hard, thrived, and took care of his family. Martin is some of the best we can offer. His is not just an only-in-America story, in many ways this could only happen in New York. And I don’t buy my suits anywhere else.”
Greenfield’s memoir explains not only his spunk and desire to persevere, but also the rich array of impossible characters who appear throughout his life. In one moment, he’s standing in line next to Elie Wiesel in Buchenwald and shaking Eisenhower’s hand. Several chapters later, Greenfield is having a drink with Frank Sinatra in Manhattan and then meeting Lana Turner on a movie set in Los Angeles. Shortly afterward, he’s mentoring fashion icons like Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. He wears a gold watch on his wrist with biblical images of the 10 Tribes’ signs on the front and an inscription that reads “Am Yisrael Chai” on the back; the watch, given to him by legendary Cadillac salesman Victor Potamkin, used to belong to Golda Meir. These fleeting characters demonstrate the incredible scope of Greenfield’s journey.
He ascribes these larger-than-life experiences to the opportunities America has to offer. “When I came here at the age of 19, and they gave me a green card and told me I was an American, I thought there was no other place in the world,” he told me. “The opportunities that are here! If you are willing to take time and study, be brought up by your parents the right way, you can be president! You can become whatever you want to become.”
Greenfield told me it was not easy to write the book. His son Tod noted that his father’s past was not something he often talked about—that is, until he spent hours divulging his story to a yeshiva student who had to interview a Holocaust survivor for a school assignment.
“After that day, he was much more open,” Tod said. “He told us and my mom his story, and when someone would ask [about his past] he would tell them. Also, he used to have nightmares and would wake up screaming almost every night. But after he told his story, he was much more peaceful. I guess it’s therapeutic to share after so long.”
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