facehelenBy Helen Uffner

I thought I was settled for life (or at least until my retirement).

helen4-inventoryI was well over 40. I had my 6,000+ square foot vintage costume company in the Garment District, convenient enough for actors to pop in for fittings and fashion designers to drop by for inspiration.

Oblivious to the nascent real estate development craze around me, the first hint of my “life change” came August ‘06 in the guise of an innocuous letter from my landlord, “inviting” me to break my lease early, should I wish to move.

Me, move? I had mega-thousands of racks and boxes of authentic 19th and 20th century clothes and accessories (see right), an accumulation of almost 30 years in business! I was settled in. I was not budging! I sent a polite  ”no thank-you” note.

I became the last hold-out, the ultimate thorn in the landlord’s side. A developer had offered a substantial sum for my 100-year old building along with 2 adjoining properties;  my staying would have killed the deal.  Imagine the daily-escalating pressure I encountered, urging me to “leave early!”  Harassed,  I compromised on a deadline, newly-armed with a high-priced lawyer to protect my interests. My penalty for staying after May 31 would cost me $1,000/day.

My landlord embarked on a search-and-destroy mission to get me out even sooner, by bombarding  me with real estate agents who had “the perfect space for me.” By “perfect” they meant a small, damp basement with resident rodents; an already currently occupied furniture showroom in the South Bronx; a loft building with no elevator, and a space with beautiful views but low ceilings. (The pizzazz of being Martha Stewart’s neighbor didn’t justify the need to stoop every time I passed under even lower interior arches.).

This was Fall of 2006, and unlike now — with a reported nearly 35 percent drop in commercial rental prices (is my timing EVER right?) — developers had nearly gobbled the west 30’s whole and most garment workrooms had all but closed in favor of sleek offices.  Prices rose dramatically, even weekly.

helen1-projectbeyonce1helen2-changelingMy business had star appeal (see here our items that were worn for Beyonce in Cadillac Records and Angelina Jolie in Changeling). One building owner actively courted me and offered a deal. I accepted; but when it came time to sign the lease, he was mysteriously “unavailable.”  His cornered assistant mumbled  “am so sorry, we just want to keep up with the market.” (Meaning: “we are holding out for more money.”)

I spent almost every day of the next nine months looking for space, traveling endlessly between boroughs. I put myself on every list and called in every favor. I called the Brooklyn Navy Yard (no room) and wrote to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the Mayor’s Film Office (no help) .

I got politically involved in a new group called Save the Garment Center. I unwittingly incurred the wrath of the local Fashion Center Business District by trashing their P.R. campaign that rhapsodized their vision of turning the Garment District into the “new SoHo.” A  pro-tenant administrator secretly emailed me: “Good for you – We need more Emma Goldman and less Emily Post.”

I kept a daily diary (25 pages!) of brokers, spaces I had seen, city agencies I had spoken to. I spent hours chatting up every building superintendent, in and out of my neighborhood.  Friends and clients became my closet spies, along the lines of “I heard from a friend of a friend that so-and-so is not doing well and might move out in March…call the landlord.”

What with building rents escalating at a furious pace and landlords wanting to cash in, I was offered leases of only 1 ½ years, 3 at the most.  One California lead led to the proverbial friend-of-a-friend who owned a building on West 27th Street and was happy to lease me a space with a 90-day cancellation clause, in case he sold the building. Two newly-built buildings courted me, but as my May 31st deadline approached, the construction sites were nowhere ready. In my hard hat I stared at bare sky where walls should have been

Another issue was “square footage”, the inside joke in the industry. The difference between “usable” square feet and “rentable” square feet ( upon which rents are based) grew in direct proportion to the rising rents. My first lease at my old full-floor location read 5,200 square feet. My second lease there read 6,300 square feet. New-ish upstairs tenants’ lease for exactly the same space read 7,000 square feet. Go figure.

At the nth hour, I finally compromised on 6,000 square feet in Long Island City, slightly more expensive than the space we had. With only a single week to deadline, I was a whirling dervish of activity: I signed a lease, hired a firm to install yards of industrial piping, bought metal shelving, boxed 800 cartons of accessories and hired a mover who supplied rolling racks for moving the garments. We completed the move over Memorial Day weekend: 3 days/3 huge trucks/11 men going back and forth continually until we were exhausted. I treated my staff to well-deserved spa massages.

We settled in. We were not in the hip part of L.I.C., more like the armpit, abetting Queens Plaza. A spoiled Manhattanite,  I hadn’t counted on a raw space with no landlord amenities (like electrical outlets); having to hire my own garbage disposal company; paying upwards of $2,000/month extra for gas during the winter for steam heating; not a single fresh fruit stand within walking distance; a dearth of fresh air because the only bank of windows that opened drew in dust from the construction site outside; having no air-conditioning because electrician estimates seemed to exceed even our national debt! Yet, the local business association welcomed us, the nearby deli owner knew us by name after the first time we went there, artists’ groups invited us to their events, we always got a seat on the subway and we began enjoying our huge windows with views of the passing N train.

helensunset-1The week we moved in we immediately started working on the film “The Great Debaters”. The California designers moved in with us and stayed a full week, pulling 1930’s clothes for huge Boston scenes. As we tried to make sense of our yet unpacked boxes, we were at the same time shipping clothes for the film. It was happy bedlam. We were baaack! We came to love the sunsets framed by the area’s signature towers.

