Dec 7, 2016
The Willy Wonka of Second Hand Clothes
It’s a Thursday morning, and the employees of Noamex’s warehouse in East New York hop off the Q8 bus on Wortman Avenue. They shuffle past parked tractor trailers and through the building’s unassuming front door, filing in singly to punch their time cards. They’re young, old, male, female, skinny, stout. Their uniforms are whatever they decided to wear this morning. A few women wait for their foreman in the foyer, a room less than 10 feet across with stained and splotchy upholstered chairs, one a particularly browned Lay-Z-Boy. As workers pop in—”Buenos dias, buenos dias, buenos dias”— a custodian meekly drags a broom over the rubber floor, piling specks of dirt into his dustpan.Through the hallway, they pass the water cooler, the bathroom, six microwaves piled up on each other for heating up lunch, and a large cricket chirping on the ground.
Noamex’s warehouse is a 60,000 square foot cathedral for used clothes—its ceiling reaches two stories and mountains of garments reach just as high. There’s a pile for baby clothes, a pile for shoes, a pile for dresses, a pile for sweatpants. Denim, T-shirts, women’s, men’s, blankets, towels, vintage, leather jackets. If you’ve ever donated an item of clothing in New York City, it’s probably gone through here.
As the 9 a.m. shift bell rings, employees begin their quality checks, working in groups to scour through giant rickshaws, picking up one piece at a time. One worker pulls out a blue hoodie and drapes it across a table. She runs the zipper down the front, her hands moving quickly, her eyes following every seam, inspecting for stains or rips. She puts the hoodie in the “to-go” pile. The items that don’t fit her standards are dropped in the scrap bin, where they will later be shredded and felted into moving blankets or will be cut into “wipers,” used at constructions sites and workshops as rags.
The approved clothes are compacted into bales and hauled into boxes. The boxes are hoisted into a truck and taken to a port in New Jersey where they’re stacked into a container. The container, usually 48 feet long, makes its way onto a freighter across the ocean to a vendor in one of the 80 countries Noamex sells to.
On this particular Thursday morning, not unlike any other, owner Gary Schefren pulls his car into a spot immediately to the right of the front entrance. A large man in a bright purple polo shirt, he hobbles out of the front seat, clutching a large paper bag in his left hand. Past the La-Z-Boy, into the hallway and to the left, he walks through the front office, where four other desks are perched atop a sepia-toned business carpet. “This is an $80,000 problem,” Schefren booms to his administrative staff. “We’ve got to fix this.”
The problem is that Noamex had shipped a container of his wholesale clothing to a new customer in Guatemala, but due to a clerical error (the customer’s list reported that there were 381 boxes when only 350 fit in a container) the container was being held at customs.
In Schefren’s office, there are two desks. One is his, and the other was that of his late brother, Harvey. A portrait of Harvey the size of a milk crate hangs on the wall, along with a photograph of The Rat Pack. A photo of Schefren cradling his newborn grandson Brendan is juxtaposed with a photo of him holding his son Michael as a child. “Baby, I got you breakfast,” Schefren says to one of his foremen, who greets him with a hug. He points to the large paper bag. “Take what you want.” Another employee comes in and digs a swiss on toast out of the bag.
A woman named Mickey comes to Schefren’s side of the desk and dials the number of their Guatemalan customer on his phone. She translates from Spanish as they work out the problem (the vendor is to have customs check every single box with the list they have), and for now, their $80,000 debacle has been quelled.
his warehouse moves
of clothes per day.
In 2015, the Department of Commerce recorded that U.S. exports of used clothing totaled $706 million, with the most clothes going to Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, Canada and the Dominican Republic, in that order. Schefren is protective about his numbers, but says that he sells his product anywhere from $.02 to $2.50 per pound. He estimates that his warehouse moves 100,000 pounds of clothes per day. Along with shipping to other countries, he sells to thrift stores in New York and around the U.S.
Schefren buys his product from “reputable people,” he puts it, saying that he’d rather keep his sources to himself, but a few trucks outside may give him away. “Did you kiss and tell your mommy or daddy when you were 14?” Around the front, there’s a box van with St. Vincent de Paul’s name emblazoned in blue letters. Schefren says he’s been working with the charity for 50 years: “How do you think they get their money? We buy from them.” He also mentions that he buys from a few individually owned Goodwills in the area.
The practice may be deceiving for those thinking they were donating their used clothing to needy people in their area. Jose Medellin, director of communications at Goodwill, explains that many clothes are donated directly to charity, like the 250 T-shirts they donated to New York’s Department of Sanitation for its upcycled fashion show in September, but many clothes end up sitting in their retail store, going through mark-down after mark-down.
“Clothing, shoes, and handbags that do not sell at our outlet stores are sold to textile recyclers along with the textiles deemed not suitable for store sales,” Medellin said. “The clothing is mostly consumed locally, but if not, textile recyclers who purchase them typically export some and recycle some fabrics.”
Goodwill also gets donations from the metal bins they put on city sidewalks. But not all bins you’ll see on the street are “reputable.” In 2014, The New York Times reported that 2,006 bins were tagged as illegal and 132 were confiscated by the city. Some of those bins, like the hot pink ones you may have seen in the past, belonged to New Jersey textile recycling company Viltex, which was ordered by the city to take their bins back.
Another truck outside the Noamex warehouse advertises WeCollectClothes.com. Their site claims to work with The American Red Cross, and their parent company, Care Cycle, provides information on how local organizations can hold clothing drives to raise funds. Community groups provide the unwanted clothes, Care Cycle pays up and then they sell to people like Schefren. Care Cycle’s website boasts 525,484,366 pounds of clothes saved from landfills. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, 21 billion pounds of post-consumer waste is dumped into landfills per year.
And so the story isn’t necessarily about charitable donations (although that’s the heartwarming side of the business); it’s about the recycling of fabrics. In an interview with The Atlantic in 2014, Jackie King, executive director of the Secondhand Materials and Recycled Textiles Association trade group, claimed there needs to be a change in perspective when it comes to tossing old duds. “It’s an issue of communicating that and getting people to understand that if they want to use a charitable organization to reuse or recycle clothing, great. If not, let’s make it convenient for people to dispose of it elsewhere.”
And Schefren, It just so happens, has a global network of people who want to wear America’s discarded clothes.
Schefren began working in the used clothing industry when he was just 6 years old. His brother, who was 11 years his senior, employed him in his thrift endeavors. “He’d have me work in stores and polish the shoes for a dollar and a ham sandwich, or a dollar and a diet coke, bag of chips,” he says. “I was happy.”
He had dreams of becoming a baseball player (Mets memorabilia currently lines his office walls), but an injury in his first year of college kept him from the game. He never finished college, and instead joined the Reserves during the Vietnam War. When his brother bought out his two other partners at Noamex, Schefren stepped in to run the business alongside him.
“There was always somebody to bounce off ideas,” he says of his brother. “What we should do or how should we manage this or should we open a store.”
Together the Schefren brothers launched The Antique Boutique, which took the clothes they were buying in bulk and upcycled them into fashionable items sold in their 12,000 sq. foot store across from New York University on Broadway. The store outfitted people like Prince, along with Hall & Oates, and was featured in Seinfeld as Rudy’s Antique Boutique. Their clothes were also featured in The Godfather. The brothers eventually expanded their Antique Boutique label to wholesale, hiring sewers to slap patches on jeans or cut pants to make shorts, and creating a catalog for stores to order their line for retail. The Antique Boutique had their own section on the floor of Macy’s, along with a window during Christmas, alongside haute-couture heavy-hitters like Chanel and more.
is exporting used clothing.
Recycling. Keeping landfills clear
of clothing, from thousands—
hundreds of thousands,
millions of pounds ending up there,
which we export,
bring minorities jobs.”
Schefren points to a red-and-white, American flag-esque jacket laying over a couch across from his desk. “I had someone manufacture that jacket for me. And we wholesaled it to Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, other main stores, during Desert Storm,” he says. “That black and red jacket there, we were involved in Europe at one point and going against the top designers. That was one of the hottest jackets, and we made it under the name Chomari. It stood for [brothers] Charlie, Harvey and Marty. [Italian label] Fiorucci was a customer of mine. Paul Gez, we leased him his first warehouse,” referencing the founder of the high-waisted Sasson jeans.
To explain the process of upcycling, he pulls out issues of Esquire, Marie Claire, Elle, and Harper’s Bazaar from under paperwork.
“What I do is I study the magazine. I look. I innovate,” Schefren says, flipping through glossy pages and settling on a designer garb. “I would look at something like that and say, ‘Oh, if I take a fur collar, a big mink collar, or a fox collar and put it on a satin bathrobe, I’ll tell you who bought it. Prince bought it. $600.” And that’s how he would sell old as new again.
“We were the first ones to bleach out jeans because we had 10,000 pairs that were dark blue and we couldn’t sell them. So we prewashed them before anybody else did.”
The Antique Boutique label died down after Schefren decided to cut out the overhead of renting store space and focus more on his wholesale business. But he still takes strolls through the warehouse, keeping an eagle eye on what might be the next vintage find. He grabs a clear plastic bag of crocodile bags he found, raising it above his head like a prize. He shows off an original Hawaiian shirt from the 1950s with coconut buttons. He’s got a hand-embroidered jacket from Vietnam. All these things, he still wants to sell individually, when he gets a chance.
That’s where 2TryHard comes in. 2TryHard, founded in 2004 by New Yorker Natalie Green, posts photos of the vintage items Schefren and Green find while sorting through their wares. Although they had always set the starting bid at $.99, with a shift in Internet culture, they relaunched the store in October with “buy now” pricing. Green, who discovered the warehouse when her mother looked it up in the Yellow Pages, still remembers the first time she walked into the space.
“It’s like [Charlie] walking into the Chocolate Factory, walking into a warehouse of recycled clothing. Hundreds of hundreds of thousand pounds. And then you have Mr. Gary Schefren, who is like Willy Wonka.”
While Schefren has been operating out of New York City for 54 years, he admits that he might be taking his company to other places—Miami, North Carolina—where they could escape a proposed minimum wage hike, like the one Hillary Clinton had proposed in her presidential campaign. An increase, Nicole Gelinas of The New York Post opined, would “crush the retail industry.” Again, Schefren doesn’t like to divulge numbers, but Noamex’s website (perhaps unupdated) reports that the company employs 160 people “trained in the sorting, grading, and shipping of quality used clothing, vintage clothing, and wipers.” A colleague mentioned he has closer to 100. The minimum wage increase would be huge, along with the $250,000 in harsh New York City taxes he already pays on the building.
“I’ve always given 13 holidays, two weeks vacation, five sick days. And if there’s a snowstorm and they can’t get in, they got paid for that,” Schefren says about his staff, adding that the increase would have New York employers cutting down on workers’s hours. “They’re only going to work 20 to 24 hours, so that puts them close to $400. They’re going to get food stamps. And then they’re gonna get every child that they have out of wedlock, or in wedlock with different husbands. We pay.”
Schefren lists competition from countries like China, India, and Pakistan, where labor costs are cheaper, as another business struggle.
“When those countries sell goods to those other countries to compete with me, and they are using child labor and they’re using people that are making $2 a day, how do I compete?
He also accuses not-for-profits, Goodwill and The Salvation Army, of selling to other countries.
“Whatever people have in their thoughts and their minds, they say they get granted,” he says. “They sell to other countries in the world that compete with us, which they’re not supposed to do. They’re not supposed to. Our business is exporting used clothing. Recycling. Keeping landfills clear of clothing from thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of pounds ending up there, which we export, bring minorities jobs.”
When later asked for comment, Goodwill simply stated, “No, Goodwill NY/NJ does not sell to international companies.”
Despite his beef with not-for-profits, Noamex does some charity of its own. During Superstorm Sandy, which wreaked devastation over Long Island and New Jersey, they sent five trailers of clothing and blankets to a local church. For his friend’s fundraiser for Alzheimer’s research, they’ll be donating 200 to 400 coats.
“Have you ever seen kids that don’t know whether they’re going to get a toy?” Schefren says. “And I bring down 30 boxes of stuffed animals, and give ‘em out and give out turkeys? I’m not Levi’s. I’m not Macy’s. I’m just a common businessman. If I can spread some cheer, I appreciate that.”
In the warehouse, Schefren tries to spread a little cheer too. He used to know everybody’s name, but admits that’s a bit harder now. As he walks through, he points out some of his longtime employees, who smile at him while keeping their hands moving. One woman lifts up a baby’s dress with a springtime green skirt and a baby pink rose sewn into the belt, showing it off to the woman next to her with glee. “[So-and-so] says he wants you to wear that tonight,” he attempts at a joke. More smiles. Near the back, he meets up with a young girl wearing a face mask named Sam, who runs a thrift shop endeavor of her own in the city. She’s been waiting to talk to him for a few hours, but the Guatemala hiccup got in the way. “Are you finding good stuff?” Schefren asks.
“Yes,” she replies. “Lots.”
And surely enough, that old 70s frock that you couldn’t wait to get rid off might get a second life in Williamsburg or Bushwick or the Village. ♦
Photos by Patrick Kolts
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