Martin Greenfield, tailor to Sinatra, Obama, Trump and Shaq, dies at 95

Defying the boundaries of taste and time, Martin Greenfield has made costumes for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, gangster Meyer Lansky, Leonardo DiCaprio and LeBron James. Men skilled in the arts of power projection – as well as writers and fashion designers – considered him the greatest men's tailor in the country.

For years, none of them knew the origin of their expertise: a beating at Auschwitz.

As a teenager, Mr. Greenfield was Maximilian Grünfeld, a skinny Jewish prisoner whose job was washing the clothes of Nazi guards in the concentration camp. One day, in the laundry room, he accidentally tore the collar of a guard's shirt. The man whipped Max in response, then threw the garment back at the boy.

After a fellow inmate taught Max how to sew, he repaired the collar, but then decided to keep the shirt, tucking it under the striped shirt of his prison uniform.

Clothing transformed his life. Other prisoners thought this meant Max was enjoying special privileges. Guards allowed him to wander the grounds of Auschwitz, and when he worked in a hospital kitchen, they assumed he was allowed to take extra food.

Max tore another guard's uniform. This time it was deliberate. He was creating a clandestine wardrobe that would help him survive the Holocaust.

“The day I first wore this shirt”, Mr. Greenfield wrote Seven decades later, “that’s the day I learned that clothes have power.”

He never forgot the lesson. “Two torn Nazi shirts,” he continued, “contributed to this success. Jewish building America's most famous and successful custom suiting business.

Mr. Greenfield died Wednesday at a hospital in Manhasset, New York, on Long Island, his son Tod said. He was 95 years old.

The miseries and triumphs of Mr. Greenfield's life illustrate the classic story of immigration to America. He experienced agony abroad, then penury in his adopted country. With workaholic energy, he built a business and made a name for himself, earning fortune and esteem. Late in life, he finally came to terms with the tragedies of his youth that he had tried to leave behind.

The culmination of his hopes and efforts was his business, Martin Greenfield Clothiers. She has achieved the improbable feat of thriving by doing the opposite of the rest of her industry.

Local clothing manufacturing has been in decline for decades in the late 1970s, when Mr. Greenfield opened shop in the East Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, in a four-story building that had housed drapers since at least 1917. He refused to manufacture abroad and never changed its standards.

As a result, Greenfield Clothiers was able to offer services that New York designers and wealthy suit wearers could hardly find elsewhere. It is now the last unionized clothing factory in New York, Tod Greenfield said in an interview for this obituary in March of last year.

There, around fifty textile workers, each with particular expertise, make a single suit in around ten hours. They operate machines manually, allowing them to customize each press and fold of fabric; to perfectly align designs on suit jacket pockets; and to make fabric seams invisible.

The traditionalism of the shop's techniques is embodied by several century-old buttonhole cutting machines still in operation. A year ago this month, a rusty dial on one of the machines indicated that it had cut about 1,074,000,000 buttonholes.

The former factory became a friendly setting for political, artistic and sporting patriarchs. The acknowledgments section of Mr. Greenfield's 2014 memoir, “Measurement of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor to Tailor of Presidents,” lists people “with whom we had the privilege of working”: Gerald R. Ford , Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Donald J. Trump, Joseph R. Biden, Colin Powell, Ed Koch, Michael R. Bloomberg, Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman, Martin Scorsese, Denzel Washington, Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony – among so many others.

A hand-sewn Greenfield jumpsuit has become a low-frequency status signal, especially in New York. Former Police Commissioners Raymond Kelly and William J. Bratton were both patrons of Greenfield.

Proximity to power gave Mr. Greenfield a reserve of jokes and anecdotes. Making a costume for the 7-foot-1 Shaquille O'Neal, he wrote in his memoir, “required enough costume fabric to make a small tent.” When asked by the New York Post in 2016 about Mr. Lansky's tastes, Mr. Greenfield recalled This gangster's orders are exactly: short, navy blue, single-breasted suits.

But he knew how to be discreet. “I met him once at the hotel,” Mr. Greenfield said of Mr. Lansky. “He was a very nice guy to me and I knew he was in charge. That's all I'm saying!

