Chronicles: Suited to New Orleans

Clothing manufacturers were once important local businesses

Ignatius J. Reilly’s adventures in A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole’s classic New Orleans comic saga, included his disastrous stint as an office worker at Levy Pants. Ignatius tried to lead the factory hands into rebellion, decorated his office as a religious shrine and involved Miss Trixie, the clerical worker, in an improbable scheme.

Toole’s personal knowledge of New Orleans’ garment factories might have come from his brief employment at Haspel Brothers. He worked in the office with the late J. B. “Josh” Tonkel, a Haspel relative, according to Ignatius Rising, a biography of Toole by René Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy. Josh Tonkel’s son, J.B., has no memory of Toole working there, although J.B. himself worked for some time as a salesman for Haspel, traveling the southern states.

Haspel was calling New Orleans “the wash suit capital of America” in ads in 1932, and by ’53, The Times-Picayune used the phrase to headline a story on the burgeoning garment trade in the city. The city directory of ’56 listed 17 companies under “Clothing Manufacturers.” They produced items from sturdy work clothes to children’s fashions.

Haspel began as Haspel Brothers in 1909. According to J.B. Tonkel, three of five Haspels started the firm: brothers Joseph, William and Harry. (The other brothers were a doctor and an attorney.) Joseph Haspel ran the firm. Haspel, as well as the Famous-Sternberg and A. Solomon garment companies, specialized in lightweight men’s suits, often in cotton seersucker, suitable for wearing in summers in the South and a necessity in those days before air conditioning.

Joseph Haspel was known for inventive marketing. It is said that, intent on demonstrating the practicality of his “wash suits” at a manufacturers’ meeting in Florida, he wore one of his suits into the ocean, then washed it, hung it up to dry and wore it that evening.
In 1934, The Times-Picayune reported that President Franklin D. Roosevelt would be wearing Haspel seersucker suits on a trip to the tropics. Joseph Haspel was quoted in the story as stating that 80 percent of the men’s wash suits in the country were then made in New Orleans, for a locally produced total of a half-million suits. The President’s suits included a double-breasted blue, a blue pin check and a plain brown stripe. Haspel also provided suits for then-Postmaster-General James A. Farley and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau.

 New Yorker Paul Winston’s family has a menswear company in Manhattan, NY, and Winston has a blog (chipp2.com). Winston’s father ordered suits from Haspel and, sometime in the 1940s or ’50s, worked with Josh Tonkel in coming up with a new idea for men’s summer clothing.

The new offering for summer wash suits was a short-sleeved jacket, designed to be worn with short-sleeved shirts, which was to be called a “shacket.” In what Winston described as “far better risk management than was exhibited by the banking industry recently,” Haspel took the precaution of having enough cloth to make standard long sleeves if the style didn’t sell. “And crash it did! Very few were sold,” Winston says. “Even Joe DiMaggio struck out once in a while.”

Haspel’s factory was on St. Bernard Avenue at Broad Street. Later, a plant in Tylertown, Miss., was added. New Orleans’ garment district was spread out over the business district and the downtown area in the 1950s. Famous-Sternberg was in today’s warehouse district at 950 Poeyfarre St. Solomon was in the 400 block of Camp Street.

At the height of New Orleans’ garment industry’s activity the classified ads were filled with listings for sewing machine operators and sleeve setters. The want-ads also told the story of the passing of the garment business. Famous-Sternberg had begun in 1927. By January of ’68, an ad for cutting-room personnel and pressers was run for Deansgate, “formerly Famous-Sternberg.”

In August of 1979 Haspel Brothers was acquired by the Palm Beach Company. The local factory would be operated for a while, but it eventually closed.

Laurie Aronson of Baton Rouge is the great-granddaughter of Joseph Haspel. “My grandfather was the second generation to run the business – there was no one in the third generation who wanted to.” Palm Beach would eventually sell it, and “then in the early 1990s the brand was up for sale again, and that’s when our family, particularly my father, Richard Lipsey, asked to buy it.”

Haspel still makes men’s suits, clothing and sportswear. Manufacturing is done in the Philippines. As Aronson says, “The home office is essentially out of New York. We have sales staff all throughout the country, and we have a satellite office in Baton Rouge.”

Aronson inherited the family marketing skills. “We are very active in product placement,” she says. Haspel clothes have been on television (“True Blood”) and in movies (Déjà Vu, The Paper Boy). And Haspel clothing still gets to Washington, D.C. She says, “We’ve been dressing Jimmy Smits – and he does the Fourth of July Show on the mall.”

Homespun designs

Fashion design is alive and well in New Orleans. Check out the website for the New Orleans Fashion Council (nolfc.org) and for New Orleans Fashion Week (celebrated this fall) (nola-FashionWeek.com) for tales of the current trendsetters. Knitwear designer Seema Sudan has been quoted in The Times-Picayune as saying she would like for her LiaMolly label sweaters, right, to be produced locally – you can order one for yourself at LiaMolly.com. Or, browse the racks at Gae-Tanas (7732 Maple St., gae-tanas.com) for a look at some local creations. (And, to be up on what’s in, check out Monique Davis’s blog at styleizm.com.)
 

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