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First Boss Friend

BlogMary ColmarComment

Yvonne is my first boss friend. When we were both twenty-three she hired me as an Assistant Designer. As head Designer and Patternmaker, she told me to forget everything I learned in school. I realized how much she could teach me. There were a lot of conversations about Design. Once she said there was no such thing as original design—that fashion was all knockoffs. Another time she let me show her a group of separates drawn out on a board, put together with a lot of drawings of bike shorts, trending at the time. Our boss (Gary) was not aiming to be a design house with formal groups, planning, and merchandising.  He found pieces he thought would sell or for inspiration. We were a Junior house making small groups of patchwork tops of French Terry and rib, Interlock dresses, T-shirt tops, some skirts, and finally bike shorts. And we manufactured in house most of the time.

Everything I learned about knits started with Yvonne. It wasn’t completely technical, more of adapting a way to keep them behaving in the patterns. We tugged and stretched the fabric to see how to keep the different stretches working together when seamed.  Assembling multiple fabrics, we always tried to have a right angle in the corners, if only for a small section, to keep pieces from stretching the wrong way, too much, or too little.

Everyday, we went out to lunch, which meant going to Clifton’s cafeteria, the bank building or on a search for the best local gelato. Yvonne had traveled to Italy on shopping trips many times with Gary. It helped that Yvonne was a perfect size small, and tall; a kind of built-in fit model. Although on the job, we always hired fit models for everything we made. We also did a lot of the grading, and then cut in-house.

At the time I barely noticed everything that was going on in the company. I just went into work alongside Yvonne. We started out in an overcrowded corner space with fabric stacked to the ceiling.  Then the business moved to a new huge space near Ninth Street. Farther away from downtown, Yvonne and I were not going to miss our lunch spots, so we just walked farther.

What I learned from my first mentor was the importance of integrating the whole job, and the proclivity to mix fabrics in a casual, yet structurally sound way.

During this time and forever throughout my career I talked to Yvonne to tell her some funny work story and ask for her advice. She always knew more than I did and never hesitated to help me. She has been my number one reference for over thirty years. It helps that she has always remained gainfully employed.

Fulfilling a lifelong dream to move to New York, I finally had the opportunity for my career to soar through a mentor who happened to be the girlfriend of Gary. Yelena, my second Boss Friend. She had all these different companies wrapped around her little finger. Yelena really knew how to sketch well and had the beautiful European je-ne-sais-quoi about her. Yelena took me with her everywhere. We went to all the fashion forecast events, some fashion shows, and shopped in the SOHO district at least once a week. We had great 'beer and a burger' lunches in the basement cellar of Macys.

Since we both lived on the Upper East Side she would sometimes have me up to her sky rise apartment on First and 72nd. I worked there making patterns, and her other friends were patternmakers for my idols, like Perry Ellis. One patternmaker from Croatia, taught me crazy details about draping a gore skirt, or standards for a shirtdress neckline.  Yet all was not a fairy tale.  Routinely huge, piles of garments had to be bagged and shipped. Many times I had to make patterns in vermin infested places at garment companies in the heart of the fashion district.  Once, as I sat on top of the table working, too afraid of mice running around the floor, I watched as the police arrested a drunken cutter. 

Despite rough work place conditions, overall atmosphere was fun and somewhat profitable, although I did not automatically gain health insurance, normal friends or a steady paycheck. The course of my career. Once you have freelanced successfully you can relax and learn to count on the fact that another job is just around the corner. Once, when I needed rent I answered a job inquiry for a patternmaker and made one thousand up front for two suit patterns that I finished the next day.  The sense of easy money sealed my fate in the New York fashion world.  I would not become a designer because patternmaking came naturally to me.

At least once Yvonne showed up to my studio apartment with sample dresses in a garment bag she was delivering to a showroom in New York.  Once, we wore some outrageous little bubble dresses to Atlantic City for the day to gamble and check out Park Place. I don’t ever remember Yvonne ever drinking so we never did when we were hanging out. But I do remember how much fun we always had together. It helped we both were completely devoted to the fashion industry.

We loved our jobs and the industry and made up comedy skits about the crazy characters. We wrote songs about the dangerous heavy metal objects—weights, scissors, steel French curves--we used for tools. Names like the Giant Industrial Button-hole machine or a Rabbit punch would sometimes make us giddy. The cast of foreign characters we had to work with too was hilarious at times and occasionally awkward, since we knew they were more skilled tailors than us, but their lack of English held them back. Never mind trying to speak Spanish, which we worked tirelessly to perfect and botch terribly. All of that changed when I returned to So Cal after twenty years and my Spanish was not as good, but it was just as necessary to speak clearly to the bosses this time.

But while working with Yelena I landed a few short-term jobs, one with Betsy Johnson, an amazing influence that kept everything simple and down to earth. Betsy’s operation was basically herself, her one patternmaker, and a few sample hands that kept her signature red lipstick handy for her. She was kind, confident and creative without being neurotic. Betsy was and is the epitome of cool.

Finally I got a full time job with health benefits for a very small company as their patternmaker. Beth Schaffer, an original designer in a small business with her best friend set up shop in the meat market hip neighborhood of NYC. I met and made many lifelong friends there including Beth who is let’s say my third boss friend.

Though I have a long career and many boss friends, to be continued…

You never forget your first. Yvonne is unsurpassed.