Where can you get freshly “picked” flowers that won’t trigger your allergies? We headed to W36th Street in the Garment District, to a century-old factory and shop where fabric flowers are still custom-made by hand daily — “blooming” everywhere from movies and TV to high fashion design houses.
Opened in 1916 by brothers Morris and Sam Schmalberg, the M&S Schmalberg fabric flower factory is the oldest and last of its kind in the US. It still employs many of the time-honored techniques for handmade flower making, and craftsmanship skills and the business itself have been passed down through the family over decades. Fourth-generation owner Adam Brand walked us through the legacy of the shop started by his great-great uncles.
The M&S Schmalberg storefront in the 1940s. Photo supplied
Sam Schmalberg. Photo supplied
“I grew up here — there are staff members who have been here as long as I’ve been alive!” said Adam as we chatted amid display cases of beautiful, brightly colored fabric flowers. “My grandparents, dad, mom, brother, sister and aunt have all been involved at some point — it’s truly a family business. There are fun family stories — I don’t know if they’re true or just family lore at this point — that I used to sleep in a fabric box like a crib!”
While Adam started his career at M&S Schmalberg at age five by making flowers for fun — “just for entertainment, not for production!” he insisted — he began working at the store in earnest between semesters of school. “We were really busy with Sex and the City at the time — Sarah Jessica Parker was wearing our huge flowers in her costumes,” he recalled.
While he worked outside the business for a few years after college, Adam eventually returned to help his father, Warren, and grandfather Harold (nephew of founders Morris and Sam) at the factory. “About 14 years ago, I was kind of just at a place of wondering, ‘What am I doing? Where am I going?’” said Adam. “One day I said to my dad, ‘Can I come in and help out, and see what happens? You don't even have to pay me, just pay for my train ticket!’” he added, “and as a New Yorker, you know that’s not cheap!”
Adam's grandmother Renee, aunt Debra and grandfather Harold at the shop. Photo supplied
The gig grew, and as dad Warren moved closer to retirement, Adam took on more and more of the day-to-day responsibilities — including the creation of flowers. While M&S’s veteran team of artisans complete the majority of crafting work, Adam walked us through the system he’s come to know after decades of observation. “This basic process has existed for over 100 years,” said Adam as he showed us the hundreds of vintage irons — some from the factory’s first years in existence — that are still used to press fabric petals into unique designs. First, fabrics are brushed with a starching agent called sizing to eliminate wrinkles in the material. Next, fabrics are stretched and dried by hand before being cut into petals. Designs are arranged into the iron press — once gas, now the factory uses electric power to join petals together. Stems and extra accoutrements are applied by hand before the flowers make their way to a theater, fashion atelier or TV costume designer’s hands.
While the team at M&S is well-versed in all aspects of the custom construction, today there are far fewer skilled flower artisans in the Garment District. “In the old Garment District, you could go to the labor union and say, ‘We need somebody for assembly, we need somebody for die cutting, we need somebody compressing' — there were so many other flower factories,” said Adam. A recent profile of the shop by costume historian Bernadette Banner estimates that in the early 20th century, over 74 percent of flower and feather trade manufacturers were located in the Bronx and Manhattan — many of them in the Garment District. Now, like so many other specialty costume and fashion businesses once occupying the historic neighborhood, M&S Schmalberg is the last of its kind due to ever-increasing offshore manufacturing. Adam said he feels camaraderie with fellow Garment District holdouts, telling us: “I hold all of these manufacturers who produce here in such high regard — because the easy thing would be to ship it out. Continuing to manufacture here instead went from being maybe a questionable business decision to becoming part of our identity.”
Warren Brand with Adam Brand. Photo supplied
That’s not to say that Adam and his family haven’t taken steps to bring M&S Schmalberg into the 21st century. In addition to updating the company’s website and creating social media accounts, Adam credited his brother with having helped pioneer their presence on e-commerce retailers like Etsy. “Before I started working here, my brother created an Etsy page,” he told us. “We’d get an email maybe once a month for a $12 flower sale. But I started to get obsessed with amping up our photography and presentation — it took me a while, but I took to it, and now our sales from Etsy and Amazon are as much as 20 percent of our business.”
