I. What Did the Silkworms Eat the Morning They Spun the Silk for Mary Boone’s Pajamas?
When shade-sensitive art dealer Mary Boone was in East Hampton last summer, she bought a delicate pair of sky-blue silk pajamas for $225 at Bonne Nuit, a boutique in town. Mary Boone is reported to be a perfectionist; she says so herself. So when she needed her PJ’s cleaned, she took them to Madame Paulette on Second Avenue and East 65th Street, generally considered the No. 1 class-act dry cleaner in Manhattan by dint of its attention to detail; a dry cleaner where Calvin Klein has his sheets hand-pressed; who has the trust of designers Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld, Donna Karan and clients like Henry Kravis, a few Newhouses and Bette Midler; where a silk shirt costs $13 to $70 to clean; and where Mary Boone has been a client for 17 years.
When she got her Bonne Nuit sky-blue silk pajamas back from Madame Paulette, only the pants were still sky-blue. The top, to Mary Boone’s horror, was ivory.
John Mahdessian, vice president of Madame Paulette, immediately sent the pajamas to be analyzed by Daniel Eisen, chief analyst at the Neighborhood Drycleaners Association, a sort of forensics expert for the dry cleaning industry, who does work for the likes of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mr. Mahdessian knew, he said, that he had done nothing wrong. He was sure that the analysis, which takes about two weeks, would prove it was the manufacturer’s fault.
Normally, Mr. Mahdessian calls clients if a problem arises, including color change, but Ms. Boone’s top was so perfectly ivory that instead of looking damaged, the pajamas looked like a two-color set. Meanwhile, Lorna Moloney, the owner of Bonne Nuit, said she reordered Ms. Boone’s pajamas as soon as she heard the terrible news. Unfortunately, the custom-made pajamas came from Germany, so it would take more than three weeks for them to travel to East Hampton.
This is not an unusual occurrence in the land of gourmet dry cleaning. The combination of neurotic New Yorker and perfectionist dry cleaner is nearly lethal. They bring out the worst in each other. Nobody can ever be wrong; no one can ever be satisfied. Some New Yorkers, convinced all New York dry cleaners are incompetent, send their garments to Paris, others to Los Angeles. In response, the proud dry cleaners become walking publicists: They brag, they drop names, they steam and press the truth. Something about a dry cleaner provokes either closeness or conflict with a New York customer.
In telephone interviews, Ms. Boone, Mr. Mahdessian and Ms. Moloney each declared that the pajama drama was no trauma. They each contended that the top-and-bottom disparity was resolved sans glitches. However, according to rumors floating around the small world of top dry cleaners in Manhattan, Ms. Boone, alarmed at the state of her pajamas and provoked by the waiting period for either a new pair or her old analyzed pajamas, began to bad-mouth Madame Paulette all over town, even reportedly considered switching dry cleaners. Ms. Boone avoided conflict: “Everything has been resolved,” she said, “and I am very happy with my 17-year relationship with them. I find them extremely responsible, conscientious and always very willing to work things out. In any kind of relationship that is long-term, there are going to be accidents that happen, there might even be a question about who is at fault. Being in the service business myself, I understand this.”
And Ms. Boone denied denigrating Madame Paulette. “I didn’t call any places to tell them,” she said. “I am a perfectionist, and people call me and ask where to have things done. A lot of people ask my advice about places to go.” She also denied trying to switch her business to Meurice Garment Care on University Place between Eighth and Ninth streets. “There was never a question,” she said, “of going elsewhere.”
“We knew it was someone’s fault, and we knew it wasn’t Mary Boone’s fault,” said Ms. Moloney of Bonne Nuit. “She assumed that it was the dry cleaner’s fault. From what I understand with silk, it has a lot to do with what the worms were eating that day and how long the dye was set to hold.”
Mr. Mahdessian, backed by practically everybody who is anybody in New York and wears clothes, said, “If you can keep a lady like Mary Boone happy, I think it is safe to say you can keep anyone happy.”
On March 24, Daniel Eisen delivered his verdict. Mr. Mahdessian, he determined, had done no wrong. “There was no damage from bleaching or anything chemical, or mishandling,” he said. “There was uniformly lost color. It was our opinion that the set was made with two different fabrics, one of which was soluble in dry cleaning fluid.” He recommended that Bonne Nuit share the cost. “The store didn’t want to. Madame Paulette wanted to resolve it, right or wrong. The store wanted to send it to another lab. It was really frustrating for the customer, and I couldn’t blame her. But she is not to pick who is to blame. We are. She is only to be satisfied, and she is not to walk into a store to say, ‘Well, I think it is the cleaners.’ She is not a fabric expert.”
