“In 2001, I was fed up with the shirt business,” shirtmaker Carl Goldberg told me this week. “Guys weren’t dressing as well as they used to. It wasn’t as much fun. I would have closed up shop, if it wasn’t for the Nazi stormtrooper shirts.”
Goldberg reached into the middle of a rack—one of many that surrounded us in his lively Midtown workroom—and pulled out a Nazi stormtrooper shirt. It was brown. The label inside the collar said: “The Producers, NATZI [sic], Wm Ivey Long, Designer.”
The Producers was the first big Broadway show for which Goldberg made shirts. But it wasn’t his last. (It wasn’t even his last Nazi shirt: He also did the bright red shirt Hitler wears in the “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” number in The Book of Mormon.) He’s since made shirts for such Broadway shows as How To Succeed in Business, Hair, The Music Man, Gigi, School of Rock, Mamma Mia, Wicked, Anything Goes, Sister Act, Cabaret, Newsies, Legally Blonde, A Streetcar Named Desire, Thoroughly Modern Millie, A Chorus Line, and In the Heights. He’s also designed for the Metropolitan Opera, as well as for movies and TV shows such as Blue Bloods, Elementary, Person of Interest, Zoolander 2, White Collar, The Bourne Legacy, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Smash, and The Wolf of Wall Street. (“That guy—DiCaprio, right!—he was very polite, very professional. He wasn’t constantly texting like some of them, when you’re trying to measure a sleeve.”)
This week, his work will make another Broadway debut when the latest revival of Fiddler on the Roof opens on Sunday, featuring a lot of shirts that Goldberg whipped up—45 of them, at last count. (“I wait for the reviews before calculating how many more I’m going to have to do,” he said. “You always need to be sure you have enough fabric. How many months could something run? How many understudies? How many national tours?”)
Here’s how the process works: A show’s costume designer gives Goldberg a sketch, a piece to copy, or just an idea. “I’m not a serious student of the past, but I know enough,” he told me with a modest shrug. “Maybe I have the fabric in my workroom. If not, I can get it. We mock something up. They say change this, change that. That’s it.”
Catherine Zuber, Fiddler’s Yale-School-of-Drama-educated costume designer (and, along with Long, one of the biggest names in the business, with 11 Tony nominations and six wins), was more effusive. “I’ve worked on a lot of shows with Carl, and the most wonderful thing about him is he makes it so easy,” she told me in a telephone interview. “He gets it done; it looks perfect; it doesn’t look tortured; everyone can move beautifully; he’s reasonably priced for the level of quality; the shirts always have the right amount of infrastructure—he knows his craft. All his decisions are right on.” Suddenly, I heard a flurry of activity and chatter in the background. Zuber said, “Sorry, an actor needs a beard shaved.” (Ah, the glamour of a life in theater.) She handed the phone over to her associate designer, Ryan Park, who continued: “Carl turns things around really quickly, which is important for us as things keep changing. He’s so reliable and gets things to you on time and everything looks great and he’s so self-sufficient. And he has great fabrics and buttons and things that are hard to come by.”
Goldberg clearly loves fabric. There were zillions of different colors and textures and patterns all around us as we chatted. Buttons, too, including a giant handful, looking like glimmering pastille candies, piled in a giant, iridescent nacre shell on a coffee table.
To make the buttons on the Fiddler shirts look 19th century, but at an affordable price, Goldberg simply sewed contemporary buttons on backward, with the side that should be facing the shirt facing outward. “It makes them look rustic,” he pointed out. Fabric choice is important, too. “There’s a science to what you use onstage,” he said, pulling out examples to show me. “This is for Wicked. This is for Fiddler. Colored stripes are good. Colored stripes that are varied, that aren’t evenly spaced, are better. Texture is good. If it’s flat, it doesn’t read well on stage.” Cotton is good, too—actors sweat. For Fiddler, Goldberg cut the shirts long (a historically accurate choice, and one that would also allow the in-house team to shorten them later if they wanted, for looks or dance-ability).
Goldberg is part of a long tradition of Jewish schmatte workers. (The Yiddish word schmatte comes from the Polish word szmata, meaning rag.) Fabric and sewing have long provided immigrants a way into the American dream. You didn’t have to speak good English. You could do piecework anywhere. By 1890, more than 90 percent of New York’s garment factories were owned by German Jews, who hired newer Eastern European immigrants to work in their shops. By the turn of the last century, a full 60 percent of Jews in New York City earned their living in the garment industry. And at a time of anti-Jewish quotas at American universities and white-shoe law firms refusing to hire Jews, fashion was pretty much a level playing field. As one writer put it, “In the schmatte business, the only ceiling was creativity and sweat equity, savvy and timing.” It seems fitting that an old-school schmatte man should be making shirts for Fiddler on the Roof, a show about Jews, written and scored and choreographed by Jews, in a medium—the musical—largely developed by Jews.
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Goldberg’s father and grandfather were schmatte men, too. Goldberg pulled out an old family photo, from the late ’70s or early ’80s. “This is Isaac, my grandfather,” he said, pointing to an old man in a natty striped tie. “He came from Prussia and ended up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He had a backpack and sold dry goods—needles, fabric. He made enough to get a cart and then to open a store in Philadelphia, primarily selling workwear.” That was in 1919. Several of Isaac’s six children worked at I. Goldberg, which still exists in Philadelphia today (run by Carl’s sister) and has a cult following.
“My family’s story is the traditional immigrant story,” Goldberg said. “The first generation establishes the business, the second generation grows the business. If you’re lucky, the third generation has the vision to take the business to a new level; sometimes their big ideas work and sometimes they don’t. Russ & Daughters is a great example of the youngest generation creating something visionary and new, the way Niki opened the café.”
Like his son, Carl Goldberg’s father Charles was a fashion plate. In the family photo, he looks like a movie star, with tousled gray hair, a great smile, and a flawless suit. “My father was so upset at his bar mitzvah because they made him wear knee pants,” Carl told me. “He wanted real pants. He had his first custom suit made when he was 16.” (Carl still has his own elegant, monogrammed blue bar mitzvah shirt, which he showed me.) As an adult, Charles relished going to Europe to attend trade shows and buy fabric. He’d served in WWII, in the Battle of the Bulge, and fallen in love with France. “He was one of the first people to bring Brittany fisherman sweaters—the ones with the blue and white stripes—to America,” Carl said. Charles also bought himself custom-made shirts from Lanvin—“the finest shirts you’ve ever seen in your life, with the most meticulous workmanship!” Carl recalled—as well as custom shoes and suits. “Suits! Can you imagine the cost?”
Carl worked in the family store in Philadelphia as a teenager, attended George Washington University in D.C. to study business, then followed a college girlfriend to New York City. He got a job at Barneys, the iconic department store then on Seventh Avenue at 17th Street. “In 1980, I sold Jackson Browne an expensive sweater,” he recalled drily. “And Bill Murray asked me where the masseuse was.” There was a masseuse at Barney’s? I asked, wide-eyed. “There was no masseuse,” Goldberg replied.
After his Barneys stint, he ran the special orders department for a men’s suit factory at Driggs and North 9th Streets in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, back before Williamsburg was Williamsburg. Then he started his own business selling wool. Eventually he became a shirtmaker, calling his company CEGO, a variant on his initials. He mostly designs custom items for lawyers, bankers, executives, and hedge fund dudes. The business of show constitutes only about 15 percent of Goldberg’s business of shirt. “But it’s an awful lot of fun,” he said, noting that this year, “show business was a larger percentage of my business than ever before.”
As we chatted, a harried young woman came into the workspace and pulled a tiny, shiny silver shirt out of her Mood shopping bag. She was the costumer for a forthcoming TV show set in the 1970s, and she needed a similar disco-looking shirt for a child. I watched as he quizzed her. “Is this stretch jersey? Is it double-sided?” She answered his questions, then asked hopefully, “Can we get it by the end of the day?” “Sure,” he told her. “You’re the best!” she crowed gratefully. (After she left, he told me, “I’ve done shirts for Saturday Night Live in an afternoon.”)
The fact that he has his own workroom in the city helps. “I have nine workers and everything’s made right here,” he said. He introduced me to the cutter from Brazil and the cutter from Cape Verde, who trained in Porto—they were chatting in Portuguese to each other. There was a woman from Albania who was a home-ec teacher there; she came here and couldn’t teach, but she could sew. He has another sewer from Honduras and a pressing girl from Ecuador and another from the Dominican Republic. “Sewing is an immigrant story,” he said with a smile.
There’s nothing precious about Goldberg. He clearly enjoys his work and takes pride in it (he rolls his eyes at hipster bespoke designers with fancy websites who don’t know how to measure or cut and who farm out their work to factories in Asia), but he isn’t suckered by glamour. “The shirts in Fiddler are mostly covered by coats and vests,” he said with a shrug. “You won’t really see them. In terms of importance, I’m not as low as bras and socks, but I’m way below suits and fancy dresses.”
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Marjorie Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.