Alex Garfield was hitting all of the fashion industry high notes in 1998 with his clothing line Garfield & Marks when he casually asked a friend, “How does the industry perceive me?”
He was shocked by the reply: “They think you’re fat, rich, happy, and don’t give a s---.”
Garfield says he realized that he needed to make a difference.
Quickly, he signed on to lend a hand with two philanthropic endeavors: the cancer charity Cure by Design, and Dress for Success, whose goal is to clothe and empower women in need.
He’ll be in Charlotte this week for the annual Dress for Success Worldwide Board of Directors meeting (he is a member of the board).
The Observer spoke to him about his background in fashion, his passion for Dress for Success, and the mission behind his clothing line, Peace of Cloth, which is made entirely in New York. Answers have been edited for brevity.
Q: You fell into the fashion industry almost by accident. What made it stick?
A. I came home with $100 after working 100 hours in a party goods shop, and my roommate Stuie said, “Come on into the garment center; you’ll make more money and meet a lot of girls.” So I did. It seems to people on the outside looking in that it’s a totally glamorous industry. It’s partially that, and it’s partially what you make of it. I was fascinated by the way the products we were selling were made, and then I was able to see down the line who was purchasing the products. I made some lifelong friends. I had a jeans business in the ’70s with a friend, called Seasons Jeans. I got a call one day from this guy named Tommy Hilfiger. He had stores upstate called People’s Place. He ordered 100 each of three styles. Forty years later, Tommy and I have a wonderful, wonderful relationship.
Q: You talk about an event where you were told about the concept of a new philanthropic startup, Dress for Success, and were instantly hooked on the idea. Had you always wanted to merge fashion and philanthropy?
A. My son was being born (in 1998) and I was with JR Morrissey, whose company Garfield & Marks had bought. I asked JR, pounding my chest, “How does the industry perceive me?” He said, “They think you’re fat, rich, happy and don’t give a s---.” I looked at him, my heart sank and I said, “My goodness gracious, I’m going to have a child, and he needs to have the best dad he can possibly have because our children become us.” I ran upstairs and called my staff and said, “Send the word out that we want to make a difference in everybody’s communities.”
Q: What is it about Dress for Success that has made you stay so involved for the last 15 years?
A. We’ve helped almost 900,000 women and 2 1/2 million of their children in the past 17 years. I see the net results. It’s not just suits. On the path, the (client women) get their hands held, they get advice. The staff are always available to help these women. When you help a woman, you’re helping the world.
Q: You’re also deeply committed to the cause of cancer survivors, putting on fashion shows and traveling the country for Cure by Design. What inspired you to be involved in the cancer cause?
A. It’s been remarkable. You see men, women and children strutting their stuff and their family members are in the audience crying. (Because of differences with the American Cancer Society) I’m now only involved in Cure by Design in Richmond, Va.
Q: Tell us about your fashion company, Peace of Cloth. Why are you so committed to creating garments that are made entirely in New York?
A. Everybody should have some sort kind of cause... because it helps people and it also helps sell product. Peace of Cloth, that’s ingrained in our personality, it’s who we are. Peace of Cloth is the kind of product that the woman who wears us can go into a closet, close her eyes and pick out her clothes. Because it’s safe. You know it’s going to fit because it’s consistent. We’re in specialty stores. We stay away from department stores because our competition there makes their clothes paying people $1 or $3 a day. If it costs us $35 to make a pant, it costs them $6.