But Mr. Eisen! You leave out a crucial clue! What of Ms. Moloney’s worm theory?
“The worms eating is so ridiculous,” he said. “It is not true. What does a person know what the worms ate. What intelligent person would accept that? That is silly. “
II. Who Are the Only Three Dry Cleaners in Manhattan?
The three most upper-crust dry cleaners in Manhattan-Madame Paulette, Meurice Garment Care on University Place and on East 57th Street, and Hallak on Second Avenue and 65th Street-consider their work as elevated to the level of art. The competitors share more than a few clients. Madame Paulette claims Roberta Flack, Sting, Liza Minnelli, Marvin Hamlisch, various Kennedys, the Rockefellers, Connie Chung, Adrienne Vittadini, Vera Wang, Hermès, Pilar Rossi and stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Henri Bendel and Bloomingdale’s.
Meurice’s clients include Dolce & Gabbana, Escada, Max Mara, TSE Cashmere, Bogner, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Badgley Mischka, Isaac Mizrahi, Armani and Prada. And individual clients? “I always joke that I have more dirt on celebrities than The National Enquirer ,” said Wayne Edelman of Meurice, “but we provide a very intimate service, and we have a very intimate relationship with these people. I don’t quote. I don’t say who. I think it is an invasion of privacy.”
John Hallak and his brother Joe Hallak Jr. are second-generation dry cleaners who “don’t kiss and tell. It’s too high-profile a list of names to tell.” Their corporate clients include: Searle, Armani, Celine, St. John, Hermès, Henri Bendel, Versace. He has done museum work “from the Met on down.”
“If someone is unhappy with me, they go to Paulette,” said Mr. Edelman. “If you compare computer databases, you will find that there are some customers who remain loyal and some clients who bounce around. You can save someone 100 times over 10 years, and then you lose one Chanel button and it’s over.”
“Clients float around and store managers change,” said John Hallak. “There is a revolving-door policy.” These aren’t dry cleaners-they’re spas for your clothes. They have been known to purloin clients by underpricing each other and the other ritzy dry cleaners in town-Ernest Winzer in the Bronx, Dunrite in the garment district and two Upper East Side addresses, Fashion Award Cleaners and Jeeves of Belgravia. “It is all customer service,” said Mr. Hallak. “At our end of the market, people aren’t shopping price. They are looking for someone who is going to anticipate problems. The goods are treated like they are members of the family.”
All of these cleaners pick your clothes up and drop them off, no matter where you are. They’ll ship your clothes: They have clients in Israel, Saudi Arabia, South America. How much does it cost to have a dry cleaner who is so devoted to serving you that he can walk through a factory, see a suit and know that it is yours? “At least $500 a month,” said Mr. Mahdessian, “but we have clients who spend over $1,000 or $2,000.”
At Meurice, a family can spend $250 a week on average. Wayne Edelman has a couple who are “good for $200 a week,” and some single people who spend up to $150 a week. But the clothes often dictate the price. “If you walk in with an Ann Taylor suit, it’s not going to cost the same as a Chanel suit,” said John Hallak. “If you get a suit that you know is $5,000 retail, you just have to be more careful, they really get a going-over.”
III. Nan Kempner Says, ‘Take Your Stuff to Paris to Have It Cleaned!’
The competition for the big three dry cleaners is work done in Paris.
Nan Kempner, Susan Gutfreund and Anne Bass all send things “to Paris.” Oh, they’ve tried the New York dry cleaners. In fact, all three dry cleaners claim Anne Bass has been a client at one point or another. Mrs. Bass used to go to Madame Paulette until the crepe dress incident in 1995.
