The Colgate Scene
January 2002

Jon Kaufman has got the button


"It's going to be expensive because there is genuine horn in it. Does it need to be dyed or anything? Good enough."

Jon Kaufman '91 is on the phone, selling buttons. His apartment just south of New York City's Garment Center is also his company's headquarters and houses an extensive library of card samples, from coconut buttons that sell for a nickel to glass baubles that cost $6 apiece.

"I sell buttons wholesale to clothing manufacturers," says Kaufman, who dashes off to retrieve the enormous "button suitcase" that he somehow manages to tote along while riding the "button bike" to appointments with designers.

"They might call to say they are working on a line and ask me to bring something appropriate for fall, and I'll show them a book of buckles."

The designer might see something interesting, order a small number and incorporate the fasteners into showroom samples.

Department store buyers then inspect the wares, and if they place an order for a suit that has, say, five buttons, Kaufman might land an order for 50,000 units.

Buttons have been in the family since 1920 when Kaufman's grandfather, who was an accountant, saw there was more money in sales than ciphering. Murray Blitz became something of a legend in the Garment Center, selling buttons until he was 97. Kaufman's father sold buttons, too, but Jon's only real exposure to the business was trying to keep up with his dad's big steps as they made rounds together on school holidays.

After Colgate, Kaufman "lived on the cheap in Georgia trying to make art." The experiment didn't pan out and he returned to New York, where he worked with his father for a year and then started his own business. That was nearly 10 years ago.

"The process of building my own client base really was starting at the top of a building with a pocket full of business cards and knocking on doors trying to get the name of a designer and make an appointment."

The button business has been in strong decline for three decades. In the '70s, cotton and natural fibers were considered high end, and the button was traditionally the essential element in making a garment stand out. Since then, as synthetic fibers have evolved, rayons and polyesters are primary and buttons play a less prominent role.

"What what once went `pow' now blends in.

"The whole Garment Center is hurting," says Kaufman. "Clothing is being made in package deals overseas. There is just no production in the United States."

Despite the obstacles, Kaufman likes what he does. "I like it very much. `Buttons' is not something I thought about doing, but the salesmanship of it feels comfortable. It runs in the veins and has been part of the male tradition of the family for 70 years."

Kaufman's grandfather, who died six months after his last sale, lived to see his grandson in the business.

"He got a real charge out of seeing me race around."

The industry is "exciting" to Kaufman, who is hard pressed to think of another business with a greater mix of gender and age. There are pattern makers who have been cutting cloth for 60 years, designers young and old and women in lofty and influential positions.

"People from all over the world are involved in this."

When he isn't fielding cell phone calls while pedaling across 34th Street, Kaufman is producing Jonny McGovern, a gay performer whose one-man show Dirty Stuff rocked off-off-Broadway.

"There is a close link been the theater and the Garment Center," says Kaufman, "and a long tradition of businessmen backing plays."

Kaufman calls his involvement "the process of taking a raw piece of material and polishing it while investing in better costumes, better lights, better music."

The show garnered "superlative responses" and piqued the interest of impresario Mark Russell, who has offered McGovern space at PS 122, a school that was converted into a theater. McGovern's main persona is the "Gay Pimp," a super-heroish strong man totally comfortable with his otherness.

"The appeal for me as a non-gay male is the strength of the character. And it's funny -- unsentimental and politically incorrect."

There is much to do, perfect for Kaufman's energy level.

"We are at such a starting point, I do a lot of the footwork." That means in addition to writing grants and fundraising, Kaufman auditions "go-go boys," works on a clothing line and is delving into the labyrinth of forming a corporation.

"It's a very interesting ball of wax that is so much fun, and I really believe in the work. I'm learning so much and dealing with people I would never know in the button business. I'm very comfortable with my non-gayness, but I love this distinct culture. What a wonderful distraction."

The phone rings. Again.

"I left a message with Fanny. You should have your buttons Thursday. They are leaving Italy today."

Jon Kaufman sounds hardly stressed -- happy, even, as the conversation concludes.

"One of the great pleasures of doing something for 10 years is that you establish relationships and with hard times, those relationships keep you."

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