One hundred and seventy-five passengers disembarked flight 613 from Omaha to New York’s Laguardia Airport. It was a cold November in Omaha and an even colder one in New York. Most wore Canada Goose, North Face, K2. Some had on Eddie Bauer or Lands End. All had carry-ons and second carry-ons pretending to be personal items. One man crossed the threshold from the jetway to the gate wearing a real overcoat, London Fog, and donned a snappy gray fedora on his way to the airport exit, bypassing the luggage carousel altogether. He was tall and stood like he was tall, clear-eyed and saw clearly. He had the look of a man returned from the dead and ready to breathe the air and watch kids risk their necks on their skateboards. He easily spotted the sign his driver was holding up: “Morris Lapidus – Tree & Holler Agency.” The sign wasn’t necessary after all, driver and passenger recognized each other immediately.
Moe led with a joke. “Seventh Avenue, driver, and step on it!”
“Welcome back to New York, Mr. Lapidus. Been a while, hasn’t it?”
“Too long, Tom. Still driving? And what’s this Mr. Lapidus stuff? Call me Moe. Got any dirt on what’s going on? They just Fedexed me a check for $300,000 and a plane ticket.”
“They called me out of retirement too for this, Miste… um, Moe. I got a hint from a girl at reception, she’s still too new to know not to blab. Real sugar pie, though. Supposed to be a dress. A real special dress she says.”
“Hmm… I can get a dress sold. But so can they. What’s special about it?”
“Ever hear of a dress that needed batteries?”
Tom took the Grand Central to the BQE to the Long Island Expressway. Moe was smiling as he took in the (mostly) familiar skyline.
“That’s the new one, Tom, isn’t it? Fits in better with the rest of the skyline. Chrysler Building, Empire State, Freedom Tower, Woolworth Building. They all came to a point at the top. The Twin Towers never really fit in, did they? Two big cardboard shirt-boxes.”
“They were the past, boss. They tell me T&H is the future. Let’s get you back home.”
Tom drove into the Queens Midtown Tunnel and out of it to Manhattan, fighting his way across town to what used to be the Garment District. The Tree & Holler building was midway between Times Square and Macy’s, reflecting its history of getting the rag de jour into stores and sold. An Honor Guard of sorts awaited Tom’s limo. They ushered Morris in and Selwyn, who had to be pushing 75 and had been a bosun in the Navy, piped him aboard.
Jerry Frank, current CEO who had just made EVP before Moe headed out to—literally—pasture, shook Moe’s hand and stole him away from the gawkers for a private meeting before the scheduled executive lunch.
“So what’s cooking, Jer? Everyone looks really busy. Lots of irons in the fire?”
“You wouldn’t believe. We’re promoting Space! Imagine that. People will pay $250,000 for a trip to the top of the atmosphere. A quarter mil, Moe, for basically a roller coaster ride. We find ‘em and hook ‘em. And the drugs! Do you have any idea how many diseases there are? How many diseases people have that they’re walking around not knowing it? And do you know how easy it is to get approval now? You see the commercials out there in corn country? Sexy little voices saying side effects may include suicidal thoughts and tendencies? That’s us! And it works out to be double business. For every one of those snake-oil medicines, some number of people are gonna die, and then we get to market the class action law suits. What do they call that, a positive feedback loop?”
“So what’s this about a dress, Jer?”
“Did you have to pull out Tom’s fingernails with pliers to get him to talk? Or did he crack right away? Don’t answer that. We brought him back to be your guide pony. Familiar face. The little black dress. We brought you back because of the Cold Fusion Skirt from 1983. You’re getting a do-over on that. This time, hopefully, without the arrests.”
The T&H executive dining room had a 120 degree view, the excitement of Times Square, the tranquility of the Hudson, and the mad crush of Herald Square. The table was set like The Last Supper, everyone on one side. Moe smiled at the tablecloth, amazingly still in use today. Maybe the execs hated each other too much to have much use for a table cloth for twenty diners. It was an actual dress pattern, the San Mateo villager-style dress. It was the dress with the biggest sales numbers of any Tree & Holler pushed garment. A placard with Jerry’s name was at the middle seat, Moe’s to his right. It looked like there would be a floor show. Lunch was catered from Abigael’s; there had been a kosher resurgence in what was left of the rag trade. Moe went for a sushi platter and quipped that Omaha was not known for its fish. He took in the table, the buffet, the people, the scene.
“Ya know,” Moe opened with, “I used to eat lunch every day at La Cava. I saw it wasn’t there anymore. I would always say hi to the co-owner of LillyTogs. Ordered the same thing every day, a steak, rare, and fries. Every day he would cut off a little piece of his steak and shove it over to the side of his plate. After five years of that, I finally asked him what it was all about, some Litvak tradition or something or was that area of the steak always too fatty or not rare enough? He told me that every day at noon he would tell his partner he was leaving for lunch, and every day his partner would say ‘I hope you choke on the first bite.’”