Mrs. Bass bought the dress in Paris from Yves Saint Laurent’s autumn-winter 1991-1992 haute-couture collection. It was white. It cost $18,000. She sent it to Madame Paulette. It came back gray. So Anne Bass filed a lawsuit in Civil Court in Manhattan against Madame Paulette. She was represented by Sullivan & Cromwell. In the suit, Mrs. Bass claims that the dress had been extensively damaged while in Madame Paulette’s care. “The white crepe of the dress had become gray and the drapery folds of the style were totally erased,” she claimed in the court papers. She even took her dress back to Yves Saint Laurent in Paris. They were unable to restore the damage to the dress. Mrs. Bass was reluctant to speak with The Observer about the case. “The case has been quiet pending settlement discussions,” she said, “but it will be resumed if the discussions are not satisfactory.”
Mr. Mahdessian was similarly reluctant. He had already given his deposition; Mrs. Bass has yet to give hers. “Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to speak personally with Mrs. Bass,” he said. “If I had, I feel confident I could have personally resolved this issue without such extreme measures. Even though I have always felt confident about the facts regarding this matter, I still feel bad about losing a customer.” For now, when Mrs. Bass is in New York, which is not that often, she sends things to Meurice, with whom, she says, she is “not dissatisfied.” She has used Hallak when Meurice wasn’t acceptable.
Still, Mrs. Bass sends her nicer things to Paris. She is in Paris often enough and when she isn’t, she ships things. “They are very reliable about packing things.”
Susan Gutfreund has had “such nightmare stories” that she doesn’t dry-clean in New York City. “I have a wonderful little old lady just across the street from our house in Paris,” she said. “It is much cheaper and much better. It makes sense.” She is in Paris “often enough.” So for the last 12 years, the Gutfreund family has been sticking their dry cleaning in empty suitcases and bringing it to Paris. She would not say which New York dry cleaner ruined her clothes. “If I don’t have anything positive to say,” said Ms. Gutfreund, “I don’t like to say it.”
Nan Kempner wasn’t naming names, either. “Oh. I’ve tried them all!” she said. “Take your stuff to Paris to have it cleaned!” Which items exactly does she take to Paris? “Well, I take, you know, mainly white silk and organdy things; if you have them cleaned here, they turn out either limp, yellow or like a dishcloth. There are several places that I use in Paris.” But none in New York. “They are all about the same here. They are not very good. It’s like going to a specialist. I have yet to find the magic cleaner here.”
Why Paris ? One socialite explained that Paris is the only place where clothing is understood. One of the things that makes couture beautiful, she said, is that they roll a hem-like curling your hair-and most American dry cleaners don’t understand it. In Paris, they would never press a hem like a lapel. They don’t destroy fabrics, said the socialite, they know how to press a chiffon dress so that if it is cut on the bias, it comes out the right way.
Certain things should not be steamed. Velvet should be pressed on a board with pins. Parisian dry cleaners, she believes, are craftsmen. And the socialite says they are more expensive but doesn’t think the prices are “unreasonable” for what they do to the clothes. “Every square inch is done by hand.” She asked around every couture house in Paris to come up with the two best dry cleaners: Teinturie de l’Étoile and Delatorte.
IV. L.A. Laundry
But there are some New Yorkers who don’t send their dry cleaning to Paris. They prefer Los Angeles.
Elizabeth Saltzman, fashion director at Vanity Fair , acknowledged, “Everyone has their dry cleaning story.” Her dry cleaning patterns: “I think I spend most of my paycheck on dry cleaning!” Where does the money go? “It’s a toss-up. If it is something I love, I use Fashion Award. We use Madame Paulette sometimes from work. I am one of those people who travels so much, you end up giving your stuff to the hotels and you forget what a dry cleaner can do until your favorite dress comes back shiny. There is a joke in the lobby of my building, ‘Oh, Elizabeth must be in town because there are two racks of dry cleaning in the lobby!’ My big thing is, I need it and I need it now. Dry cleaning is a funny thing. Everyone teases me, boyfriends specifically. They say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ when they see my dry cleaning bill. ‘That is more than your rent!’ No one can accuse me of being a high-maintenance girl; I am a high dry-cleaning girl.”
Ms. Saltzman has a favorite place in Los Angeles, Holloway on Holloway Drive. “They really understand time constraints. You know, I need this in an hour and they do it, and they don’t charge you $50.”
Dermatologist-of-the-famous Pat Wexler confessed on the car phone that she is a “nut” about dry cleaning. She brings her dry cleaning in from Long Island every day. “I have been to every top cleaner. There is one place called 184 Lexington that is meticulous.” She is indebted to them. One time she was in an airport waiting for her luggage. She was tired of standing so she sat on the luggage belt. When the belt began to move, it left a large tarlike black stripe across the bottom of her new white Donna Karan cashmere sweater. She said the cleaner “made it like new.”
