Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A great New York success story

Looking from Queens towards the faint Manhattan skyline in the distance. 2 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, June 16, 2015. Overcast and foggy most of the day until late after when the breezes brought in the moisture and brought down the temperature to the high 60s. An early summer rain with a soft breeze that pushed away the heat and humidity.
View from the terrace looking south toward 72nd Street at 4:30 p.m.
Last night I went down to Cipriani 42nd Street where the Fashion Institute of Technology and FIT Foundation were hosting their annual awards gala.

It was a very crowded room, and a bright and well-dressed one, as it was the fashion industry and its supporters and contributors. I was introduced to FIT several years ago by Liz Peek who is (or up until recently was) the chair of the committee that raises funds for the FIT museum. Every early autumn, their Fashion Luncheon where they honor a major designer now opens the New York Fall Fashion Week. This is an organization and force that I’ve seen start with some volunteers (including Mrs. Peek and Yaz Hernandez) and become a visible force on the New York philanthropic and social scene. Their works have also shone a bright light on the college itself which is a great New York success story.
There were artists' works of mannequins and fashion. The lady on the left is inspired by Picasso.
FIT began, was created, 70 years ago this year with a couple of borrowed classrooms and a course in fashion design. They had a total of 100 students. Today the enrollment is 10,000! And they are a university plant covering four blocks on the west side of Manhattan in the 20s. Last night Dr. Joyce Brown, President of FIT announced the construction of a new building of ten stories which will add to their enrollment as well as their curriculum which is now varied – although all encompassing creative pursuits.

Many famous designers and fashion personalities in this country today started at FIT. Eighty-five percent of their students are working at their chosen field within a year of graduating. I was seated between Susan Baker – who is a major philanthropist in arts and culture in New York – and Amsale Aberra who is on the Board of Trustees of the college. Amsale as you may or may not know is a major designer and manufacturer of Bridal clothes here in New York. A girl from Ethiopia, she is a graduate of FIT and another example of the success of its alumni.
Yaz Hernandez. Bonnie Strauss and Adrienne Vittadini.
Liz and Jeff Peek. Maria Cooper Janis and Bruce Boyer.
Tom and Courtney Spangler, Tom and Diahn McGrath. Dr. Joyce Brown.
This was an evening of speeches. Cipriani’s menu got us started on a lobster salad (of lobster, period) and filet mignon (or fish). Cipriani’s menus are rich. The steak is delicious but massive and the lobster is delicious too, but again ... rich and a lot. But I digress.

Evening of speeches. That can be a bore at these “galas.” And the audience/guests are like an applause-o-meter in that they begin to talk among themselves and ignore the speaker until it gets to the point of vocal pandemonium. This happens quite often. Not so last night. All these very sophisticated and often highly creative people were silent through the several speeches (not long).
The table with the starter: lobster and string bean salad.
A view of the room as people were taking their seats.
Debi Mazar opened as emcee. Ms. Mazar is funny, as you probably know. A Noo Yawk girl, she gets it and sang praises to the Garment Industry (aka Fashion World) and even went so far as to advise the people at the dinner to bring the manufacturing back to New York. Once upon a time – a century ago, it was the most major garment manufacturing center in the world.

Mazar introduced Liz Peek, who spoke briefly and introduced Dr. Brown, who was glimmering and glamorous in a strapless Dennis Basso creation. Dennis who had a table two over from ours, is a big supporter of FIT. I’m not sure if he is an FIT alumn but he exhibits all the qualities of a success in the fashion industry. Dennis is naturally entrepreneurial. Hard work, drive and indefatigable with an eye alert with imagination. These are qualities often found in the alumni of FIT.
Debi Mazar making her commentary on the evening and the fashion industry in New York.
Dr. Joyce Brown
The Awardees this year were Saks Fifth Avenue with its president Marc Metrick accepting the award, and Edwin Goodman, scion of the Bergdorf Goodman family, and grandson of the company’s founder also named Edwin Goodman.

