Nepenthes New York x M&S Schmalberg - A Glimpse of the Garment District in the Modern Age
Sep 17, 2023
Adam Brand, the Vice President of M&S Schmalberg, occupies his 7th-floor office at 242 W 36th Street, the heart of Manhattan’s Garment District. A tall, robust man in his late 30s with a hint of stubble, he wears a crisp white shirt and slacks. He gestures toward a photo, saying, “Here's a picture of 35th St., taken sometime in the 1940s. You can see our old storefront - we used to be at street level - and the trucks lining the sidewalks with open sides. Pushcarts and garment racks were a common sight, with people loading their merchandise onto the trucks.”
For much of the 19th century, the Garment District was the hub of American clothing manufacturing. The district's buildings teemed with factories fulfilling orders for brands across the nation. M&S Schmalberg, a fabric flower manufacturer, was one such business, established by Morris and Sam Schmalberg in 1916. It has remained a family-owned enterprise ever since. The Schmalberg brothers sold their business to their nephew, Harold, a Holocaust survivor, shortly after the Second World War. Adam’s father, Warren, began working in the business right after school. Adam shares, “His spiel is “I graduated on a Tuesday and on Wednesday I went to work.” Adam, the fourth generation, has managed the company for the past 13 years.
According to Adam, the Garment District once housed over 150 feather and flower manufacturers. Dersh Feather on 37th Street is the last remaining feather wholesaler, while M&S Schmalberg stands as the last flower manufacturer, with their last competitor, Dulken & Derrick, closing its doors in 2007.
Adam’s first experience working at the factory came during college. “It was summer vacation and we were very, very busy,” he recalls. “My grandpa, my aunt, and my dad were all working. My sister and I both worked that summer, it was great.”
That era, the early 2000s, marked the tail end of the Garment District’s golden age, and business thrived for M&S Schmalberg. “It was like the manufacturing capital of the world - nothing like what you see now.” Most orders came from fashion designers, including Marc Jacobs, Oscar de la Renta, and notable commissions from Sex and the City, where the character Carrie Bradshaw’s fondness for the flowers sparked a trend. “We would create a bunch of flowers, pack them up, and take a pushcart just down the street,” says Adam. “I remember spending a lot of time making local deliveries.”
Today’s business is more diversified, encompassing a significant amount of millinery (hat making) work and costume design. M&S Schmalberg recently completed a substantial project for the San Francisco Opera. “These days, instead of 99% fashion, it’s more like 70% or 60%,” Adam notes. “These projects aren’t perennial, so it’s a challenge to secure orders and sustain the business. I could list our past achievements, but we always need the next one.”
New business, in part, came through the internet. Smaller designers and retail businesses (like Nepenthes) discover the company online, placing orders for relatively small quantities of flowers. As a small business with its entire production process in-house, they are agile enough to promptly fulfill these smaller orders without worrying about large minimum quantities.
Despite the challenges, there are no plans to change. “My dad taught me to stay focused on what we do best. We might have a client ask us to make bows or other items,” Adam relates. “Sure, we have talented people here, but that's not our forte. Our specialty is very specific, and it's always been that way.” This commitment to tradition extends to the company’s production process, with each step performed by hand or with custom machinery.All the fabric is starched using a century-old recipe that seals the fabric’s fibers. Fabrics requiring dye are meticulously treated by hand and then hung on nailboard frames to dry.Every M&S Schmalberg fabric takes its shape from a die-cut mold. Shelves filled with these robust steel molds line the workspace, with some of them nearly as old as the company itself. The original fabrication method involved placing fabric into the mold and striking it with a mallet to permanently create the shape. The business then progressed to early 19th-century gas-powered cast-iron presses, which they retired only because the building no longer had a gas hookup. Now, using the same molds, the business employs a hydraulic press, known as a clicker machine, to cut the fabric. “Instead of swinging a mallet like a maniac, we have the clicker machine. It’s stronger, faster, more efficient, and simply better. But it's essentially the same process of cutting through fabric. Our modern version of the machine is 40 or 50 years old.”Laser cutting, the modern industry standard for fabric cutting, is out of the question. “Laser cutters can scorch the edges,” Adam emphasizes. “They can't cut the same quantity, and they don't emboss - you just get flat shapes. What we do is very specific. We’re here using our iPhones while starching fabric, dye-cutting it, and pressing. I’m proud that this process endures.”Like many heritage businesses, such as woolen mills and benchmade shoemakers, finding young workers who can carry the business into the next generation can be challenging. Many of M&S Schmalberg’s employees have been with the company for decades. “A couple of them have been with us longer than I've been alive,” says Adam. “Each part of the manufacturing process requires a specific skill set, so we have a young apprentice in the back learning how to starch. Another guy, at 27 years old, is learning how to cut and press. Even having someone in their 40s or 50s, rather than 60 or 70, is beneficial. We've had other younger people work here, and sometimes they return to school or move on to other projects. There are no guarantees; that's just how it is.”The responsibility of keeping a century-old business running can be weighty, but Adam does his best to relish the experience. “Growing up, I took it for granted,” Adam recalls. “Now I realize how remarkable this is. I'm very fortunate. The history, the generations before me - it fills me with pride.”The Nepenthes New York x M&S Schmalberg NNY Flower pin encapsulates this heritage, combining it with the unique Nepenthes vision. Nepenthes New York provided the distinctive fabric - Indigo 12oz Broken Denim and Olive Cotton Herringbone Twill - while M&S Schmalberg employed their time-honored manufacturing process and a custom combination of die-cut molds to craft this exceptional design. Although the Garment District’s busiest days may be in the past, the NNY Flower Pin serves as a symbol of the two businesses and the neighborhood’s enduring spirit.