Step behind the unassuming facade of Mendel Goldberg Fabrics on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and you’ll suddenly find yourself surrounded by an array of gorgeous fabrics on its floor-to-ceiling shelves: bolts and neatly folded stacks of fine cottons, silks, satins, taffetas and lace as well as more opulent materials, from bubble-gum pink metallic brocade to apple green silk satin jacquard and shimmery pleated navy chiffon. There are fabrics woven with gold thread or glittering with Swarovski crystals. And there is Chanel-style wool bouclé in pale pink, or black and white woven with little ribbons and pearls. The material is as luxuriously textured as a lamb’s coat. I want it.
I don’t sew. I haven’t got the DNA (no one in my family did). I’ve never really paid attention to the world of bespoke clothing or the fabrics a designer might use, not until a few months ago, when I went to Hester Street — a street once jammed with pushcarts and now crowded with delivery bikes — and walked into Mendel Goldberg, where, feeling as if I’d wandered into a psychedelic dreamscape, I coveted everything.
Presiding over the shop from her usual perch, above a large wooden table where she measures out the fabric, was proprietor Alice Goldberg, wearing a fitted white blouse, a narrow beige skirt with a zipper up the back and black flats. Goldberg is the fourth generation of her family to run the store since her great-grandfather Mendel founded it. Alongside Luis Ortega, the Goldbergs’ aide-de-camp since 1989, Alice has witnessed a few memorable shopping sprees, including the time a few years back when a group of Saudi princesses spent about 30 minutes in the store, “buying like crazy,” and the day seven bridesmaids purchased beaded sky blue tulle for their dresses.
Costume designers are also frequent customers. Among them is John Glaser, who oversaw the wardrobe for season one of Netflix’s “Bridgerton” (along with Ellen Mirojnick) as well as that for the upcoming season three. “You can get things here you can’t get anywhere else, like certain very rich and expensive over-embroidered or beaded material,” Glaser says. He’s used Mendel Goldberg’s fabrics for a number of the costumes for the Regency-era period drama, including a sheer white frock in laser cut silk chiffon, a fabric that “we used inside out,” Glaser adds. “There was also a dress for Lady Bridgerton made of pale blue silk jacquard that reminded me of an 18th-century wallpaper.”
While I’m in the shop, I watch as Goldberg drapes ivory gazar against a bride-to-be, showing her how it would work as an engagement party dress. Later that afternoon, Tsigie White, the costume designer for the TV series “Power Book III: Raising Kanan,” stops in. She’s mesmerized by a piece of gold material covered with glittering paillettes. “I’ll find something to do with it for the show,” she says while Goldberg measures a yard of it for her. “I’ve never been here before; a friend mentioned it,” she continues. “This is a great find for me.”
Goldberg knows her stock by heart, and even the stores’s website — seemingly the business’s largest concession to the 21st century — is wonderfully detailed, the fabrics carefully described and shown draped on mannequins. Goldberg’s customers are based all over the country, as well as abroad; some of them ask to browse the fabrics over Zoom or FaceTime. “I want everyone to buy on the internet with the same confidence as if they walked in the store. Let’s say you’re in Texas and you order something online. I don’t want you to open [the package] and say, ‘Oh my God,’ ” she says. “I want you to be thrilled.”
It’s a long way from the days when Mendel Goldberg, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, sold tailoring supplies off a pushcart on the Lower East Side. In 1890, he opened the shop in this five-floor building. (The basement is now the stockroom; apartments occupy the upper four stories.) His son Alexander sold silk to furriers for coat linings; Alexander’s son Samuel — Alice’s father — sold fabric to Gimbels and Macy’s, both of which had large departments for home dressmaking.
The business prospered. Alice was born in Brooklyn and spent her later childhood years in Great Neck, N.Y., where her parents lived and commuted to Hester Street. “I was a very sheltered girl,” she says. “All my clothes were made for me by my grandma Ida, Alexander’s wife.”
After college, Alice taught math, married and moved to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where she still lives. She has two daughters, Alexandra, who lives in Jerusalem, and Josefa, who lives in New Rochelle, N.Y. Josefa’s daughter Eliana did her recent high-school senior thesis on fashion. If she eventually takes over Mendel Goldberg Fabrics, Eliana will be the sixth generation to manage the business.
Alice Goldberg didn’t join the family business until she was in her 30s. Her father came to her home and said, “‘Your mother is sick, you have to come into the store.’ I walked in and never left,” she says.
Her first assignment was a fabric buying trip to Europe. “At some of the great Swiss companies, I saw the most beautiful goods. They asked about my credit because they didn’t know me,” she says, smiling. “I say, ‘Can you do me a favor? Please send someone to tell my driver I’ll be here for some time.’ I figured if they saw I had a Mercedes with a chauffeur it would be all right.” She got the credit, and now travels to Italy, Switzerland and France twice a year.
It isn’t just the sumptuous fabrics that make Mendel Goldberg so sought out by connoisseurs, however, but Alice Goldberg herself. “I’ve never had a return,” she says. “Never. How crazy is that?” I’m thinking about a winter coat. As if she’s read my mind, she shows me navy blue French wool bouclé and suggests we line it in printed cashmere. As my mother always said, “Why have economy in fantasy?”