Merle Ginsberg, the bicoastal entertainment editor of W magazine, is “not loyal to a city and not loyal to a dry cleaner.” Lately when in New York, she has taken to trying neighborhood places. “For some reason, the meaner they are to me-there’s one woman on 19th and Second who is really, really mean; she is always telling me I brought things in too late or I came back too soon for them-the more I like them. It’s weird. It’s kind of the same way I am with men. The reason I am loyal to no dry cleaner is the reason I’m not loyal to any man, either-I can’t find one that is particularly better than the rest or particularly worth it.” In Los Angeles, she said, dry cleaning is cheaper, quick and courteous. “I try to kind of save up stuff and bring it to L.A.”
V. Stay put, madame ! The Day Norma Kamali Spilled Red Wine on a White Couch
“We cater to high-profile, quality-conscious people,” said Mr. Mahdessian. “We send all of our customers their own pickup bags,” he said. Once a garment is in their hands, they examine it, take notes. “We do a first examination … then we do another before we clean.… Does it need to be hand-dipped? We get a lot of unserviceable garments. But can we clean it? We call clients, ‘We found a cigarette burn and we want to a make sure you are aware of it before we wash it.’ Then there is a post-cleaning examination. We spot again, we put buttons back on, we depill, we groom … Then everything is hand-finished, steamed, hand-pressed. Then we stuff every garment like you are wearing it.”
But what if something comes in that, for whatever reason, just can’t be cleaned? They’ll figure out how to clean it. In fact, Mr. Mahdessian, who has been in the business for 40 years, has recently been hired by Chubb Insurance Company as an expert for all home water- and fire-damage claims.
Norma Kamali once called Mr. Mahdessian on her cellular phone from a white couch in a Madison Avenue cafe. She had just spilled red wine all over it. He told her to stay put. Moments later, he whirled in, Super Dry Cleaning Man, removed the stain, received a standing ovation and departed, handing out business cards in his wake. Or what about the time “someone” brought him a “trashed” $10,000 wedding dress that had been worn down the slopes in Aspen? He made it look brand-new. “I like a challenge,” he said. “You know, if you have one time to do it right-it’s like surgery.”
Mr. Edelman just did a Prada beaded dress that was labeled, “Do not dry clean.” “It not only had beads on it that are not cleanable, but they are using … what is that stuff? The dental dams? The lesbians are using it for oral sex? Latex! They are using latex! It had to be completely handled by hand.” It cost 75 bucks for that latex dress. Another time, he cleaned a $60,000 Armani gown made for Anna Wintour. “I charged $750 to clean it, which for them it was O.K. Anyone off the street for a $60,000 dress, it would have been $1,500.”
John Hallak cleaned Mariah Carey’s Vera Wang wedding dress for around $1,200-not that it matters anymore-even though Vera Wang is one of Madame Paulette’s most quoted clients. It had a 35-foot cathedral train. “It was probably the most elaborate wedding gown that we ever did, almost like what you would see in a royal wedding. It was in a few different boxes because it was a multipiece ensemble. We cleaned it three times. Once was for the wedding, then there was a separate photo shoot, and it was used for the one-year anniversary.”
What about the client who brought in an $18,000 Chanel black lizard handbag with a solid gold chain? “We put it in the safe and called the insurance agency!”
How about when Liz Claiborne had 25,000 dresses with a static problem? “We ran 24-hour crews for six days to complete that job.”
And what do the dry cleaners complain about?
The manufacturers. Every garment, by law, must have a care label. But there are no fines for incorrect care labels. Manufacturers make 5,000 pieces; if they get 50 back, it’s all figured into their costs. John Hallak has had designers come to him and ask him to test fabrics. “There isn’t enough of it going on,” he said. “We have an open invitation to anyone that we will test fabric at no charge.” Mr. Edelman said that all Hugo Boss suits are made with inferior buttons. “They crack. I’ve made the phone calls to Hugo Boss. I think that most manufacturers have such a poor idea of dry cleaners, they are just not receptive.”
Mr. Edelman said that designers at Armani and Isaac Mizrahi have asked for his advice. He said that designers should just label their clothes, “Send directly to Meurice.” He meant it.