Shipping to
United States
Photography by Mr Bjorn Iooss | Words Mr Jeffrey Podolsky

I toss my light brown hacking coat with its velvet lapel over a chair and the legendary tailor Mr Martin Greenfield slowly gets up from behind his desk and softly says, "Let me hang your coat properly". I've travelled to Bushwick - a neighbourhood in Brooklyn not meant for the faint of heart - to meet the 84-year-old Mr Greenfield and to learn a thing or two about tailoring and, as it turns out, life as well.

Then again, if such private customers as Messrs Paul Newman, Michael Jackson, Colin Powell, and three presidents (it has become common knowledge that President Barack Obama - in addition to former presidents Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton - is a client) have traipsed through this rough neighbourhood to meet Mr Greenfield, well so can I.

Mr Greenfield - dressed in a three-piece blue suit with a royal navy windowpane check, complemented by a narrow blue striped shirt and paisley tie (not to mention the Ronald Reagan presidential cufflinks given to him by Mr Powell, and a solid gold ring of the US dollar) - learnt his craft the hard way.

Paul Newman was a casual guy who initially favoured an old-fashioned sweat suit, but when we dressed him up, he loved his clothing

"You see, I love to dress up," Mr Greenfield says, in the ancient factory where he's worked (and later bought from his former employer) since he landed in the US in 1947, aged 19, and rose from floor boy to factory manager. "It shows you're important."

Mr Greenfield and his staff of approximately 125 cutters, sewers and pattern makers put together clothing for labels ranging from Brooks Brothers Golden Fleece to Band of Outsiders. His company, Martin Greenfield Clothiers, has produced made-to-order pieces for such brands as Donna Karan, Yves Saint Laurent and rag & bone.

But he revels in the art of the private client, which normally takes three fittings over eight weeks and whose prices begin at £1,650. "We measure correctly right from the beginning - poof, poof! - and it's right," Mr Greenfield says. "Other people fix here and there for these fittings. Not us."

Regardless of material, Mr Greenfield personally adores a crepe weave for suits. "It moves with you, and is the most comfortable to wear. Most men are colour blind. You always need to know what a customer does for a living. Of course, the biggest bargain is quality - and the richest people tend to spend money the wrong way."

He's tended to the rich and famous of every stripe and size, whether it be the 7'1" basketball star Mr Shaquille O'Neal ("He needs a high rise. He's a big boy") to Mr Michael Jackson ("I met him when he just started as a baby. He was a very nice guy - then he died"). He holds a special affection for Mr Paul Newman - "a casual guy who initially favoured an old-fashioned sweat suit, but when we dressed him up, he loved his clothing" - and who once rang him up to announce he was retiring and putting all his tailor-made suits in a bonfire even though Mr Greenfield warned him otherwise. "He was something very special," recalls Mr Greenfield. "I said, 'You're still going to need those suits and return to the movies.'" Mr Greenfield, of course, proved correct.

Mr Greenfield has worked for the most powerful names in US politics

The company has produced the meticulously crafted prohibition-era outfits for the major characters of HBO's Boardwalk Empire and Mr Greenfield speaks lovingly of lead actor Mr Steve Buscemi: "I asked him, 'What do you like best about the show?' He said, 'The clothing.'" As for Mr Ben Affleck and his recently produced film Argo, Mr Greenfield laughs at where all the 1970s-era clothes, with their wide lapels and flares, ended up. "He kept all the suits and wears them!"

In the 1970s, when two secret service men bullied Mr Greenfield as they asked him to produce a couple of suits complete with custom-made bulletproof vests for then-president Gerald Ford, Mr Greenfield quickly reminded them: "I am a survivor and I don't let people push me around. So act like gentlemen and listen." And they did. Lest we forget this is a man who vividly remembers, upon arriving at Auschwitz (after first being showered, having his head shaved, and his left arm tattooed), seeing the reflection of his face in Josef Mengele's shined boots as the infamous "Angel of Death" chose who would live or die then and there.

"I will meet you when we both survive," his father then told him. "We cannot be together because we're going to suffer for each other. You are strong."

"That was the last time I saw my family," says Mr Greenfield. "I never thought they would get buried or gassed. It was a sunny day in March."

His father proved right about his son, however: the young Mr Greenfield, a Czech by birth, outwitted his captors at every turn, whether at Auschwitz, during the infamous death marches, or at Buchenwald, where he recalls shaking hands as a little boy with General Dwight Eisenhower after US troops liberated the camp. "You could smell where the people were burned," he says.

In the end, says Mr Greenfield, "You learn how to respect people, how to do the right thing. The moment you become human again - you can live like a human being." Which he has clearly done - and doesn't plan to stop doing anytime soon. "I'll be here forever," says the man with the gentle voice, who's lived the most hardened of lives. "I'm not afraid to die because I never thought I would live long in those years I suffered through. But guess what: I'm here. And I thank God every day for that."