That engendered a good mix of groans and chuckles, one of the old-timers, maybe Beverly, said the Canarsee Indians were walking down Broadway the first time that joke was told. Eventually the company was properly sated and slaked and in the mood for some entertainment. Jerry did not disappoint. A runway model flounced into the room wearing, of course, a little black dress. The garment remained black but its opacity cycled between 100% and 20%. Looking closely, Moe could see the MSNBC news crawl at the dress’s waist cinch. Okay. An apple watch that’s a dress. For this they brought him back? It was a little unnerving seeing the model go from Italian Widow to a full view of her boobs.
Jerry stood up, holding a glass of champagne in one hand and a fork to tap on it with the other. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the world’s first ‘Smart Dress.’ In default mode, it’s a basic black cocktail dress. The string of what look like pearls controls functionality. The opacity of any zone could be precisely adjusted, from fully opaque to transparent. It could play videos. Videos with chyrons! Watch this!” Jerry seemed genuinely enthused, as opposed to the usual painted-on smile Moe remembered. The dress showed long-horn sheep gamboling around ‘the mountains.’ So to speak. Jerry went on.
“Not only does it have visual effects, get a load of this.” Morris had already been getting a load of the model. He read the trades every once in a while and he knew about the shopper-shaped model trend. It was a good idea and the model, a “real” woman, looked fabulous. Moe assumed it hadn’t been tried before because there would be nothing you could torture and threaten the supposed-to-be-anorexic girls with. Jerry snapped his fingers and the model stood still. Her butt pitched up by about 15 degrees, as did her boobs, maybe by a few degrees more. Her belly started to flatten and it looked like she lost two or three inches at her waist. That got everyone’s attention. A girl with one of those shmatehs didn’t need a bra or spanx. Or silicon. High or low or both.
Fanny Melzer rose from her seat at the south end of the table. She did the slow-clapping thing. Very dramatic. People had been counting the Mimosas she’d had with lunch. After the sixth clap after the sixth mimosa, she was locked and loaded. For bear. Or for Morris, as it turned out.
“I’ve seen it all. Done it all. Done THEM all, and fuck the #MeToo crybabies. Hot Pants. The Wet Look. Wide-Wale Corduroy, for Christ’s fucking sake. Some you win. Some you lose. But the Cold Fusion skirt was born to sing the blues. Brought to the market by our old and dear friend Mr. Morris Lapidus. We cycle through this every year. We make them show their legs, show their tits, show their pupiks, anything to get a rise out of a guy. And when I say rise. You know. But whose bright idea was it to go with a skirt that physically gives a guy a boner if he gets close to it? What did this agent of Satan, Morris Lapidus, have on you people? Sandy, what, were you fucking goats? Did he have pictures? I can see some of you younger folks don’t remember this. The manufacturer designed a skirt with piezo crystals in the waistband and some rare-earth element, Didymium, not even a real element, in the threads. The current runs through the threads and sends out a field that—get this, I had to Google it—stimulates the guy’s Cavernous Nerve. Jesus Christ! A cavernous nerve! On a dance floor, if a guy got too close to the rear end of girl wearing one of those, boy, howdy! Hello! And Jerry, why did you put me on his misbegotten team? What were the legal fees and damages we had to pay for that? And we want to give this project to the guy who almost sank us?” She was breathing hard and Norm had to get her back in her chair and subtly move the un-emptied glasses out of reach.
And then all hell broke loose. Jerry’s secretary burst into the room, grabbed the remote for the 100-inch TV and turned it to channel 7. David Muir must have been near the GMA Day set. He was on-screen explaining that Harley Peterson had slashed his wrists in the middle of an interview. Muir was blabbing about how lucky it was that Camera 3 was an emergency medical tech and probably saved Peterson’s life. Peterson had been the spokesman for Ambrosichor, which, when it came out, had been the supposed new, new thing for depressions of all sorts. It came out as generic two years ago. Jerry blew the bike whistle he apparently still kept in his pocket.
“All hands on deck. I want everyone on the phone with a lawyer to run the class-action suit campaign. First one to lock down a shyster gets a six-month salary bonus. Morris, I’m sorry, but you’re on your own for the dress. Wait. Take Fanny with you. You’ve worked together before. It worked out the other way around. There was a mad dash out of the executive dining room and toward the nearest rolodexes, paper or electronic. Morris and Fanny were left to admire the view.
“What a revolting development,” Fanny quoted. Morris took in her body language and facial hue before quoting back.
