Walking under the enormous golden button into Tender Buttons, named for the Gertrude Stein book, is like crossing the threshold into a museum or antique store. Buttons, which I often think of as simple clothes fasteners, are highlighted as masterpieces in this little shop. Set up like a long gallery, buttons of every shape and size line the walls, with display tables down the middle and a register at the end. Each button is fascinating, and it is easy to understand how Millicent Safro and her late partner Diana Epstein accidentally found themselves in a world filled with miniature discs.
In the 1960s, the two women bought a large collection of buttons because they were drawn to their appearance and history. Though Diana was a writer and an editor, and Millicent was an antiques restorer, they started a business based on their passion for the small fasteners. The space on 62nd Street that was originally meant to simply house the buttons became a storefront in 1964. The change happened slowly as the women started holding special “salons” for friends to come by and examine their hoard. As word spread, however, dedicated customers began arriving. Since then, they have been selling buttons to a range of clientele. In addition to numerous collectors and designers passing through their doors, I was told that Julia Roberts, Catherine Deneuve, and Sidney Poitier have been customers. Tender Buttons is also a go to shop for costumes in films and Broadway shows, including Batman and the Muppet movies.
The buttons span the decades and centuries. Millicent is particularly fond of eighteenth century silver buttons, with their delicately painted dogs and horses. There are intricately carved antique buttons and humorous, quirky ones. Over the years, the two women traveled all over the world to find their buttons: to Cairo for black-glass buttons, to Austria for paper buttons from World War II, and to London for buttons made from window glass. At one point during their travels, they were invited to see a cache of buttons from Albert Parent & Cie, France’s oldest button factory, and ended up purchasing the entire collection. Along with rare and antique buttons, the shop also sells buttons for customers to select for everyday wear. There are even buttons in fun shapes and colors for children, so that kids and adults alike can choose to demonstrate their individuality through the smaller details of their clothing.
The world of buttons is clearly vast, and far more complicated than the modern factory-produced plastic discs on our clothing would have us believe. The carefully curated collection at Tender Buttons is a perfect introduction to this complex realm.