It’s a business that’s marked not only by the ebbs and flows of the fashion industry, but also the entertainment industry. “I could tell you our biggest customer this year,” said Adam, “but it's different from the one five years ago and 10 years ago,” he explained. “In fashion, Vera Wang is one of our biggest clients. We work with Rodarte, Oscar de La Renta, Marchesa, Carolina Herrera. We do flowers for Bridgerton, The Gilded Age and Marvelous Mrs Maisel, the New York City Ballet, Radio City Rockettes and the San Francisco Opera,” he added. “We had someone come in from the San Francisco Opera and buy five flowers — and that led to an order of over 4,000 flowers total!” They also showcased 17 designs on The Met Gala red carpet. “We had an amazing run with the Met Gala,” said Adam, “My dad came back in that whole week and helped!”
Jenna Ortega, Paris Hilton and Harvey Guillén in M&S designs at the Met Gala. Photos: Instagram
Even during the slower periods, the team at M&S stays busy working with student groups from nearby FIT (the Fashion Institute of Technology) and Parsons School of Design to show young artists the legacy of the fabric flower industry. “What's in it for us, if you will, is that you now have 15 to 20 students from every tour that are going to go into fashion and now know about us,” said Adam. “We help them on their final projects. If you're a fashion design student, it’s a great way to really get into and utilize factories and build relationships.”
But whether you’re a budding Calvin Klein or not, the M&S Schmalberg factory is open to you, said Adam. They welcome walk-in tours of the factory for those curious about their unique offering. “Anyone can come in,” he said, as a couple rang the bell to buy flowers and take a look around. They also welcome those who would like to order custom flowers from a significant fabric like a wedding dress, he noted. “It’s one of our specialties — we have a vintage wedding dress in the back right now that’s getting made into a single rose.”
He hopes that by engaging with the public, more people will know about and turn to M&S for their distinctive artistry. “We try to be very welcoming, which is something my dad started,” said Adam. “Anyone who wants to walk in the door is welcome to a tour, and if you want to buy a flower for $20 bucks? Great!”
We recommend making the trip to M&S Schmalberg for a free tour of the city’s singular fabric flower maker — and keep an eye out on billboards around town for M&S’s next Hollywood showcase!
Jonathan Boyarsky, fourth generation owner, has found himself a terrific niche on 39th by being one of the only menswear shops to remain on the ground floor. Over the years, he watched as companies moved upstairs into offices in the garment district, or even overseas, but he chose to remain where people could easily spot him. Although he feels that he has remained "under the radar, " at times, when people come in they are "ecstatic" with what he has to offer. His family began their men's clothing business on the Lower East side back in 1919. Over the years, members of the family spread out and opened related businesses offering either custom made shirts, suits or fabrics. At No. 257, Jonathan has combined it all. He describes it as "double dipping. " They used to sell only the fabric and then send people elsewhere to have their clothing made. Today, within the three floors of space at Fabric Czar, customers can select from some of the finest cloths, and then meet first class tailor, Steven Tabak, of Beckenstein Bespoke, where their clothing is designed... and, everything is constructed on the premises. "We are one stop shopping, whatever a customer needs, we can make it for them. " And for Jonathan, it is only about quality craftsmanship.
Do not be fooled by the curiosities and vintage artifacts that cover the windows and walls of Hecht. Besides repairing industrial sewing machines, this company is in the business of buying and selling plants (the manufacturing kind). The vintage pieces scattered throughout the small space are absolutely not for sale, but rather a part of the owner’s personal collection. As I walked around and examined the curiosities, he insisted that he uses "every single one of them. "The owner bristled when I described the fascinating space as "small" and proceeded to show me that there was much more to Hecht than meets the eye. He opened a door in back, which gave way to a much larger, warehouse-like room, which was similarly jam-packed with vintage artifacts. He immediately walked over to a Howe sewing machine, which he proudly disclosed was the first of its kind in the world. He had just gotten it back from the Smithsonian, he said, showing me the official museum tags. While so much is continuously changing around them, the Hecht family is determined to remain a Garment District institution, having opened their doors between 1910 and 1920. The ambiguous establishment date is not because the owner does not care to remember, but rather because Hecht opened its doors as the building in which it still stands was being constructed. "They built around us as we worked, " the owner explained. They are the very definition of a neighborhood institution; As the owner says, "In the garment industry, we're a legend. "
Established in 1923, the Blatt family has been collecting, designing and manufacturing custom-made pool tables for eighty-eight years. Little did we know that we had stumbled upon such a quality and long-standing institution when we found Blatt Billiards preparing for their grand opening on 38th Street. After seventy-one years at 809 Broadway, the family business found a new home in the early part of 2014. Their new space lets the tables do the talking with its white walls, good lighting and high ceilings. Pool tables can be custom designed with impeccable craftsmanship of intricate carvings and wood inlay and made to order in their factory. In addition, Blatt sells foosball tables, poker tables and many other items for grownup games. We spoke with Jeff, the nephew who is in training to one day run the business. He explained how their tables showcase the rich history of billiards and the game of pool. We saw the detailed artistry of the “four seasons” table, which has four mammoth legs and ornate carvings, as well as the Gatsby-esque tables, which have clean lines and portray that iconic jazz-age elegance. Indeed, maintaining in-house quality seems like a priority. As the company has evolved, they moved their manufacturing operations to New Jersey to better accommodate the needs of modern production. There, they also have a warehouse for storing their collection of antique billiard tables. What impressed me as I engaged in conversation with Jeff and his uncle, Steve, is their ability to find a balance between remembering their roots and thinking about the future. They are both businessmen and craftsmen, seeking modern convenience while also maintaining high quality.
