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Habitat Magazine July/August 2020 free digital issue

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

The Clothes Make the Building

Read this article in the digital edition.

 

 

When Eric Mandelbaum was recently selected as board president of the Seward
Park cooperative, a 1,728-unit property on Manhattan’s Lower East Side,
uniforms were, he says “very low down” on the list of things he needed to
address. He credits that gift to long-time general manager Frank Durant, who
keeps a sharp eye on things so Mandelbaum and the rest of the board can get
to work on other issues. Durant dealt with uniforms immediately after being
hired. “[Some time ago,] I’d inherited a multi-year uniform contract and I
took a close look at the terms,” he explains. What jumped out at him was
“each and every person on our very large staff had 21 changes of clothing.”
Was that a lot? “Seven changes of clothing is standard, even generous. We
had 21,” Durant notes.” We were stuck paying an enormously inflated price for
rental and cleaning.” Durant requested an immediate renegotiation of the
contract, which brought monthly uniform rental and cleaning charges down to
$300 per month, but he eventually advised the building not to renew the
contract.

Over at the 650-unit Schwab House, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the board wasn’t thinking cost as much as it was aesthetics. Lance Kolb, the executive manager, remembers being struck by how unappealing the uniforms seemed. “I can’t even remember them,” he says grimly. “Maybe I blocked them out. All I remember is that they were brown and ugly.” His recommendation: replace all 50 staff uniforms.

Doormen come in all shapes and sizes – and so do their uniforms. But boards often overlook the need to clean, repair, and replace the distinctive outfits. They shouldn’t, since the way you dress your staff can affect curb appeal – and also send a message on how you run your building. “This isn’t an area to save money on,” observes one manager. If the braid on the trousers frays at the hem and looks “ratty,” to use one manager’s description, don’t assume a potential buyer won’t notice.

The Image

What should you look for in a uniform? First of all, it should reflect who you are. Doormen need to be easily recognizable for security and service reasons. “It’s got to fit the neighborhood. When buildings were being converted in the early ’80s, you’d see these very new co-op boards in the West Village, for example, outfitting their doormen with long-tailed coats,” recalls Edith Schickedanz, a management executive at Gumley-Haft. “They were sort of like butlers. They were trying for a white-glove image for what had been a modest rental building, and it just didn’t work.”

“Don’t turn your staff into clowns. No jaunty little fedoras at an angle, no London Bobbies. Nothing from the Renaissance,” observes Margie Russell, executive director of the New York Association of Realty Managers. “Those high-brimmed hats – they were called crowns for a reason.” Russell feels that a hat – ideally one that does not remind visitors of Kaiser Wilhelm – is appropriate for doormen who stand outside.

“Looking gimmicky is the wrong focus for doormen,” adds Don Levy, a vice president and manager at Brown Harris Stevens. “You want them to be a visible deterrent to people who should not be in the building.” But don’t overdo it: “Military touches, epaulets, even white gloves are out,” says Steve Greenbaum, director of management at Mark Greenberg Realty.

Practicality is the watchword when choosing uniforms. At Schwab House, for instance, the board set up a subcommittee of residents, including one man who had worked for years in the garment industry. The results, obtained through Top Hat Uniforms: conservative grey suits with grey trim and silver name tags that the staff wears proudly. Schwab House bought the uniforms outright and has a cleaning contract with a dry cleaner that leases space from the corporation.

How Many Uniforms, Please?

While some buildings do squeak by with one suit jacket and two pairs of pants for doormen and other front-of-the-building staff, most try for two suit jackets and two or more pairs of pants. But even two of each may not be enough. Gabe Piro, owner of Dornan Uniforms, says: “Pants get damaged more easily than jackets. Or if one doesn’t come back from the cleaner in time and one is damaged, you’ve got no backup.” And if the building can afford it, “a third jacket is going to give a more polished look over the long haul,” says Jennifer Busch, the owner of I Buss Uniforms.

Start small. Don’t order more than you need. “You probably don’t need five shirts per person,” Ray Christian, owner of W.H. Christian Uniforms, says. “Once you’ve established five as the base, good luck ever [reducing it]. If you start at three shirts, you can bump it up on a case-by-case basis.”

Cleaning Is a Must

Keeping the uniforms in tip-top shape is an ongoing process involving time and money. With a big staff, most managing agents suggest a cleaning contract, or even contracting with a local dry cleaner that offers a bulk rate.

CINTAS, a national brand with a showroom on 36th Street, carries uniforms for the service industry but also touts its own fabric, including the “Regeneration” line, which features reclaimed water bottles spun into fiber and combined with yarn. “It’s comfortable, cool, and can be home-laundered, even the suits,” says Bob Leon, the company’s director of northeast sales. “The washability saves the building money on cleaning expenses.”

Replacement & Costs

In the great circle of staff uniform life, something will always be wearing out. With a well-made custom outfit costing $1,000 for a doorman, “Why spend it on someone who may not even pass his probation?” asks Dornan’s Piro. Off-the-rack uniforms can be tailored and customized in two to three weeks. The budget for uniforms will always have cyclical bulges, peaks, and eddies. “I’d say every three or four years [you replace them],” says Lyn Whiting, a vice president at Argo and resident manager at the 1,130-unit Fordham Hill Owners Corp. in Riverdale. She notes that the first year will be a bump, followed by two quiet years, followed by a bump in the fourth year.

“We are looking at replacing everything in the next few months,” says Peter-Tolland Baker, president of 310 Lexington Owners Corp., a 120-unit co-op on Manhattan’s East Side. The uniforms are five years old, and Gumley-Haft’s Schickedanz, who manages the property, admits it’s time to replace them.

Then, of course, there are some who will wear one uniform forever. Some residents at 404 Riverside Drive, a 48-unit co-op on Manhattan’s West Side, still remember “Eddie.” A stooped, wise-cracking little man who jauntily greeted everyone as he opened the door, he seemed to love being a doorman. It’s no surprise, then, that at his own request, he was buried in his uniform.

That’s dedication.

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