Written by: Nicole Lau
Photography by: Elisa Deljanin Padula
Since 1916, M&S Schmalberg has been using the same process to make their fabric flowers for the apparel, bridal, accessory, and home furnishing industries. Family owned and operated for four generations, they are the last artificial flower maker that manufactures on a production level and one of the few remaining businesses that produce handmade decorations in the United States.
Morris and Sam Schmalberg started the business in the Garment District, a neighborhood that once produced 75% of all women’s and children’s apparel in the United States. In the 1950s, their nephew Harold inherited the family business. Harold, who was born in Poland, lost his parents and three siblings in the Holocaust. After surviving WWII, his American relatives helped him move to New York and he began working at the factory at the age of 17. M&S Schmalberg is now owned by Harold’s two children, Warren and Deborah Brand. Six years ago, Warren’s son Adam joined the family business, making it a 4th generation.
THE 4TH GENERATION 'FLOWER MAN'
As a kid, Adam remembers creating a little mayhem around the factory, gluing together loose petals and fooling around with the tape dispenser, then napping in one of the cardboard shipping boxes. His first full-time experience was at the age of 20 after an impromptu call to his father while delivering pizza on a humid day. For four months over the summer, Adam was primarily responsible for packaging and shipping. It was during the Sex and the City era and Carrie Bradshaw’s signature flower created a huge trend. During that flower phenomenon, one company ordered $100,000 worth of flowers a month.
After graduating college, Adam had plans to possibly pursue a career in clinical psychology but decided to work in the factory with his father for a short period of time. Growing up, Adam admits he didn’t really appreciate how unique the family business is because he has known it his whole life. But as he began working with people to help them develop their ideas, which sometimes end up on TV or worn by a celebrity, it went from “something my dad does” to something Adam is proud of.
M&S Schmalberg has worked with fashion designers from Marc Jacobs to Oscar de la Renta and their flowers have adorned academy award ceremony gowns for Rihanna and Anne Hathaway. In May, Mood Fabrics sent over 36 yards of fabric to make flowers to decorate their home store window display. Recently, they finished an order of 5,000 flowers for Radio City Music Hall, a three week project.
THE 'MADE IN USA' ADVANTAGE
Historically, the majority of M&S Schmalberg’s orders have been from large scale companies. Today, Adam estimates it is about 50%.
“When you are working with larger companies, the paramount most important thing is price,” says Adam. “If I want to charge you $2 for something and China is charging you a $1.25, maybe I could bend and make it a $1.75 or a $1.60. But if I am charging you $2 and China is charging you $0.10 and I say, $1.75, it’s still $0.10.”
In 1920, M&S Schmalberg was competing with 20 similar businesses in the neighborhood. By the 1960s and 1970s, the number was down to ten. Today, they are the last. One of the reasons Adam believes they survived is because they have been seeking out new customers, primarily small scale and independent designers. A designer making a headpiece that will sell for a few hundred dollars would be willing to pay a little more for quality.
Manufacturing domestically has its advantages. Quality control and quick turnaround times are two of M&S Schmalberg’s strengths.
There was a high-end children’s wear company that used to be one of their biggest customers over ten years ago but now completely manufacture their dresses overseas. Last year, one of their styles came back from their factory and upon inspection, noticed that the flower on the dresses was not the right size or color, making it unusable. With only a few weeks before they must ship their merchandise to retailers, they needed two thousand flowers immediately. Throughout the process, the company’s head of production made multiple trips to M&S Schmalberg to watch the flowers being hand dyed to the exact color and ensure they were assembled correctly.
Working with local factories allow designers to be hands-on. They can watch their product being made and make corrections on the spot if something is not right. A factory overseas can send a photo but a digital image isn’t the same.
The time it takes to make a single flower depends on its style, the number of different tools used to shape the petals, the weight of the fabric (because it takes a few hours to dry), and the time it takes to assemble by hand. A single artisan girl can handcraft over a hundred flowers an hour, but sometimes she can only make five because of the delicate, intricate work involved. The total time it takes to complete a flower determines pricing and that comes from years of knowledge.
A designer may not have a preference aesthetically for a bud or fluffy center but Adam knows that a fluffy center could cut the price of the flower in half because it will double production and the girls will work a lot quicker. With thousands of different molds and die-cutters in the factory, many of which are older than the business itself, there are unlimited possibilities.
A CELEBRATED FAMILY HISTORY
At the factory, designers get to play around, mix and match, and make new things. They’ll send photos of their finished creations which Adam sometimes posts on the company’s Instagram. “I love seeing the pictures afterwards,” he says. “We’ll cut somebody’s petals and a few weeks later we’ll get a picture of an insanely awesome dress they made stitching our petals together. They did most of the work but they couldn’t have done it without us.”
According to Adam, the perks of the job is that he gets to “meet nice fashionistas” and there isn’t a strict work attire. (His father wears shorts and flip flops, although Adam points out he is not quite there yet.) But there is also a deep appreciation for being part of a celebrated family history, which is most noticeable when he talks about his father Warren and grandfather Harold.
“My dad absolutely loves this business. He is almost crazy. Sometimes when he’s in bed, he’ll think of a flower that could be made like, ‘What if I combine this petal with that leaf.’ And he’ll come in [the factory], ‘You know, I was thinking last night of making’… He lives and breathes this business.”
Hearing Warren tell a group of elementary school children on a factory tour, “This business is 100 years old. That’s older than you and me put together!” is to really understand how much he genuinely loves his job.
In 1981, Harold was unable to continue working after being shot in the neck during a violent argument between two employees. But he didn’t retire, per se. Adam recalls:
“If we were having dinner together, ‘How’s business?’ Oh, we got a new order. ‘Really? Which flower?’ As he was getting older, he wasn’t as sharp as he once was. He would answer but he asked these questions out of habit. I don’t know if he could picture what you were saying. I would say, ‘Carnation’ and he’d be like, ‘Did you provide the goods?’ I miss it. It’s so cute, so funny. That is exactly how my dad would be.”
Harold sadly passed away in January 2016.
M&S Schmalberg is home to ten employees, all of whom each have been with the business for over ten years. Lucia, who has been with the company for 20 years, has grown up in the business as much as Adam because she would visit her Aunt at the factory when she was a kid. Lucia is in charge of book keeping and shipping and helps manage the factory floor. Alex, who works on the clicking machine, die-cutting the flat petals, would go over the Brand’s house for holiday dinners when Adam was five. It is a family business in the truest sense. Of the longest employed by the business, Mariam and Maria, “those are the two girls who could tell you baby stories of me,” says Adam. “I know that for sure.”