O haven of all things staged, how dost thou edify me? Enter the doors of the Drama Book Shop and be surrounded by a compilation of centuries of plays, critical writings, and music scores. Classical Greek tragedies, Shakespearean comedies, Beckett’s absurdist works, and a host of modern scripts line the shelves and even spiral overhead in a massive, winding sculpture known as the resident “bookworm. ” The establishment began as a card table in the lobby of a New York theater. Many moves, upgrades, and historical epochs later, it has expanded its purview from books and plays into periodicals, accent CDs, headshot envelopes, listings of agents and managers, and whatever else a zealous thespian might find useful. Though the shop fell into bankruptcy, it was revived in 2020 by actor and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton director Thomas Kail, Broadway producer Jeffrey Seller, and theater owner James Nederlander. Miranda’s In the Heights, his Tony Award–winning musical about the Latinx community in Washington Heights, was conceived and rehearsed in the original Drama Book Shop’s tiny black box theater. Upon learning of the shop’s imminent demise, he and his theatrical cohorts were compelled to rescue this New York institution, relocate it, and reimagine the space. Today, one can leaf through scripts while surrounded by the elegant, dark wood shelves reminiscent of an old-world reading room and nibble at the provisions in the shop’s small cafe. Of course, the basement will once again foster the talents of new artists by holding regular workshops and public programs. Even for those of us who are amateur actors, it is well worth a visit, lest we forget that all the world’s a stage.
After having eaten at Barbes, I was eager to check out Omar Balouma's other restaurant. Stopping to notice the beautiful, ornately carved front door, we learned that it was shipped directly from Morocco, and functions as a literal and figurative portal to North Africa. Inside, a vague smell of hookah smoke hangs in the air amidst beautifully crafted walls done in a soft pastel-hued Venetian plaster. The front of the restaurant is for dining where the menu offers smaller Mediterranean-style plates flavored with Moroccan spices. The back hookah room might be the real star. Benches line the large square room, along with colorful seat cushions while tapestry-esque sheets hang overhead. Saturday nights come alive with belly dancers and music is played by Rachid Halibal, a native of Morocco.
Neon lights, on the back wall, greeted us as we entered Trademark Grind, the “boutique coffee bar” serving Sweetleaf Coffee Roasters from Brooklyn. In this quaint space, we were treated to excellent cups of hot chocolate, perfect on this winter day. A few minutes later, the PR manager, Matt, greeted us and invited the Manhattan Sideways team to follow him through a small entryway where we discovered Trademark Taste, a cozy, dimly lit restaurant... a safe little hideaway in the middle of bustling Midtown Manhattan. Opened in the spring of 2016, by In Good Company Hospitality, Trademark Taste & Grind serves a mixed clientele, from guests at the attached hotel and the pre-show crowd from Madison Square Garden to those looking for a unique weekend bar scene. The menu is impeccably curated by culinary director, Jeff Haskell, to featured favorites like Burrata and Knots and Tuna Poke. However, with its dark, mellow colors, graffiti motifs and hints of industrial flair, Trademark is all about the space. The walls are white and black with accents of red. Intimate hidden booths circle a large center bar, the anchor of the room. As soon as I took a look around, I wanted to settle into one of these booths for the evening. When I repeated this to Matt, he replied, “People tend to not want to leave. ”
Built originally in the mid-1800s, Sniffen Court encompasses a small alleyway running between two quaint rows of brick buildings. With vegetation lending further tranquility to the scene, a wrought-iron gate protects it from the public. The buildings, which were once stables, have now been repurposed into commercial, residential and artistic spaces. Next door, the historic and private Amateur Comedy Club hosts shows performed by, and for, members. Sniffen Court now appears on the National Register of Historic Places.