Kal Ruttenstein, Bloomingdale’s sneaker-clad fashion director, was on the phone a week after Thanksgiving, talking in his drawl about a new young designer the store had featured in its windows. “Much to our great delight and surprise and shock, we had a major sell-through on these clothes. We sold a couple hundred pieces in two days,” he said. “We sold more than 50 percent of what we bought, which is unheard of in this day and age.”
About the designer he commented, “She’s delightful, really I didn’t know what to expect with all that Seinfeld stuff.” Ah, that Seinfeld stuff.
Yes, Jerry Seinfeld’s ex-girlfriend, Shoshanna Lonstein, now 23, who became a household name as the teenage girlfriend of America’s most famous TV funnyman, is about to get the last laugh. While many New Yorkers have some inkling that Ms. Lonstein has branched into the fashion business, few are aware that her clothes—which are smart and cute, like cotton dresses in gingham and Liberty prints with matching bags (matching thong tucked inside)—are moving. The clothes—which Stefani Greenfeld, owner of the hot East Side boutique Scoop, calls “lingerie-inspired sportswear”—are extremely well priced (the dresses go for about $130) and geared toward large-breasted young women. Women who, like Ms. Lonstein, have a hard time finding flattering clothes to fit their physiques. After Ms. Lonstein’s initial splash at Bloomingdale’s, Mr. Ruttenstein has reordered her resort line, placed a large order for spring, and asked Ms. Lonstein, who shopped at Bloomie’s as an Upper East Side teenager, to design a line exclusively for the store.
But will Ms. Lonstein ever be able to avoid having her name in the same sentence as Jerry Seinfeld? If there’s one place she might be able to do it, it’s back home in her city, not the one Mr. Seinfeld created on a stage set in Hollywood. It is here that Ms. Lonstein has won the respect of Mr. Ruttenstein and other high-end fashion buyers, evolving from the gossip columns’ “bosomy Shoshanna” to president of a company with three full-time employees and which she predicts will have sales of $1 million in 1999. And who strikes those who meet her as much more beautiful than her grainy tabloid pictures and who is, by all accounts, disarmingly …nice.
And while her ex seems caught in terminal romantic adolescence—witness his brazen, tabloid-ready swiping of newlywed Jessica Sklar from her husband of three months—Lonstein waves away her Seinfeld past with, “That’s a part of my life that’s so over. I really don’t think about it. It was a relationship, that’s all.”
Ms. Lonstein said she didn’t exactly miss all the attention. “I couldn’t imagine some of the past criticism of my life. I never felt like I did anything wrong, so it never bothered me.” Still, she admitted, she found relentless hounding, and the media obsession with her chest, trying. “Rather than ‘Shoshanna,'” she said, “it’s always ‘shapely Shoshanna.’ To have it be a sexual part of your body is very difficult. It’s different if it’s long legs.”
Indeed, it is taking time for people to take her seriously. The New York Times , in an item that ran the day before her November fashion show, cattily remarked, “If you are young and you used to date somebody famous, you can be a clothes designer.” (“I don’t like this,” Ms. Lonstein said of the item. “It’s upsetting and not helpful.”)
The New York Post ‘s Page Six editor Richard Johnson, while agreeing he was one of the worst offenders (“I think we have called her curvy, well upholstered …), deemed it a case of the lady protests too much. “She’s basing her entire career on that she has huge hooters, and now she’s complaining?” he laughed. “She didn’t complain to me the last time I saw her as I was staring down her luscious ledge. The last time I saw her, she was wearing one of those bustiers and it was just amazing ‚Ä¶ You could have lost a bagel down there.” Nevertheless, the most recent Page Six item about her described her merely as “raven-haired.”
Mr. Ruttenstein at Bloomingdale’s admitted he had never thought of large-chested women as a niche market. But Ms. Lonstein proved him wrong. There she was on the Friday after Thanksgiving, making a publicized in-store appearance surrounded by junior versions of … Shoshanna. The high schoolers were pulling out their parents’ credit cards and buying the clothes by the armful. Twice, shoppers demanded Ms. Lonstein sell them the low-cut pink gingham dress she was wearing. Which she did. “Can you believe it?” Ms. Lonstein said. “It’s wild.”
‘I Like to Play’
A few weeks before her Bloomingdale’s appearance, Ms. Lonstein turned heads at E.A.T., the upscale Madison Avenue eatery that charges $14 for a grilled cheese sandwich. She wore a belted camel coat, jeans, boots, a sweater and not a bit of makeup. Her shiny straight hair was long and natural, and her complexion was flawless. She seemed clearly comfortable in her skin. This is her turf, in the neighborhood where she grew up and went to school. The territory on which she culled the friends with whom she is constantly photographed at parties and mentioned in gossip columns. “I grew up in the city,” Ms. Lonstein said. “I go to parties where there are cameras. I like going out. I like to play. I’m 23. That’s part of my life right now. I don’t regret any of it.” She shrugged.
