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Florence Eiseman: dressing children for 40 years

The plain walls of the factory workrooms match the dull pewter-gray of the frozen Milwaukee River outside, but these modest surroundings have yielded some of the finest children's wear of the last 40 years.

As the winner of several industry awards during her long career, designer Florence Eiseman has earned a reputation as the matriarch of classic children's clothing.

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It is a distinction she wears with genuine warmth and a gentle shyness. She is impeccably dressed; the simple elegance of her black-and-white knit suit echoes the clean look she favors in children's clothing.

''I like simple lines. I feel the child should stand out, not the dress,'' Mrs. Eiseman says. ''When we started the business, there was so much ruffling, with big skirts and petticoats. They made designs that made girls look like little women. We streamlined all that.''

To allow room for children's tummies, Mrs. Eiseman eliminated waistlines and replaced them with A-line styles that hang straight from the shoulders. She says Anne Lehman of Marshall Field's, a prominent children's clothes buyer during the '40s, first suggested the A-line silhouette, ''but we had to sell the idea.''

Other innovations also set Eiseman clothes apart from the rest. She used bright, clear colors instead of pastel blues and pinks, and incorporated the use of appliques in the flower, boat, train, and other whimsical shapes that have become a signature of Eiseman designs.

When she and her late husband, Laurence, launched the business in 1945 with their first sale of pinafores to Marshall Field's, ''I was scared stiff,'' she says. ''We were told we would never make a success of it.'' Skeptics believed the prices and standards of Eiseman clothes were too high to turn a profit in competition with what other domestic manufacturers were offering.

Mrs. Eiseman admits it wasn't always easy and long hours were a general rule. ''I used to stay up nights smocking,'' she recalls.

A stickler for quality fabrics and workmanship, Mrs. Eiseman regrets that due to the cost of labor, her children's clothes can no longer be finished by hand. Eiseman clothes are still noted, however, for their attention to detail, including deep hemlines, French seams, and bound buttonholes.

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At 83, the diminutive Mrs. Eiseman still holds the title of president and is ''editor in chief'' of the new outfits designed by Sharon Schuppner and Teri Shapiro. She makes trips to New York when new lines are shown, but her sons Robert and Laurie are primarily in charge of production, sales, and marketing.

Robert Eiseman says their clothes have weathered the changes in children's fashions over the years, and sales are stronger than ever. The business is expected to gross an estimated $7 million in 1982.

Over the years Florence Eiseman clothing has expanded to include swimwear, play clothes, and a line of knits. In response to consumer demand, they also introduced some fine-quality cotton-polyester blends.

''Five years ago in the children's market - except for the most elegant things - stores wanted only easy-care fabrics,'' Robert Eiseman says. ''Now there is more of a mix.''

Another change in children's wear has come about as designers such as Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein, and Yves Saint Laurent have entered the children's market. Although designer jeans made a dent in the Eiseman business during the '70s, ''The overall impact (of designer clothes) has been to increase our business,'' Mr. Eiseman says.

The retail cost of these designer clothes has helped fill the spread between the prices of Eiseman clothes and the majority of other children's lines, he says. And with some children's clothing currently selling in the $200-$300 range , the $60 or $70 Eiseman party dress seems almost modest in comparison.

In terms of style, Florence Eiseman has a measured view toward designer clothes for children. ''I can't say they're in poor taste; some of them are very beautiful. But I think children should be dressed simply.''

Despite her belief that children should be dressed like children and not ''all gussied up,'' Mrs. Eiseman acknowledges that today older girls prefer a more grown-up appearance in their clothes: ''Children don't like to look different from their peers. Gradually we have added a more sophisticated look.'' For girls in the 7-14 size bracket, there is more emphasis on tailoring and less on applique. The result is ''young looking, but not too young,'' she says.

In addition to girls' clothes, Eiseman Inc. offers a toddler line for boys and brother-sister outfits. Some designs are brought back from the past, and some basic shapes tend to remain fairly constant, perhaps changing the collar, sleeve, or color.

''We don't go in for fads,'' says Mrs. Eiseman firmly.

Because of their careful workmanship and enduring designs, Florence Eiseman clothes are often saved for siblings or cousins and passed down from generation to generation.

With obvious affection she talks about the many letters she receives from mothers and children. She chuckles as she tells about one little girl from California who wrote: ''Couldn't you make dresses in another color but blue? Every dress my mother buys is blue.''

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