Initially, Greenfield Clothiers' main business was making ready-to-wear suits for department stores like Neiman Marcus and for brands like Brooks Brothers and Donna Karan. Mr. Greenfield has worked directly with designers, including Ms. Karan, who confessed to the Times that he taught her clothing terminology like “drop,” “throat” and “button position.” She added: “His genius lies in interpreting my vision. »

The company changed direction after Mr. Greenfield agreed to make 1920s-style outfits for the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” (2010-2014). His shop produced more than 600 costumes for 173 characters.

Other film and television projects followed, notably for the Showtime series “Billions” (2016-2023); and the films “The Great Gatsby” (2013), “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) and “Joker” (2019). The latter featured what might be Greenfield's most recognizable creation: the bright red suit and mismatched orange vest worn by Joaquin Phoenix, who played the title character, Batman's nemesis.

As a testament to his longevity, Mr. Greenfield dressed the early 20th century comedian Eddie Cantor, as well as the actor who played him decades later in “Boardwalk Empire.”

Maximilian Grünfeld was born on August 9, 1928 in the village of Pavlovo, which was then in Czechoslovakia and is now in western Ukraine. His family was prosperous: his father, Joseph, was an industrial engineer; his mother, Tzyvia (Berger) Grünfeld, ran the household.

When Max was around 12 years old, the German army occupied the towns around Pavlovo and he was sent to live with relatives in Budapest. Feeling he was not wanted, he fled the night he arrived and spent about three years living in a brothel – the women welcomed him sympathetically – and earning a living as a mechanic junior automobile.

But after suffering a hand injury that made his work difficult, he returned to Pavlovo. Shortly afterward, the Nazis forced him and his family onto a train to Auschwitz. Upon his arrival, he was separated from his mother; his sisters, Rivka and Simcha; and his brother, Sruel Baer. He only stayed with his father briefly. All died during the Holocaust.

He witnessed many horrors. While building a brick wall, he worked alongside another boy who was randomly used for target practice and killed.

After a harrowing death march from Auschwitz, followed by a freezing train transfer to Buchenwald, Max was finally released in the spring of 1945. General Eisenhower himself visited the camp, unaware that a teenage prisoner would one day become his tailor . In his memoirs, Mr. Greenfield remembers thinking that Eisenhower, an ordinary 5-foot-10 tall, was 10 feet tall.

He emigrated to the United States in 1947, arriving in New York as a refugee with no family, no knowledge of English and $10 in his pocket. Within weeks, he changed his name to Martin Greenfield – an attempt to appear “all-American,” he writes – and a childhood friend, also a refugee, found him a job at a clothing merchant called GGG in Brooklyn .

He started as a “houseboy,” carrying unfinished clothes from one worker to another. He studied all the factory's work: darts, piping, lining, sewing, pressing, hand basting, blind armholes and finishing.

“If the Nazis taught me anything, it was that a worker with indispensable skills was less likely to be rejected,” he wrote.

Over time, Mr. Greenfield became a confidant of GGG's founder and chairman, William P. Goldman, who introduced him to the company's clients, including some of post-America's leading tuxedo wearers. war. He was able to rub shoulders with Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.

In 1977, 30 years after his beginnings, he bought the factory and renamed it GGG in his honor.

Decades later, he began to discuss his Holocaust experience more widely, culminating in the publication of his memoir. Around the same time, he was labeled the best tailor in America by GQ, Vanity Fair And CNN.

In recent years, he has passed the business on to his son Tod and another son, Jay.

Besides them, Mr. Greenfield is survived by his wife, Arlene (Bergen) Greenfield, and four grandchildren. He lived in North Hills, a village in Nassau County on the north shore of Long Island.

On his first day in Auschwitz, Max's father, Joseph, told him that he had a better chance of surviving if they separated, Mr. Greenfield wrote in his memoir. The next day, camp guards asked which prisoners had skills. Joseph grabbed Max's wrist, pushed the boy's hand into the air and announced “A4406” – Max's tattooed inmate number. “He's a mechanic. Very talented.”

Two German soldiers took Max away. He did not see his father again.

Before parting, Joseph said to Max: “If you survive, you live for us. »

The rest of Mr Greenfield's life was an attempt to follow this commandment, his son Tod said: “And so he did.” »

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