The next task was convincing clients that we had not moved to Siberia (i.e. NOT Manhattan). Clients arrived by car service.  POLO returned rented items to us via FedEx though they were only one subway stop away. It took a bit of coaxing to convince our clients (save fashion stylistas, who firmly believe that Queens might as well be Australia) that we were actually very convenient, only 10 minutes from midtown via 6 subway lines. Now, almost two years into our new home, the economy has changed. One Garment District landlord who had offered me a space,  but then had raised the price 33% two weeks before going to contract, recently dropped one tenant’s rent by $2000/month, for fear of losing him. I admit, there is a certain smug sense of justice.

We have started a new life in Queens. Our clients love it here. We were filmed for a European TV Magazine show last year. My commute has been cut in half. We have 5 movies starting up, a website, a blog and even a Facebook page. We’ve come a long way, baby (maybe just a few stops on the R train) and are better than ever.

Helen Uffner started buying vintage clothing in junior high school when she pemanently emigrated from Brussels in the 1960’s.  Majoring in fine art, she perpetually haunted thrift shops for vintage clothing and antiques,  much to her elegant father’s consternation ( “People with think I can’t afford to clothe you!!!”) Years later, when thrifting became de rigeur, her father proudly beamed ” Thrift shops? My daughter was the first!!!!”.  After stints as a cook in Greece, a photo assistant in Israel and a management consultant in New York,  a fashion forecasting magazine featured her burgeoning vintage clothing collection and she began selling to department stores.

Helen decided to begin renting to productions  in 1982,  when Woody Allen’s designers bought out her entire 1920’s stock for the movie ZELIG, and she had to restock yet again! Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing was born and hundreds of films, theatrical & TV productions, magazines, book covers, commercials, music videos and 4 Emmy Award citations later,  2009 marks its 30th year in business as an internationally-known costume house renting authentic 1860’s through 1970 antique clothing and accessories to the trade, continually purchasing to augment the collection.To feel like an insider as she continues to clothe Hollywood, check out Helen’s blog at http://uffnervintage.blogspot.com.

Join the conversation

  • dolores danska July 2, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    Helen….Thanks for letting me read this wonderful and inspiring article. I have now joined your hundreds of admirers and am emboldened to begin writing ‘my story’. Started a blog because of you Helen. Beth should be proud to have you as a cousin 🙂

    Reply
  • Marc Wallace May 21, 2009 at 11:55 am

    Great! Who knew all this: “After stints as a cook in Greece, a photo assistant in Israel and a management consultant in New York…” !!

    Reply
  • geoffrey Abrams April 26, 2009 at 2:41 am

    The move was scary to contemplate yet you just went and got it done. Amazing. Place looks great say me and Jackie.

    Reply
  • geoffrey Abrams April 26, 2009 at 2:39 am

    Congratulations and see ya Tuesday

    Reply
  • Steve Kohn April 17, 2009 at 7:45 am

    Helen–a study in persistence

    Knowing how to grow a business

    Where to move it

    And how to expand it further–even with a view of the el.

    Good luck,

    Steve

    Reply
  • Nancy Tallman April 12, 2009 at 11:50 pm

    Helen, You’re such an inspiration and have such vision!
    I go back 30 years as your floor mate – when you ran the business from your Upper East Side apartment. So happy to see your passion has been rewarded over and over.
    Often in hindsight, one discovers change is a good thing.
    But it was a painful experience getting the boot for your boots!

    Reply
  • David Toser April 12, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Helen – a wonderful article and one I understand all too well. The photo of you is super – congratulations! David T.

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  • mimi maxmen April 11, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    I already read and commented on this. I told you then I thought it was PERFECT!

    Reply
  • Racine Berkow April 10, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    I can totally identify with Helen Uffner’s story. We were forced out of our space on 23rd Street by a despicable landlord who did everything humanly possible to get us out of the building and our ten year lease. His tactics included starting construction around us (we were the last tenants in the building) and urinating in the hallways. It was a living hell! He finally offered us money to leave when one of my employees (in Spanish) warned the construction crew that we were going to call immigration and they walked off the job.I then called the Fire Department who gave him 48 hours (over the weekend) to clean up the construction debris. We too, are now located happily in Long Island City.

    Reply
  • Gail April 7, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    This is a terrific article. It’s compellingly written, uplifting, and, ultimately redemptive. I have the great honor of knowing Helen. As you can glean from the piece, she is a woman of great integrity, both personally and professionally. I look forward to reading more from her on your site in the future.

    Reply
  • Teresa Snider-Stein April 6, 2009 at 11:48 pm

    Great article! What an amazing NY story. So glad Helen is still renting – we need her!

    Reply
  • herb April 6, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    great article. I was a small part of your search and wasn’t successful. I’m so happy it all worked out and one of the City’s gems was saved.
    Way to go Helen

    Reply
  • Mary Lisa April 6, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    Smart, stubborn, and with an outrageous sense of humor… all the same qualities she uses to cope with Hollywood and Seventh Avenue!

    Great story.

    Reply
  • Rita Lempel M.D. April 6, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    Incredible persistence,Helen!
    You’re an example to us all, as to never give up , oppose
    senseless and arbitrary decisions, and keep your ladylike composure in the process,
    Brava,
    Rita

    Reply
  • David Goldman April 6, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    Congratulations Helen! You stood up to the big boys and came out all the better from it. Great seeing the irony from that whole ordeal.

    Reply
  • Sharna Striar April 6, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    Congratulations Helen. Your willingness to express yourself and fight for what is important and fair is impressive. You made it happen. Good luck

    Reply
  • Sam Fleming April 6, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    Hey there—Nice article. I remember the madness, it seems like only yesterday. Glad to hear you are settled in.
    sf

    Reply
  • Dawn Weinraub April 6, 2009 at 9:01 am

    Congratulations on the persistence that got you to where you are today!

    Reply
  • Alan Brasington April 5, 2009 at 11:01 pm

    CONGRATULATIONS, HELEN!
    a

    Reply