Sartorially Unslick

From Auschwitz to the White House: One Tailor’s American Tale

When it came to clothes, Bill Clinton was a disaster, or so thought his tailor the first time he peered into the newly elected president’s closet. It was time to go to work.

At age 15, Martin Greenfield was sent to Auschwitz by the Nazis and separated from his family forever. There, he first picked up needle and thread to mend the shirt of an SS guard who had just beaten him. Greenfield survived the Holocaust, and after he was liberated from Buchenwald by U.S. forces, he made his way to America penniless and took a job sweeping floors in a Brooklyn clothing factory. He went on to buy the company and dress four U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama, and celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Jimmy Fallon. This excerpt from his new memoir, Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents’ Tailor, describes his first appointment with President Bill Clinton.

I had a job to do. If I was to build a wardrobe fit for a president, I needed to know what I was working with. So I did the only thing that seemed logical: I walked to Mr. Clinton’s closet and opened the door. I couldn’t believe my eyes. A couple of short leather jackets, more jogging suits than any man needs to own, and a ratty old overcoat so ugly I was tempted to throw it away on the spot. “These are really the president’s clothes?” I exclaimed incredulously to the dresser.

“Yes sir,” he said.

I knew the Clintons had arrived at the White House with modest means. But this had to be one of the most pathetic presidential wardrobes in American history. I had my work cut out for me. I shut the president’s closet and waited for him to arrive. When he entered, I felt flushed and nervous. “Hey there, Martin. Sorry to keep you waiting so long. We were just wrapping up my press conference,” said President Clinton in his syrupy Arkansas accent.

“No problem. No problem,” I said while shaking his hand.

“You come highly recommended. Donna [Karan] says you’re the best.”

I was so nervous and flustered I didn’t respond to what he’d just said. “How do you feel being president?” I blurted out. He chuckled. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Is that a stupid question? I’ve made suits for presidents before, but I’m just so excited to meet you.” He laughed and smiled some more, and I kept rambling. “I know I will never be a president because I wasn’t born here.” I couldn’t believe the silliness floating out of my mouth.

The president saved me. “I don’t think that’s a stupid question. I think it’s a great question,” he said graciously. “It’s a tremendous honor. I’m still getting the hang of it myself.”

We made some more small talk and finally turned to fashion. “Let me show you what I’m wearing right now,” he said walking to his closet. I braced myself and tried not to make a face. “What do you think?” he asked. It took everything in me not to burst out laughing. This was, after all, the president of the United States of America.

“Mr. President, what I think is that it’s time we give you a presidential wardrobe,” I said. “I know you like comfortable clothes. But these things won’t do. We have to build a proper and fitting look now that you’re the president. Don’t you worry. I’m going to fix you up.”

“Sounds good.”

“I’m going to give you Donna’s comfort with a presidential look. Now let’s talk about tuxedos. Why don’t you like tails?”

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“Well, it’s not that I don’t like them. I’ve just never worn them—and I’m not sure I really know how.”

“So you’ve never owned a full dress tuxedo in all your life? Not even when you were the governor of Arkansas?”

“No.”

“Okay. I will teach you how to wear tails, tie a bowtie—everything.”

I spent half an hour measuring all around the president to get the 27 precise measurements I needed to craft a true custom suit. “I didn’t realize it took this much measuring to make a suit,” he said.

“It doesn’t for the kind of suits you’ve been wearing. But when you put my suits on, you’ll see and feel the difference.”

“Martin, someone told me you used to make suits for President Eisenhower. Is that right?”

“Yes sir. He liberated me from Buchenwald. Then I made suits for him.”

“Wow, that’s great. And what’s this about you putting notes in his jacket or something?”

“You see, at that time, I was unhappy about our policy on the Suez Canal crisis. So I wrote him little notes and stuffed them into his pockets every time I made him a new suit.” The president laughed at the recollection. “Mr. President, let me ask you something. Do you watch the talking heads on television?”

“Of course.”

“The television shows everything—how the jacket sits, where the collar rests, how everything fits. There isn’t a man in my industry who wouldn’t give his right arm to be me right now. But if you don’t wear these suits right, you’re going to ruin my reputation.”

“I won’t let you down,” he said laughing.

“I’m going to show you how to adjust the vest, where the pants should rise, what to do to adjust suspenders to make your pants height appropriate—all of it.”

After I finished taking the president’s measurements, we spent the rest of the hour going through proper white tie presentation so he would be ready for the upcoming Gridiron Club gala. As I was gathering my things to go, the president suggested we take a few pictures together. “I can sign the photos and send them to you,” he said.

“That sounds great, Mr. President. But my train leaves soon and I want to get back today to start working on your suits.”

“It won’t take but just a minute,” he said, looking around. Let’s see, we don’t seem to have a White House photographer around.” A kid entered the room.

“I brought a camera, Mr. President,” I said, holding it up. “We can have the kid over there take the picture.” President Clinton howled with laughter. The boy laughed, too. I had no idea what was so funny.

We huddled up and the boy snapped the photo, then handed me the camera.

“Thank you for taking our picture,” I said.

“Honored to do it, Mr. Greenfield,” the boy said. “Nice to meet you. I’m George. George Stephanopoulos.”

Several months later I learned this Stephanopoulos fellow was a senior advisor to the president. What did I know? He looked like a little kid. I thought he was a White House page or something.

“Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you for bringing me here,” I said with a tear in my eye. We shook hands a final time and I started walking toward Clinton’s door.

“Martin … hey listen, if you ever have something you want to talk to me about, you don’t need to stuff notes in my pockets. I’ll give you my fax number,” he said with a smile. As it turned out, I used that fax number more than once. I sent him instructions on how to tie a bowtie.

Copyright 2014 by Martin Greenfield. Reprinted with the permission of Regnery Publishing.