M & S Schmalberg, located in the fashion district of NYC, is the largest direct manufacturer of custom silk fabric flower pins in the USA. We have complemented the apparel, millinery, accessory and bridal industries since 1916. Always family owned and operated, we have grown with the notoriety of style, quality and excellent service passed down through four generations.
Although they’re separated by a quarter of a century, Warren Brand, 56 and his son Adam, 31 embrace the opportunity to learn from each other to the benefit of their company, M & S Schmalberg. The 100-year-old family-owned business manufactures fabric and leather flowers for designers such as Chanel, Oscar de la Renta and Betsy Johnson as well as theaters and private clients at their West 36th Street Studio.
Adam, who is the 4th generation at the company, teaches Warren how to use social media to promote the business – “I’ve learnt from Adam how to email, facebook, Instagram, all that stuff” – while Warren schools Adam in the age-old craft that he loves.
“It’s such as old business and old technology. It’s more about what I’m going to teach Adam…You’re not going to turn it into a more modern process. There’s not going to be a machine making flowers. I love the hand cut,” says Warren of the delicate process which has been much the same since 1916.
Clients provide fabric, from delicate silks and plush velvets to exotics skins, and the artisans at M & S Schmalberg carefully craft tiny creations. The flower petals are hand cut, with the help of a machine, and lifelike details are pressed into the petals one-by-one (or five-by-five in the case of thinner fabrics such as silk) using century-old metal dies; thousands of them line the studio.
The major industry challenge has been the lack of work as the Garment District shrinks. Tastes have changed and production factories have jumped overseas in attempts to cut costs. When they opened nearly a hundred years ago M & S Schmalberg was just one of about 50 fabric flower producers in the city who created flowers for ladies’ numerous hats. When Warren took over in the 1970s, 10 remained. Now they are the only survivors.
“Lately it’s been very hard to make everything here when we live in a world of over there,” says Warren referencing China. “There’s a lot of talk about bringing [the manufacturing industry] back to America but I don’t really see that happening,” he says. “We’re the only guys in New York who makes flowers. Everyone else left.”
The staff once numbered 30; now they are down to a dozen. Warren says they haven’t hired anyone new in years. “Now it’s just trying to keep the staff that we have,” he says. One such artisan, Lucia, who’s been with M & S Schmalberg for decades, grew up amongst the bolts of fabric and colorful flowers as a child, since her mother worked there and she visited often. She gradually picked up the craft and eventually came on staff.
“Lucia grew up in the business. She has more of an understanding of the business than anyone,” Adam says. “Lucia is one of the few people that really understands. She facilitates things. She’s a help to me. She has an awareness of what’s going on. She’s easily the most valuable person here.” Other staff members such as Marie and Miriam, have been at the studio for 25 and 20 years respectively.
Adam says flower petal manufacturing is a great fit for older workers. “Anybody can thrive as long as their hands still work,” he says. “There really isn’t anything physically demanding. It’s more fatigue and nerves than anything else.”
“Carpal Tunnel Syndrome could be an issue,” he adds, although no one has complained of it to him yet. In a fast-paced culture that at times seems to disregard quality and craftsmanship for disposable fashion, they are of extreme importance to Warren. “We try to do right by [our customers] and it seems to show,” he says.
In order to successfully take a century-old business into the next one Warren recognizes that he has to be progressive and embrace change. They recently added a public ecommerce capability to their website. He offers tours to fashion students and the public. They frequently post new material on Instagram and Facebook. He’s constantly trying to think of new ideas to grow and generate revenue such as selling make-your-own-flower-kits to craft stores.
He knows what they must do: “Just go with the times. Tuck in my wings. Move with the technology. We just keep moving.”
Text from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health – Age Spot Employer NYC