I only recently learned about the history of the store and the family from Donald L. Miller’s riveting “Supreme City; How Jazz Age Manhattan Created Modern America.” The first  Edwin Goodman, born in 1880, came from Lockport, New York, a small town near Lake Ontario and Buffalo. He quit school in his teens and got a job working for a local tailor where he learned the trade and the secrets of cutting and fitting. The young man took to it and with ambition, he moved to New York, where he got a job as a cutter and fitter of women’s clothing. Then he went to work for a man named Herman Bergdorf who had women’s shop on lower Fifth Avenue.
A photo of a maquette of the planned new addition to FIT.
Bergdorf’s customers were the wealthier, fashionable ladies who lived farther up the avenue. His young, and handsome fitter, who was also “painstakingly proficient” was very popular with the ladies. He was impeccable in his dress and a master at cutting and fitting. In those days women of fashion had all their clothes made for them. Young Goodman was good for business.

When he was 23, he bought out Mr. Bergdorf who was ready to retire. That was in 1903. His business grew progressively as he moved his locations up the avenue as commerce was encroaching on the formerly residential Fifth Avenue above 42nd Street. By 1914, he had a shop in a building on 52nd Street and Fifth Avenue across from the Vanderbilt mansions.
Fern Mallis delivers the introduction of Marc Metrick, President of Saks Fifth Avenue.
Marc Metrick.
Edwin Goodman making his acceptance speech.
But in 1927, Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt, the widow of Cornelius Vanderbilt II sold the family mansion that occupied the entire block from 57th Street to 58th Street on Fifth Avenue. The deal was made by a realtor named Frederick Brown who planned to demolish the 133 room mansion and put up a commercial building.

Edwin Goodman, then in his late forties, made a deal with Mr. Brown to lease the space for a store with a penthouse apartment on the roof for the extraordinary sum of $300,000 a month.  The Vanderbilt mansion had been a landmark for the previous forty years, and it overlooked an open space of the Grand Army Plaza and Central Park. The architects created a commercial building that was in the “mansion-style” with mansard roofs and marble and limestone façade.
The Cornelius Vanderbilt II house on the southwest corner of 58th Street and Fifth Avenue, circa 1894.
Grand Salon, Cornelius Vanderbilt II house, 1894.
The Moorish smoking room in the Cornelius Vanderbilt II residence.
The move to 58th Street and Fifth Avenue was farthest northern point on the avenue that could be commercial. There was great doubt among retailers and many nay-sayers who thought Edwin Goodman was crazy. Edwin Goodman also knew he was taking on a great risk that could fail dangerously. In fact he was so ill with worry after signing the contract that he decided to divide the new store into sections that were boutique-like, so that he could sublet these spaces to other retailers if the location didn’t work out. What was borne out of that, of course, was a revolutionary way of retailing.

When the building was finished in 1928, Goodman moved his family from their brownstone on the West Side to the penthouse. The new business was highly successful. Within a year, sales doubled and Edwin Goodman leased the additional space fronting the avenue on the south (where Van Cleef is today), giving Bergdorf Goodman the same footprint as the Vanderbilt mansion that came before. By the mid-1930s, Edwin Goodman owned his store and the entire block between 57th and 58th Street.
The Vanderbilt mansion being prepared for demolition, 1927.
It was in the early 1930s when the master tailor who made or directed the making of every item in his store and catered almost entirely to a wealth clientele, decided to open a ready-to wear department. This was revolutionary and also considered a great gamble. His competitors were highly doubtful of its success.  

However, Goodman recognized that the times had changed and even the wealthier clientele no longer wanted to spend hours being fitted for a lifestyle that had grown much more relaxed than previous generations.
Bergdorf Goodman today.
Edwin Goodman, grandson of the founder Edwin, and last night’s honoree grew up in his grandfather’s, and later his father’s business. He changed his business when his father Andrew Goodman sold the store to Carter-Hawley-Hale Stores, and has long been in the venture capital business.  However, Mr. Goodman, like his father before him, has been a big supporter of the Fashion Institute of Technology. Dr. Joyce Brown praised him last night for being an invaluable friend and member of the board whose guidance has greatly enhanced the success of FIT, a university that grew out of an industry, and is perhaps one of the most successful colleges – in terms of value to its students’ future – in the world.

They raised $1.3 million last night. Dr. Brown told us that a lot of that was going to help those students who are already working two and three jobs to put themselves through school.