“This could be the beginning of beautiful friendship.” At least they shared a common idiom. Left to there own devices, they had a free hand in building the campaign. They started from scratch. Moe bought into Fanny’s brilliant tag line for TV spots: “See Me.” As in “See Me in Paris” or “See Me in Soho” with the model running through the dress cycles in whatever location. The focus group component didn’t work out that well.
“The focus groups are a problem,” Morris admitted.
“What’s the problem with them? They’re supposed to represent the whole country. Hmm. I think I answered my own question.”
“Everyone loves it when the model comes into the room wearing it, demonstrating it. But it takes about three focus groups to get a woman to volunteer to try one on. When we collect enough women who tried it on, we run another group just with them. The problem isn’t modesty, it’s the instruction manual.”
Again, Fanny came to the rescue. Moe had been in Nebraska when the trend-setters movement started both on Seventh Avenue and Madison Avenue. She explained the concept, went over the way marketing worked with Facebook, Instagram, even Tinder or Grindr. Moe approved their own funding for three social media “stars” as well as six B-listers to visit the hotspot bars and clubs wearing the Little Black Dress. Fanny then explained what a pop-up shop was.
With momentum building and the project on track, the two old hands took a lunch break and shared a sandwich at Ben’s. Sharing a Ben’s sandwich meant each party would wind up with about two normal sandwiches’ worth of food. Fanny googled Weight Watchers points and found out that one Ben’s corned beef sandwich was 140 points. Ben quipped that they should get the leftovers on a plane to Eritria.
“Fanny, you know, you’re the one really running the show on this project. I just smile and look wise. But you can’t stand me and you can’t stand the idea of women buying clothes that make men want to jump them immediately.”
“I was drunk, Moishe. I always liked you. You were the Parsifal of Seventh Avenue. Even when cold fusion blew its top, I still liked and admired you. I felt lost when you took off. But it doesn’t matter if I like you or not. It’s our collective asses on the line.”
“How do you mean, kidd-o?
“You know that Tom can’t keep his mouth shut, right? Remember last Thursday we were working late? Tom dropped you off and then took me home? Bonehead always wanted to show off how much he knew. Cure-U Pharma is willing to invest in the generic class action suit against the maker of the generic Ambrosichor. They’ll get a cut of recoveries and they’ll have the generic outfits taken down a peg. Money will be flying out of everyone’s sphincters. Except ours. We’re not on the project. If we don’t have anything going with the Little Black Dress, well, how many quarters do you have for Social Security?”
Moe took that in as stoically enlightened as he took in everything. He doubled down, got to work, and plucked a marketing tool from when, as they say in the Garment District, there were dinosaurs on Seventh Avenue. The 25 words or less contest. Anyone following any of the LBD social media pitchwomen got an invitation to email in 25 words or less why she wanted the Little Black Dress. A bit of information, actually useful, provided by Tom —which social media Groisseh Macher and Ganseh Knocker was passing around which STD—got them a peek at who was entering the contest. Both Fanny and Moe, and Jack, brought on board for event handling, agreed they should use the information to make the winners as diverse as possible. They made sure there would be a few TGs in the mix as well; the manufacturer was able to come up with the dress software for cheater panties.
The Trilateral Commission was the newest and hottest club in Tribeca. Maybe even the whole city. A Park Avenue investors’ group had been itching to steal a march from Brooklyn before Manhattan became irrelevant, and Trilateral was one of their projects. Sixty contest winners changed into Little Black Dresses, which they would get to keep, and 120 runners-up got free admission, all-access, and open bar for the night. The velvet rope team would let in the next 150 good looking people, as well as any woman wearing her own Little Black Dress. It was a major success, worthy of a Triumphal around the Seven Hills of Rome. A live stream carried on E and TMZ would ensure sales in the seven figures. Until it all came a-cropper.
The investigation took three months. Pirate hacker Jack La Feet was called in for it. The dresses had been hacked. At the peak of dancing, they first went completely transparent. Then the videos showed horrendous monsters eating the wearers’ naughty parts. Then the compression routines made grotesques out of the contest winners. Finally, there was the stampede; dresses were just flung off and shorted out sparking when stepped on. Providence or sheer luck alone was responsible for their not being a fire. Jack looked at his clients.
“I’ve told you what. I know who; they’re all people in my circle, but you’re not interested in them. We did a finance crawl. The person who paid for this was Fanny Melzer. Of your own company, Tree & Holler. She is now resident in Asmara, Eritria. There is no extradition treaty.”
Morris took it all in. And he toted up his bonus share on the two million dresses ordered, far above the initial estimate of 60,000. Then he booked a flight back to Omaha and emailed a local auctioneer to put in bids for another dozen goats.