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  • Searching for Seventh Avenue
  • Leonard S. Bernstein (bio)

There is a world of commerce so private and so misunderstood that little is known of it. Nothing about it has been written; nothing is taught in the business courses of our universities; no principle of economics applies to it. It emerged a hundred years ago with the invention of the sewing machine, and it survived in the cramped and filthy quarters of the worst loft buildings of New York. It hired mostly women and then it treated them badly, asking them to work long hours on lumbering machines, and paying them piecework, a system of compensation that should have been retired during the Middle Ages. It produced the pajamas, the blouses, and the unmentionables that we all wear and don't think much about. It went under many names-the garment center, Seventh Avenue, the rag trade-and none of them complimentary.

I can tell, you don't believe me. You tell me you know about this world of commerce. You mention Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani, the supermodels, the fashion magazines. Indeed, you are irritated to be told that the lovely evening dress you searched all over town for had such shabby origins. I'm sorry about that but I don't make the rules. The garment center has nothing to do with Giorgio Armani. Armani is to the garment center as the crown jewels of England are to every neighborhood shop selling gold bracelets and half-carat diamonds on time payments.

Into such a no-man's-land of economic chaos did I find myself many decades ago, and in such a world have I always worked-waiting still to meet Giorgio Armani or a supermodel-but making a living nevertheless.

Well then, you ask, there still must be principles like risk-reward and diminishing returns. Surely they apply to garment production. In fact, nobody knows; maybe they do and maybe they don't. There is no instruction manual, there are no rules. Did you ever hear of a book that codified the principles of garment production? [End Page 44] Did you ever hear of a book that said anything about the garment center?

This is ridiculous, you're thinking. There have to be rules of production, of quality control, of salesmanship. Certainly salesmanship, certainly customer satisfaction, certainly supply and demand.

I don't want to sound like the Neanderthal man, but if there are principles of salesmanship I've never seen them in practice, and I've been running a small apparel company for forty years. I don't mean to suggest that selling doesn't go on; I merely mean to suggest that selling, as it is practiced at Procter & Gamble or General Motors, has never trickled down to Seventh Avenue.

I know you are still incredulous, and I thought, to make a point, I would tell you a story. It is a story of how selling works in the garment center.

There was once a salesman named Sheldon, who worked for my company for thirty years and is now retired and playing gin rummy in Florida. Sheldon, you have figured out, did not go to Wharton, and actually did not go to college at all, but was one of the respected salesmen on Seventh Avenue.

Sheldon spent most his time at the barbershop, where, like it or not, all of the top garment salesmen hung out. It drove me a little crazy but that's the way it was. Sheldon hung out in the barbershop and of course he had his own barber and his own manicurist. Status at General Motors might be measured by a corner office, but in the garment center it was measured by how much time the salesman spent at the barbershop-certainly twice a week, and not less than an hour and a half at a sitting. This included a trim, a touch-up of the graying sideburns, a blow-dry, a shoeshine, and a manicure. A salesman who did not rate a manicure was nobody. Do you think sales are conducted this way at Chrysler?

Of course this aggravated the hell out of me but Sheldon brought in the business...


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