WRITTEN BY PHYLLIS HOFFMAN DePIANO
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JACQUELINE BISHOP
Click here for a PDF of this article, as featured in the Summer 2022 issue of Classic Sewing.
Mr. Herbert Halpern makes sewing wishes come true at his exquisite shop. It is a dream destination for sewists who love beautiful fabric.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, I STROLLED INTO A QUAINT LITTLE FABRIC STORE ON ST. CHARLES STREET IN NEW ORLEANS. When I opened the door, it was if I was transported to a magical world of sewing. I was not expecting this overwhelming collection of exquisite sewing fabric from all over the world. Meandering through and trying to take it all in was overwhelming. How could one shop contain the dream materials of sewists all over the world? Around each turn was surprise after surprise. Buttons from all over the world. Ribbons so fine, you just wanted to stare. What a find!
I would frequent this store every time I was in New Orleans, always purchasing fabric, buttons, and ribbons for a special outfit. This past month, my visit was to interview this adorable man who owns the shop and always has encouraging words for all who entered—Mr. Herbert Halpern, proprietor. He is a true gentleman, businessman, and witty character who makes your visit there delightful.
Mr. Halpern, how did Promenade Fine Fabrics begin?
I was raised in the family fabric business since I was a small child, so the knowledge and experience was there firsthand. Later, I worked with my brother, who had 28 stores all over the South. I didn’t like the grueling, constant travel, so I decided to open a kitchen shop in San Francisco. At the last minute, I decided against that when I realized it was better to stay home in New Orleans and open my own fabric store. I opened Promenade Fine Fabrics in 1968 on my birthday. I should mention that my father, Max Halpern, opened his first fabric store in New Orleans in 1937 with high-quality weaves from Europe, which is obviously how I was introduced to the textile world. Both my sons left their earlier careers of law and investment to enter the fabric business as well. Cole operates the Promenade Fabrics online business, and Dane has his own upholstery fabric business called BackRoom Fabrics, a physical shop and online presence.
What is your favorite part of the business?
Helping people with their projects.
How do you go about selecting fabrics for the store?
I only knew the high-end industry and had so many friends in New York who introduced me to fabric cuts from designers in Europe and the US. So, selecting fabrics meant it would have to be the best weaves and fabrics. For years I traveled to New York frequently and hand-picked everything.
Who is your typical customer? Where do most of your customers reside?
None of my customers are typical. They are all special with their own visions and projects and reside all over the world. Regular customers are local, regional, and national.
Do you ship fabrics?
Yes, we ship all over the world.
What is your greatest success in business?
I feel the greatest success in my business is simply being able to continue to provide a high-quality couture aesthetic for my community and beyond for 54 years, even with many obstacles. It has become a generational business.
Your buttons and ribbon collections are outstanding. Where do you find these?
The buttons are from France, Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, etc. The ribbon is from France, Switzerland, the United States, and Japan.
How much of your business is related to Mardi Gras? Weddings? Everyday garment sewing?
Every day in business is unpredictable. It encompasses everything from Mardi Gras ball gowns in New Orleans, Lafayette, and Mobile to elaborate Mardi Gras costumes and the Mardi Gras Indians. It includes over-the-top Halloween costumes and bridal parties, including mothers of the bride and groom, and flower girls. We have assisted with judge’s robes and lawyer’s suits.
Our celebrity clients are as varied as operatic soprano Beverly Sills, Margaret Thatcher, and Phyllis Diller, who mentioned us on the Johnny Carson show. I had to be told who Sylvester Stallone, Lindsey Lohan, and Angelina Jolie are. I dressed our friend and music star Allen Toussaint for 40 years for the stage. We’ve also worked with Sara Vaughn, Bryan Batt, and Big Freedia Queen of Bounce, who did her reality show in Promenade.
We have always worked with film industry costume designers and did nearly daily work with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and later with “American Horror Story,” where our delicate black French Chantilly lace was covered with blood. Kathy Bates became a regular customer and wore our designer silk charmeuse in Los Angeles to collect her Emmy. “American Horror Story” received an Emmy on costumes, utilizing fabric from Promenade. We are currently working on 10 films being made in New Orleans, all of which are fantastic, especially the “Interview with a Vampire” TV series, on which Anne Rice was a consultant until she died. We’ve worked with a few “Project Runway” contestants and university fashion design departments, drama departments, and the Marigny Opera Ballet of New Orleans.
What is the most challenging part of being in business today?
The most challenging part of business today is COVID-19, finding fabric, and staying healthy.
Describe the types of fabric one could expect to find in your store.
We have vintage cracked ice, French lace, 50-year-old silk satin from Italy, velvet burnout, and vintage German cotton velvet in jewel tones. We have 50 types of wool from England, France, Italy, and Scotland, such as cavalry twill, mohair, alpaca, tweed, cashmere, bouclé, coating, melton, suiting, vicuña, gabardine, flannel, crepe, silk, and wool. Many of our fabrics are designer. We have 50 types of silk, and that is how many are made. We have satin, chiffon, charmeuse, crepe de chine, organza, 4-ply crepe, gazar, shantung, dupioni, taffeta, and faille. We have linen from Italy and Ireland, cotton from all over the world, knits, sweater knits, denims, corduroy, seersucker, piqué, eyelet, and challis. We also have beaded and lace trims, vintage embellishments, and vintage patterns.
Promenade Fine Fabrics is a destination for luxury sewing. The shop is steeped in history and filled with glorious items. The heartbeat of this shop is Herbert Halpern. Meeting this fine Southern gentleman and sharing the love of fine sewing with him is an experience that will be forever in my memory. I am already looking forward to my next visit!—Phyllis
Promenade Fabrics, 1520 St. Charles Street, New Orleans, LA 70130
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Classic Sewing magazine: