Hedda Kleinfeld Schachter, Who Helped Redefine Bridal Industry, Dies at 99

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Funeral services were held Friday for bridal industry forerunner Hedda Kleinfeld Schachter, who died on Wednesday at the age of 99.

Schachter died at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, a day after colonic surgery, according to Mara Urshel, who currently co-owns Kleinfeld.

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A Holocaust survivor, Schachter and her husband revamped what was once a ho-hum side of fashion retail by creating a sprawling bridal emporium that prioritized service with a fashion-focused spin. The by-appointment business was established with the customer experience at the forefront and employees were trained to tend to shoppers like the princesses they envisioned.

With her European accent and energetic manner, Schachter scoured Seventh Avenue showrooms seeking gowns and new labels. More than any other bridal retailer, Kleinfeld forged into fashion wholeheartedly by personally mining labels for the Brooklyn store’s bridal selection.

Understanding the pageantry of her customers’ (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime occasions, Schachter spoke of her role in a 1985 interview with WWD: “You are creating a heroine on a stage. The bride is on display, she has to be put together beautifully, and we have to edit and guide the customer, and be able to picture her under the chandelier or in a church.  She has not only got to look good in the mirrors of the fitting room.”

In early 1939, the Vienna-born Kleinfeld and members of her family escaped the Holocaust by fleeing their second-floor apartment in Austria and securing passage to Cuba. In May of 1940, the family was uprooted again and relocated to Brooklyn. Her journey is chronicled in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Being a Holocaust survivor cultivated a strong sense of resilience and optimism that resonated through her nearly century-long life. Once in the U.S., her father Isadore, who had been previously been detained at Dachau with one of his brothers, opened a small fur store called Kleinfeld in Brooklyn. One of his favorite employees was Jack Schachter — due partially to the young man’s fur cutting skills — who also ingratiated himself with Hedda Kleinfeld. The pair later wed and enjoyed a 67-year marriage. The couple renamed the shop Kleinfeld and Son, and over time expanded beyond fur to include coats, suits, cocktail dresses and eventually bridal.

Recognizing the dependability of the bridal market — unlike the peaks and valleys of the economy, weddings are constant — Schachter personally appealed to American designers to ask them why they weren’t designing wedding gowns and encouraged them to do. As an added luster, she often offered exclusive arrangements to maintain their prestige for both the designer and the customer. Carolina Herrera, Arnold Scaasi, Galina, Glasgow, House of Bianchi, Ilissa and Priscilla of Boston were among the myriad options.

In 1968, Hedda Schachter had the foresight to start carrying wedding gowns from European designers. More than a decade later, the retailer was focusing on only wedding dresses, showcasing 400 styles in a store with 12 dressing rooms to accommodate its growing base of customers. By 1990, the husband-and-wife team had a $20 million annual business with a 30,000-square-foot store in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and a 4,000-square-foot bridesmaids’ store on Third Avenue. At that point, the average wedding gown in the store sold for $2,000 and the priciest one was in $20,000 range. The couple owned the company through 1991.

“She really built Kleinfeld not only as an iconic name but she left an incredible mark on the whole industry with her vision. When she saw that the bridal industry was safe, she started visiting every single designer in the United States and all over the world to find new dresses that created the beginning of how we see the bridal industry today with many designers and a lot of fashion that appeals to many different kinds of brides,” Urshel said.

On an average weekday in the mid-’80s, Kleinfeld handled 85 appointments and on Saturday that figure rose to 100. By 1985, the Brooklyn store generated $8 million in annual sales. Architect Peter Marino redid the maze of fitting rooms and display cases. Brides-to-be flew in from California, Mexico, Australia and other far-off places, which meant her team was constantly juggling delivery dates, flight arrivals and fitting sessions.

Describing bridal as “a sensitive business,” she once told WWD that, “Bridal is 20 percent editing and art, and 80 percent service.”

Playing up the spectacle aspect of wedding dress shopping, Kleinfeld amped up the customer service under Schachter’s arched critical eye, whisking individual brides to their respective dressing rooms, having bridal consultants suggest and retrieve immaculate display gowns and then veils and headpieces from an elaborate encased glass display, enlisting fitters to cinch waistlines and, if need be, calling in Schachter for an expert opinion. Fickleness just went with the territory. While many brides once counted on bridal magazines to help define their preferences, Kleinfeld told WWD, “Some know very much what they want, but many don’t know. So they shop around, they go away, they come back and you can’t be upset about that.”

Mark Ingram, whose signature atelier in Midtown Manhattan is a favorite with many brides-to-be, recalled first meeting “Miss Hedda,” as she was widely known in the industry, in 1996 while working for the late bridal designer Amsale Aberra. Always making the rounds in the bridal market, Schachter kept her foot in the industry for years after she had stopped working in her namesake store. She and her husband were always invited to designers’ shows out of respect, he said.

“They had so much power in the industry, when they were the bona fide owners of Kleinfeld into the ’90s, that their presence was always requested. She was a warm, little, lovely lady. Unassuming, you would never know that she was such a powerful industry icon.”

During his tenure at Amsale, Ingram visited Kleinfeld every Tuesday night. The store’s remote location in Brooklyn and its “impeccable customer service and selection” created “a captive audience,” he said. “There was no way a bride was leaving there without buying a dress. Having an onsite owner and manager, as she was, handpicking the dresses makes a big difference in how the store is perceived and run. That is especially true in bridal because it is so hands-on and so personal.”

Brides’ shopping habits are always in motion, and they have only become more specific, and in many cases demanding, over time. Their appreciation for international designers and labels led to longer production runs. Whereas in the ’60s, two months was considered a long time to wait for a delivery, by the ’80s a six-month wait would qualify. Kleinfeld noted in 1985, “One of the biggest changes in the bridal business is that the gown is bought way in advance.”

Under her reign, gowns were arranged by categories — narrow dresses were housed in one area. Others were categorized according to styles, prices, long sleeves and short sleeves, so that sales personnel knew just where to go — not just for their own sanity in a workplace afloat with seemingly similar white confections, but as a timesaver too. One “iron-clad rule” that Schachter enforced was that if anyone other than the bride requested seeing the wedding gown, staffers refused and even hid the garments on occasion.

The company changed hands a few times, first in 1990 when it was sold to Michel Zelnik and a group of capital investors. In 1996, Gordon Brothers Capital acquired Kleinfeld and three years later Urshel, Ronnie Rothstein and Wayne Rogers purchased Kleinfeld Bridal. By 2000, the destination retailer offered a multitude of European designers and exclusive designs that totaled more than 800 dresses. The company made a monumental move in 2005 by opening a 35,000-square-foot store in Manhattan that operated with 250 employees and offered 1,500 designer sample dresses. In 2006, Kleinfeld’s reputation as a bridal authority, which Hedda Schachter had solidified decades before, helped secure the specialty store as the setting for the reality show “Say Yes to the Dress.”

Schachter’s legacy will be one of “a visionary, who always knew the trends and what was coming next. Even when brides were wearing denim to get married in [in the late ’60s], she went to Mexico and bought these incredible dresses that were accepted by the Flower Children. No matter where the stage was being set — she would travel there and she made it happen,” Urshel said.

Predeceased by her husband in 2008, Schachter is survived by her sons Ronald and Robert and their respective extended families.

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