Once upon a time, a woman needed a parrot tulip. Not just any tulip. “She started with something like this,” explains Adam Brand, heir to his family’s 4th generation flower factory business, M&S Schmalberg. He picks up a few flat, flower shaped layers of fabric. “Then we took some little poofs, some hibiscus, all different colours.” Suddenly, he says, they were in “Frankenflower” territory, where real and imaginary flora become fantastical creations. It’s hard to believe that here, amongst the grind of Midtown, such delicate and old-world work takes shape. For Adam, it’s just another Tuesday morning amongst Manhattan’s secret Super Bloom.
“Sure, anyone can just come on in and buy one, easy peasy,” Adam says as he welcomes us into the factory. At 36-year-old, Adam has been working alongside his father, Warren, “full-time about 10 years, but in and out [his] whole life,” tending to every aspect of the family’s 103-year-old business.
“Most people take a box out and just buy one, but we had this one lady come in and she just started piling them up. Like a thousand flowers.” As fate would have it, their heavenly HQ is perched on the 7th floor of a nondescript building, behind a grey door.
“Silk, velvet, cotton. Leathers and suedes,” Adam gestures to the rainbow of flowers across the walls, “Cork, and burlap. We can make a flower out of anything.” Somebody once sent them a Burberry Scarf, which they turned into camellias. They’ve done a project with a company called Eagles & Angels, which benefits war veterans. “It was started by a guy Tom, a retired soldier,” says Adam, “who sends us different camouflage prints – materials that were worn by real soldiers – and we turn them into flowers.”
As we roam the technicolour aisles, it’s hard not to drop everything and beg for a lesson in making silk roses. “Most of the people you’re gunna come across have been here for a very long time,” Adam says of his fifteen-or-so employees, and introduces us to a chipper man (in mastery of a rather intimidating machine)…
“This is Alex,” he says, “He would come over for Thanksgiving dinner when I was five-years-old. All the ladies out there have also been here as long as I can remember. In the old days, people came through the union, because there was a demand for the work. I don’t exactly know where we’d get new help 15-20 years from now. It trickles down through the families.”
Adam walks us through each stage of a flower’s creation. Employees whistle while they work, breathing life into the visions of the world’s greatest designers, like Vera Wang and Marc Jacobs; Carolina Herrera and Ralph Lauren. Their stock’s turnover is also astounding. “If you came here in six months, all of these,” he points to the seemingly endless cubbies of flowers, “would be new, filled with different stuff. It’s always changing.”
Then there are the things that never change. He shows us a 100-yr-old gas stove press “that gives the flat flower shapes dimension,” and gestures to what looks like a rows upon rows of cookie cutters, “These are a lot of different cutters and molds. You can mix and match whatever you like – some of them are also a century old, from Western Europe, and some of them are from [New York City],” being put to use here in Midtown for ages.
Ah, Midtown – the glittering bowels of New York City gusto! Ferociously backlit by Times Square. Home to soap box preachers. Meat carts. Pigeons that have seen the void. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny: Midtown is where the wild things grow – it always has been. We just tend to forget it these days. Luckily, Schmalberg helps us remember.
So, to, does trending pop culture. Viewers of Amazon’s hit midcentury comedy-drama, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel are treated to a dreamy recreation of NYC’s then-bustling Garment District. According Schmlaberg’s website, “When Morris and Sam Schmalberg started the business in 1916, the Garment District was a neighbourhood that produced 75% of all women’s and children’s apparel in the United States. In the 1940s there were dozens of ‘flower guys’. Through the years that number went down to 10 and today, M&S Schmalberg is the last of its kind in America.” Adam shows us a copy of a photo (above) from the early 20th century, in which a sharp eye will spy the M&S Schmalberg sign to the left of “Goldman’s Delicatessen Luncheonette”.
Of course, not all factories were as rosy as Mrs. Maisel‘s. Greenwich Village’s 1911’s “Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire” saw 146 workers die in what was then NYC’s largest blouse factory. The tragedy catalysed workers to organise for their rights, and put pressure on state legislature to create the Factory Investigating Commission. When Schmalberg was founded in 1916, it would’ve been in the immediate wake of those changes.
But even back then, Schmalberg was different – established not to accommodate fast fashion, but bespoke individuality. To build a business on trust, and family values. As we reach the end of our visit, Adam points out a wall of personal photographs. “The company was started by Morris and Sam Schmalberg, my Great-Great Uncles,” he says, “My grandfather, Harold, was a Holocaust survivor living in Poland at the time and – well, this is the part of the history my dad really gets into as well – well, he was just a kid living in Poland with a mother, father, two brothers and a sister.” Harold lost them all to the Nazis, and was placed in a concentration camp. “But he survived,” says Adam, “We’re survivors.”
From there, Adam’s grandfather befriended an American soldier, who helped him reach his maternal family – the Schmalbergs – in New York. “He came on the boat, went through Ellis Island,” says Adam, “and took to the family business, and the rest is history.”
So many tourists come to New York on a mission to find an authentic experience – one that speaks to the city’s iconic history as a titan of American diversity and craftsmanship. You’d be hard pressed to find a better spot than M&S Schmalberg, equal parts old-school industry and romantic artistry. La vie en rose.
Learn more about visiting M&S Schmalberg (or getting your holiday shopping finished up online or in person) on their website.