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A fabric connoisseur in our midst

Whether you’re stopping in at Promenade fabric store on St. Charles Avenue for five yards of Chanel or a spool of thread, Herbert Halpern welcomes you warmly. He looks a little like a fashionable Albert Einstein.

For 45 years, he has minded and cultivated the store his father, Max Halpern, started in the late 1930s, steering it through some choppy waters. If businesses are forged on deep friendships over time, then Herbert has certainly got the goods.

There was a time when people stopped sewing in the late 1980s; the kids had grown up and left home and it had become more expensive to make your own clothes than to buy cheap imported ready-to-wear. It was during those years that trusted friends in the textile business in New York City supplied Herbert with fabric based on a handshake and the assurance he would pay when he could. Old school! Can you imagine that happening today?

Thanks to such motivators as TV shows like Project Runway, the flood of young people who moved in after Hurricane Katrina, Lisa Iocono’s NolaSewn, a production factory where young designers can have their designs executed locally, and NOLA being the creative magnet it’s always been, the textile business is going through a renaissance.

The endurance factor must be part of the Halpern gene pool. In the early 1940s, as World War II was beginning, no fabric was available around the country. So the young Max Halpern went to the big city to buy goods. He saw them loaded onto a freight train in New York City, signed off, and headed home to wait for his shipment. What he hadn’t seen was what was happening at the other end of the train: The same goods were being offloaded to be sold to someone else on the black market.

Next trip, Max, like a mother hen sitting on her nest, slept in the freight car on top of his textiles as they made their way to his store on Dryades Street. At the time, Dryades was the only integrated shopping street in the city, and it was vibrant, very grand. When he lost his lease and HAD to move to St. Charles Avenue, he thought it was the end of his business.

Herbert began working at the big store on St Charles when he was 12 years old, every Saturday, every weekend, and he resented every second of it. Hard to imagine that when you watch him now, he is one contented dude. He can’t sew or make patterns, but will guide you to the fabrics that will drape for your design and pattern. That’s what 45 years in the business will teach you.

Promenade was always a high-end fabric store. This is not where you go for polyester. You visit this store to find a bit of Carolina Herrera, Chanel or Valentino fabric, ribbon that Oscar de la Renta is using, antique buttons and lace. Herbert has agents in NYC and Europe who go into the great design houses and buy small amounts of fabulous textiles, 10 yards here, eight yards there, that the designers have left from the current season.

Enough for one New Orleanian to make one spectacular designer dress!

vintage burnout velvet

It has always driven Herbert a little bit crazy that people around the country know that this store is something special, but the locals don’t.

“They feel like, you know, it’s right down the street, how good can it be?"

Plenty good, it turns out, as the movie business can attest. All the textiles for Beautiful Creatures and the new Shirley McClain/Christopher Plummer movie Elsa & Fred, and most of the fabrics used in Benjamin Button came from Promenade. Herbert tells me that costume designers and people from around the country say that what they love about the store is that they don’t have to wade through the junk to find the gems -- each piece in the store is hand picked.

As if on cue, at that moment in the interview Herbert went to take a call and my voice recorder picked up a conversation at the desk, where Herbert’s son Cole was listening to a customer tell him, “You have a better selection here than the fabric store on Maiden Lane in San Francisco.”

There is genuine excitement as Herbert shows me the rolls of vintage textiles, a wall of vintage ribbon and buttons, fabulous stuff that he collects because he knows in a few years it won’t be available anywhere in the world. He is a textile collector and a walking encyclopedia of the textile business. He has ribbon that is 75 years old made of real silver bouillon threads, a 1950s pure silk burn-out velvet from Europe, real silk faille that is so hard to find, Egyptian cotton so fine it feels like silk.

Cole has a law degree in his pocket, so we’ll see what happens next. But for now, we have a treasure right down the street.

P.S.

Great fabrics are mostly being manufactured now in Japan, China, India, Thailand. They’re all getting very good at the craft and also getting more and more expensive. If you want to feel optimistic about what could be a rebirth not just of sewing and clothing design, but of textile manufacturing in the states, then click here to read a terrific article by Jolie Bensen of Jolie & Elizabeth at Huffington Post. Here is a snippet:

By 1930, there were approximately two million cotton farms across America.

Today, there are 18,605, and which states topped the list with the highest unemployment rates in 2011? Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, where cotton farms were once abundant. Now, those textile mills are shut down, farms are left to deteriorate, and the textile industry is vanishing from our economic landscape.

No less than 60 years ago, we were completely sustained in meeting our country's demand for apparel. Today, we rely on the cheapest possible option, yet question where the jobs have gone.

Apparel is the one thing we all have in common and use everyday, regardless of income, status, or employment. It's the simplest product, but most absorbent in middle America job creation. From the cotton farmers and workers at the textile mills to factory workers and apparel designers, the number of jobs that could accumulate with a well-designed government program of apparel manufacturing is infinite. Again, the facts are there, it's the strategy that's missing.

And one of her inspired solutions to the closing of fabric mills:

Take the medical industry, for example. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, there are currently 691,000 physicians3.1 million nurses and, as a whole, the health care industry is slated to create 5.6 million jobs by 2020. The median growth, nor required uniforms of health care professionals, fluctuates greatly and the demand is measurable.

What's important to note is that those 5.6 million professionals will be wearing the same exact uniform everyday -- medical scrubs. It's made of the most basic and cheapest of fabrics -- cotton. In design, it's the simplest -- a basic top with pocket and drawstring waist pant. Cost wise, it's the cheapest and easiest to manufacture, and it's a necessary commodity. A doctor or nurse goes through approximately five pairs of medical scrubs every two weeks, or about 130 per year, so can you imagine if we could get that product made in America, every single year?A government contract or initiative requiring all hospital, clinic and lab employees to purchase their uniforms through a mandated program of American made apparel manufacturers would cause an impact so great, it would be astounding. Hospital workers are among numerous industry professions whose standard everyday uniforms could and should be manufactured in the U.S.

Artist and writer Carol Pulitzer writes about New Orleans people and places for NolaVie. Read her blog at  littletheatre1.com.

Carol Pulitzer is an award-winning writer and illustrator. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Food & Wine Magazine, and Country Living among others. She writes and illustrates super short stories at her Little Theatre blog ( littletheatre1.com ) and can be contacted at [email protected]