Hedda Kleinfeld Schachter Dies at 99; Built an Empire of Tulle and Satin
Hedda Kleinfeld Schachter, who with her husband, Jack, built the empire of tulle and satin known as Kleinfeld’s, the bridal superstore that for decades drew women from all over the world to the unlikely locale of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, died on March 29 in Manhattan. She was 99.
The cause was an intestinal blockage, her son Robert Schachter said.
I. Kleinfeld & Son, as it was formally known, was a family business, originally a small fur concern started by Ms. Schachter’s father, Isadore Kleinfeld. But it was Ms. Schachter, known as Miss Hedda, and her husband — who, although his initials were J.S., was nonetheless known as Mr. K. — who expanded it into what would become perhaps the largest and most famous bridal emporium in the world.
Patricia Leigh Brown, writing in The New York Times in 1987, described it as a store “that is to wedding gowns what the Pentagon is to fighter bombers.”
For Miss Hedda and Mr. K., it was a seamless ascent from Persian lamb pelts to clouds of tulle. In the late 1960s, when they began, wedding dresses were mostly limited variations on traditional themes found in department stores and small boutiques. It was Miss Hedda’s innovation, noting the changing appetites of the times, to offer as many styles as possible, which she traveled the world to find.
Back home, she assembled an army of stylists, fitters, sewers, beaders and pressers to customize the offerings for each would-be bride. And each year, thousands of women would make the pilgrimage to Bay Ridge from as far away as Hong Kong and Nigeria.
“Young women and their retinues, a veritable bridal wave, wait in the lobby, some clutching dog-eared bridal magazines,” Ms. Brown wrote of a typical Saturday at Kleinfeld’s. “They are in pursuit of their wedding day ‘aura.’ They await the wisdom of Miss Judith, Miss Iman, Miss Irene, Miss Flo and the other Kleinfeld bridal consultants who, ferreting through the store’s 800 or so wedding-dress styles (by appointment only), will help them find the dress. The one that makes them look, Miss Flo said, as if they ‘came down from a cloud.’”
That cloud, however, was freighted with a multitude of existential choices: satin, brocade, lace or chiffon? Beaded or embroidered? How about both? Ragamuffin sleeve or sculptured? Illusion neckline or a portrait collar? What about a hip sash, a bolero jacket or an enormous taffeta bow? There were headpieces to be mulled over — the tiaras, crowns and “starters” (mini-tiaras on a comb) — and veil lengths to ponder, including but not limited to cathedral, bird cage and fingertip.
Miss Hedda oversaw the whole operation like a benevolent matriarch, addressing her team through overhead speakers while Mr. K. kept the books, manually and with precision, in his office upstairs, which was also the Schachters’ apartment.
For years, the setting was a no-frills affair, an 11,000-square-foot dappled pink maze of dressing rooms, storage closets and waiting areas. In 1987, the Schachters hired the high-end architect Peter Marino to glam up the place.
Mr. Marino gave it an elegant new entryway and a neoclassical stone facade, because, as he said at the time, “marriage is a neoclassical institution.” He wasn’t able to do too much more, he said in a phone interview, because the Schachters were constitutionally unable to stop the business long enough for a proper renovation.
In any case, Mr. Marino and Miss Hedda became lifelong friends. “I adored her,” he said. “She was extremely genuine. She had zero artifice, which is so unusual in life. It’s so relaxing.”
Hedda Kleinfeld was born on Feb. 5, 1924, in Vienna, the older of two daughters. Her father worked in his family’s fur business; her mother, Regina (Reich) Kleinfeld, was a milliner.
Their story turned grimly familiar in 1938, when the Nazis annexed Austria and seized Jewish businesses like the Kleinfelds’. In November, on what came to be known as Kristallnacht, they ransacked Jewish homes.
Isadore, like many other Jewish men, was sent to Dachau; he was released four months later. The family sailed to Cuba, where they remained for two years, waiting for an American sponsor to secure visas for the United States.
By 1940, they were settled in Brooklyn. Regina found work at Lily Daché, the milliner with the movie star clientele who was known for her turbans. Isadore began working out of the family’s new apartment, making what are known as Persian paw plates — lamb pelts sewn together to make a single sheet of fur — and hired a young man named Jacob Schachter, known as Jack, to help him.
Jack and Hedda fell in love, and they married in 1941. She was 17 and still in high school, and he was 21. As she recalled in an oral history for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, it was illegal to be married and attend school, so Jack used to drop her off a block away in his Pontiac.
Isadore’s fur business was successful, and soon they had a small store, then a larger one, named I. Kleinfeld & Son — that would be Jack — from which Isadore, Hedda and Jack sold furs and Regina’s hats and, later, cloth coats and evening gowns. It was Hedda who sought out the fashionable clothing Kleinfeld’s became known for, adding a bridal selection in 1968 that became so popular, she ended up devoting the store solely to that market. The family soon bought five storefronts along Bay Ridge’s Fifth Avenue and combined them into one bridal superstore. In 1988, The New York Times reported, they sold about 7,500 wedding gowns and 10,000 bridesmaids’ dresses.
The Schachters sold the business in 1990, though they stayed on for some time to help with the transition. They also moved — to the other Fifth Avenue, in Manhattan — to an apartment designed by Mr. Marino.
After their departure, Kleinfeld’s floundered financially until the late 1990s, when it was bought by a group that included Mara Urshel, a retail executive; Ronald Rothstein, a venture capitalist; and Wayne Rogers, the actor best known for his role as Trapper John on “M*A*S*H.”
In 2005, when the new owners moved the store to 20th Street in Manhattan, Diane Cardwell wrote in The New York Times that its departure was a seismic blow to its former neighborhood, akin to Brooklyn losing the Dodgers all over again. (To ameliorate the commute of the store’s many longtime Brooklyn-based employees, for a time the owners hired buses to ferry them to and from the new location.) In 2007, Kleinfeld’s (now known as Kleinfeld Bridal) began to host the giddy reality show “Say Yes to the Dress,” which is still on the air.
In addition to her son Robert, Miss Hedda is survived by another son, Ronald; three granddaughters; and two great-grandchildren. Mr. Schachter died in 2008.
“Hedda had a vision,” said Barbara Tober, the longtime editor of Brides magazine, noting the ethnnographic research behind the bridal business that she and Miss Hedda practiced in their own ways — wedding, after all, are tribal rituals. “We were anthropologists.”
When the Schachters married in 1941, Miss Hedda was years away from her star turn in the bridal business; she found her wedding dress on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
“It was custom-made, pure silk, and cost $199.99 on Grand Street,” she told The New York Times in 1991, on the occasion of her 50th wedding anniversary. “During the height of the war, with the fabric shortages and all, I lent it to so many friends getting married that it finally got lost.”
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