March 02, 2012

Rise & Fall Of A Fashion Empire

I chanced upon a gentleman the other day who happened to say something that rang in my ears:

His father was once the largest manufacturer of ladies' coats and suits in America.

While he mentioned it in passing, I had to describe to him my keen interest and my background in vintage clothing which spurred the subsequent questions.

I learned that his father was a clothing salesman who founded Burstein & Company, and this developed into a partnership called Myron Lewis - Myron being a twist on his father's name (Mickey), and Lewis was Mickey's brother. The two worked as a team, with Mickey heading sales and Lewis managing the factory where the garments were produced. The company began post-World War II and existed until the mid-1960s, when the business was sold to Handmacher Fashions. Later on, Handmacher merged with Jonathan Logan.

A 1949 advertisement of Handmacher's more casual Weathervane line of suits, created about the same time Myron Lewis began.

I listened with excitement as he described how his parents would travel to France, purchase examples of the latest Parisian couture, and bring the clothes home to the business. Mickey would "give it to the cutter", meaning that his patternmaker would take the garment and copy it line for line. He'd then create the same item in a moderate price range to make the mode accessible to the masses.

The fashion history embedded in these anecdotes thrilled me, but for this businessman they were simply lines from his father's resume. No trace of the business remains in the family except these stories. When asked about the clothes themselves, the gentleman could relay vaguely that his father did a lot of clothes with big buttons. That was all.

A Handmacher design in 1968. Handmacher purchased Myron Lewis in the mid-1960s.

In his father "there was no great love" for fashion, he told me, just a keen entrepreneurial intent and a wonderful success that developed from that simple desire. Indeed, Mickey Burstein only had to work twenty years thanks to the exponential growth of Myron Lewis. A splendid tale to hear, if only in scant outline, from decades past.

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