Henry Rosenfeld was often referred to as the Henry Ford of dresses, or the Christan Dior of the Bronx. His obituary also called him “the dress manufacturer who made it chic for rich women to wear inexpensive clothes,” and these things made his dress company wildly successful.
Rosenfeld was born in New York in 1911, his parents had come from Austria around 1906 and didn’t have much money, but he promised his mother he’d be a millionaire by the time he was 35. He was right. In 1930, his father was running a window cleaning business, and Henry was working for him as a salesman. He soon took this experience to the dress industry, and worked his way up as a salesman on Seventh Avenue until he opened his own dress business in 1942. Henry Rosenfeld dresses were not exactly fashion forward, but they were always well-tailored, classic, and beautiful in their simplicity. This simplicity—a lack of trimmings saved on labor costs, material costs and production time—allowed the company’s volume to be extremely high compared to what other manufacturers were doing, and this volume made possible a narrower profit margin, because he could order fabrics in bulk and make his money through quantity. Still, the dresses were high quality and made to last. Rosenfeld retired from the dress business and liquidated his company in 1964, and went on to make additional piles of money in real estate, vending machines (?), various importing of goods like hockey equipment and bags, which led to Henry Rosenfeld Luggage in 1975. Rosenfeld died in 1986.
Henry Rosenfeld’s first designer was Elizabeth Hilt, who was working as a secretary for an insurance company in New York when she decided to study fashion design at night. In 1932, she went to work for David Crystal, then spent some time at Adler & Adler and Starmaid before joining Henry Rosenfeld in 1942. The thing I find kind of remarkable about Elizabeth is that she didn’t marry until 1936, when she was 42 years old and her career was already on solid footing. Not only did she not give up her job when she married, but she kept her professional name. Her husband was Paul Rosier, the secretary-treasurer of Cartier (yes, the diamond Cartier), who had children from a previous marriage, so she probably didn’t feel the pressure of starting a family, but with houses in Westchester and Palm Beach, she probably didn’t feel the pressure of needing to work to support herself either. And yet, she did, and she did it well. “Elizabeth Hilt, whose brilliant talent has made it possible to turn out 2,500,000 dresses annually, dresses that incorporate style and good taste at moderate prices,” wrote New York Times fashion editor Virgina Pope in 1951.
Here in the LIFE magazine article from 1951, Hilt demonstrates the difference between a labor-intesive (and thus more expensive) dress at left with the simpler version at right “which will sell for $8.95 in striped cotton.” She stayed at Henry Rosenfeld for 11 years, and then worked for Best Modes of Miami before retiring from the fashion business.
Ad from Vogue, September 15, 1945