Last Man Standing
Herbert Halpern stands amongst velvet, silk taffeta, silk faille, satin and other fabrics available at Promenade Fine Fabrics.
The first thing you notice when you step into Promenade Fine Fabrics is the feeling of warm, natural light; the second is a room filled with the finest of fabrics, ribbon, buttons and notions—in fact, says owner Herbert Halpern, Promenade Fine Fabrics is the only place to buy thread and zippers in Orleans Parish.
Running the 40-year-old store by himself since he reopened after Hurricane Katrina, Halpern says he has reconnected with his clientele. “I can get to know every customer now and I find that very enjoyable … it sounds cliché, but I treat my customers the way I would like to be treated and so far it’s worked!” The only downside to Halpern being on-site every day is that he doesn’t get to travel to New York City as often to see fabrics first-hand. “I work closely with two buyers,” he says, “one in New York and one in Europe and they know what I like … Occasionally I’ll get a call like the one last month when my buyer in New York said, ‘I can get you two Oscar de la Renta mistakes.’ ” These “mistakes” were two bolts of Italian pure-silk satin in shades of candy pink and blue that Halpern bought sight-unseen because “you just can’t find fabric like this on the market, especially in colors like these.”
Halpern followed in his father’s footsteps, growing up on Dryades Street (now Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard), and playing outside his father’s shop, Halpern Fabrics. “My father was responsible for bringing couture fabric to New Orleans in the 1950s,” Halpern says. “When he had to move the store, the only lot open was on St. Charles Avenue. My father said, ‘Well, we’ll do what we have to do but nobody’s going to come to St. Charles!’ It turned out to be a very fortuitous move.”
Rated in the top 10 “in everything we appeared in since the store opened,” he says, Promenade has two secrets to its success: Halpern’s knowledge of fabrics and his relationships with customers and the high-end fabric and couture houses. His amazingly large selection of buttons is all couture. His even larger collection of ribbon, the largest in the South with some more than 35 years old, comes straight from Hyman Hendler & Sons in New York City. You may have seen Hendler and his ribbon on “Martha Stewart,” as she has called Hendler’s “One of her favorite places to shop.” Halpern describes Hendler as a man in a “brown seersucker suit with food all over it, looking like he needed a handout. He had the worst breath. You’d never think that this guy could design the greatest ribbons in the world. He passed recently. So you’ll never see ribbon like this again.”
Halpern’s natural affinity as a storyteller creates a great camaraderie with his customers and sources. Take, for example, the story of his friendship with fashion designer Bill Blass. “When I was 26,” Halpern says. “I went to the [fabric] market and I went up to Bill Blass’ couture house and said ‘I want this one, this one and that one.’ The fabric man said ‘No, you’ve got to take that.’ I said, ‘No, I want this one, this one and that one.’”
Halpern says he did this two to three times and then, “One day Blass was there and overheard me and he said, ‘Give him what he wants.’ In those days I was a lot younger and I think he thought I was cute. He was a very nice man, just a lovely guy. From then on, every time I went up there the fabric man would say, ‘Anything you want, take,’ and Bill would show me around and showed me construction—and his secret for using white muslin in his wedding dresses to give them more texture, which no one else at the time was doing.”
Unfortunately, the Halpern legacy in fabric ends with Herbert. “I really think that you have to grow up in this business to know it and neither of my sons is interested,” Halpern says. “In five to eight years, when I’m too old to do this, I’ll close up shop and retire, but until then I’ll remain, almost, the last man standing in this industry in the South.”
Promenade Fine Fabrics, 1520 St. Charles Ave., 522-1488