Ms. Lonstein was a senior at Nightingale-Bamford School, one week shy of 18, when she met Mr. Seinfeld while walking in Central Park. They were together for the next five years, mainly in Los Angeles, where Ms. Lonstein had transferred to U.C.L.A. from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. It was clear Mr. Seinfeld was smitten. “We were very much in love,” he told Vanity Fair last year. “But the timing wasn’t quite right. I almost got married to Shoshanna.” Maybe it wasn’t just the timing. “I don’t want my wife to work,” Mr. Seinfeld told the glossy. “I’ve had enough career for both of us.”
After she graduated from U.C.L.A., Ms. Lonstein considered going into finance. Then she reconsidered. She was sitting in an interview for a banking job and found herself shading the truth. “The guy asked, was I social,” said Ms. Lonstein. “I knew the right answer was No, but it was a tough experience.” She was offered the job, but turned it down. “I really don’t want to be unhappy day-to-day.” She decided to pursue a passion of hers, to design clothes, and began with something she knew a bit about, lingerie. As a woman with a double D bra size, Ms. Lonstein had always had difficulty finding bras and bathing suits that fit well and looked pretty, and would end up having them custom-made. “When you have great underwear on, you feel a little better,” she laughed. “Even when I’m wearing just jeans and a sweater, I like to wear something underneath. I’m definitely a fantasy dresser!”
After apprenticing herself to a lingerie company in the garment district for a year, where she learned about “construction, how to get fabric and howto pick the right kind of elastic,” she branched out into dresses and sportswear, drawing designs with a Magic Marker on a notepad. Then she decided to go out on her own. “I felt if I failed, it was O.K. to fail now,” she said, “when I was young.” So Ms. Lonstein approached her father Zach, an entrepreneur who had started a computer company a year out of college. “My parents are my best friends,” she said, and indeed, she still chooses to live in her folks’ Fifth Avenue apartment. The Lonsteins‚ÄìShoshanna, Zach, her mother Betty and brother David‚Äìspeak to each other at least three times a day. She made her pitch to her dad. “He really didn’t want to give in right away,” said Ms. Lonstein. But Mr. Lonstein decided to give his daughter the bare minimum: rent on a shared showroom and money to produce the line, and he would help pay the salary of an associate.
On the evening of Nov. 23, Zach Lonstein was trying to speak above the pulsating music and voices of the 500 people jammed into Scoop. It was the launch party for Shoshanna. A hook and ladder, lights flashing, was parked on Third Avenue. Standing at a velvet rope on the sidewalk was Lara Shriftman, event publicist of the moment, smiling as “It” girls like the Ronson twins, Samantha and Charlotte, the Boardman sisters, Serena and Samantha, and Aerin Lauder Zinterhoffer passed through. They were followed by rap mogul Russell Simmons (“I think Shoshanna’s clothes are hot”) and his stunning young wife, Kimora Lee Simmons. Mr. Lonstein looked amused. “I never expected this,” he said. “I didn’t think she knew what she didn’t know. About producing it, delivering it. But she was so determined, I thought she deserved a chance. I said, ‘You’ve never had a job.’ She said, “You either. You started your own company.'” Mr. Lonstein looked around him. “I never expected this,” he repeated. “It’s on the racks. It’s in Bloomingdale’s.”
His daughter was backed into a corner, wearing a plunging blue-and-white Liberty print bustier and matching long skirt. The outfit clung to her every curve. Ms. Lonstein’s boyfriend Jay Aston, a handsome 24-year-old investment banker, stayed close by. As friends approached, Ms. Lonstein gave each her trademark wide smile. She looked dazed, but happy.
Stefani Greenfield, Scoop’s owner, was ecstatic. “We talked about this at a dinner party in July, and I cannot believe she did all this,” she said. “She’s amazing. People like Shoshanna who are so down-to-earth are the ones who truly will have longevity. She was stuffing the gift bags the night before my party with my staff! She’s come into the store four to five times both uptown and downtown to help customers …”
Ms. Greenfeld looked at the Shoshanna-clad models who were circulating. “There’s a certain frivolity around this product,” she said. “It’s girlie, it’s fun and the price point is phenomenal. People aren’t just buying one, they’re buying two and three! We’ve sold almost 70 percent of purchase product in just under three weeks.”
As the party wound down, people left clutching gingham gift bags (Altoids, rhinestone hair clip, bath stuff …) The firetruck was gone, the streets quiet. Zach Lonstein looked at his daughter. “She always just wanted to win,” he said. “She hated to be told she couldn’t do something.”