East 4th Street has two of Manhattan's most talented leather craftswomen working here. Jutta Neumann has been designing and producing leather goods that are so soft and buttery since the 1980's when she traveled here from Europe. Before opening her own shop, she spent several years working with Barbara Shaum in her store further up the block. Men and women can select from an array of items that are all crafted here. There are bags, belts, wristbands, sandals, wallets and more. When Jutta is not creating her leather pieces here, you can find her nearby hard at work in the community garden across the street.
I know how difficult it is for a family business to stay afloat in Midtown, and so I was deeply impressed and pleased to find Henry Cowit, Inc., a full-service furrier that has been owned by the same family for three generations. I met brothers Larry and Steve, the grandsons of the original owner, who gave me a tour of the whole space. Not only are the brothers very good at what they do, but they are also amazing New York characters who are experts on the pulse of the neighborhood. Their father moved into a building on 29th Street on 1973, where the company stayed until July of 2015, when the brothers relocated to 27th Street. From their new home, the brothers have continued serving the neighborhood by selling, finishing, lining, storing, and cleaning fur coats. Along with caring for skins and selling second-hand furs, Henry Cowit recycles fur coats, which I found fascinating. Larry and Steve showed me a set of throw pillows that they had made for a girl who wanted to keep her grandmother’s coat for sentimental reasons, but who had no cause to wear the coat herself. Larry and Steve told me that they get many similar requests, especially in the past two years. More and more young girls are getting fur items on Ebay or at flea markets, and bring them to Henry Cowit to be altered into new garments. The brothers love the new demographic and the fun recycling projects that it brings to their business. When a family works in the fur industry as long as the Cowits have, it is bound to encounter some interesting clients. When I asked Larry and Steve about their most interesting project, they said that one customer asked for the swish logo on his Nike sneakers to be covered in mink to match his blue-grey mink jacket. “We get a lot of musical artists, ” Larry and Steve explained. They also get clients from the film industry. For example, Cate Blanchett is wearing a Cowit coat in the movie Carol, which made the brothers very excited, since the costume designer is an Oscar winner. The coats are also featured in many TV shows. Their fur rentals are not only for the performing arts - the brothers also rent furs for special events, especially weddings. The furriers get their customers via word of mouth. “They know they can come to us, ” Larry proudly said. Larry also described to me a couple of the latest ideas that he is developing. One is a men’s line of normal-sized coats made of all types of fur. He explained that many masculine fur coats are enormous, to cater to the music and sports industries, but that he wants to reach a new demographic with this unique line. Larry is enthusiastic about an additional project that he is working on with an up-and-coming designer to turn old, used coats into new garments. “We take a used coat and make it look hip, ” he explained. “After all, I want to make sure my daughters still think their dad is fun! ”
From the outside, there might not seem to be anything particularly remarkable about Joe Eady’s Fashion City. However, when the Manhattan Sideways team ventured inside during the summer of 2017, we met the person who makes the store special: Joe, a warm, wonderful man who told us that he has been on 145th Street for over fifty years. A born and bred Harlemite, Joe was exposed to tailoring at a young age by his mother. Despite not being a seamstress, she was thrifty and knew her way around a sewing machine, and she enlisted Joe as an assistant in operating the foot pedal. After this early introduction to the field, Joe went on to attend Central-Needle Trades High School, where he graduated at the top of his class in men’s tailoring in 1953. His achievement is made even more impressive by the fact that he was the first high school graduate in his family. “College was never an option in my family, ” he went on to say, which is why he sought a job right out of school. Laughing, he told us that he wound up in the Garment District “doing anything but men’s tailoring, ” which prompted him to try for higher education. Joe enrolled in the Hampton Institute in Virginia, where he completed his teacher training in 1958. But before he could make use of his degree, Joe was drafted into the army and did two years of service. When he eventually returned to New York in December of 1960, he said teaching jobs were scarce and he had to pick up odd jobs. “The landlord doesn’t ask you where you got the money from; you have to do whatever it takes to pay the rent, ” he remarked. It was not until 1964 that Joe was able to open a tailoring shop on 145th street. We were fascinated to learn that when he started out, many of his clients were local hustlers who needed custom suits. Custom tailoring, and trousers in particular, was his main enterprise. As a result, the rise in popularity of blue jeans in the ‘70s put a substantial dent in his business. Joe was undeterred, however. “I’ve been thinking outside the box all my life, ” he declared - a mindset that spurred him to add leather and fur to his offered services. Fur refurbishing and restyling was especially in demand at the time, since it was impractical for the average consumer to purchase new or real fur frequently. Joe added, “People are fine with wearing old fashions as long as I can bring them back to life. ” Nowadays, the popularity of fur is dying down due to the efforts of organizations like PETA, but Joe is confident in his ability to keep evolving, simply saying, “I’m an optimistic person. You have to be optimistic in business. ” This philosophy has obviously paid off, as he continues to thrive so many decades later. He has served three generations of customers and has weathered the many historical events that have struck Harlem, including the riots and a slew of break-ins that took place following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Joe insisted that the only secret to his longevity is his devotion to customer service. “This is my neighborhood; you have to have a good reputation. ”As for his plans for the future, he revealed that he eventually hopes to combine his knowledge of teaching and tailoring by opening a training school to instruct others in the basics of his craft. “I’ve got all kinds of crazy plans, ” he finished, cheerfully.