New Yorkers are sentimental people, but the city itself is resiliently unsentimental, constantly razing its past to make way for another present. That being the case, venerable, century-old New York icons achieve a certain gravity not available in tamer towns.
An Iconic New York Business
The Lower East Side of Manhattan pulsates with the tension between its past, as the locus of twentieth-century immigrant ambition, and its current ongoing run as a media center and hipster paradise. The district’s great institutions are fixtures that have managed to connect to the former while providing extraordinary experiences and services. Zarin Fabrics (72 Allen St.) is just such a survivor. Founded in 1936 by Harry Zarin, the company began in an Orchard Street location so tiny that customers couldn’t enter the store; Zarin used the precious space for inventory and made his actual sales from the traditional Lower East Side venue: a pushcart.
The Road to Success
As the twentieth century moved from depression to recovery, the company thrived, eventually operated at 292 Grand St. by Harry’s son, Bobby Zarin. When a warehouse fire necessitated the relocation to Allen St., Bobby Zarin planned to advertise the business by making announcements through a bullhorn while cruising the neighborhood in a convertible. After being informed by the police that this form of public address was prohibited except in the case of public service announcements, Zarin’s voice could be heard, echoing through the streets: “Come visit Zarin’s new fabric warehouse, located on the second floor of 72 Allen St.—and don’t forget to vote!”
In the ensuing decades, Zarin Fabrics has continued to expand. Today, it’s not just the largest purveyor of discount designer fabrics in New York City, but a full-service resource for custom drapery, upholstery, and restoration. “We have more variety for home fabrics than any other place in the New York area,” asserts David Zarin (son of Bobby, grandson of Harry), who today runs the business and upholds its traditions. “The great thing about it is that we have everything here, in stock…you can come in, pick out a fabric, and just walk right out the door with it.”
Continuity with the past looms large in Zarin’s vision: “It’s like a step back in time when you come in here, with the warehouse feel of the place,” he says with pride, but hastens to note the brand’s newer credentials too. “We can also do the custom work…from reupholstering a chair or a sofa you love or was handed down to you, to creating beautiful shades or drapes for your home.”
Zarin Fabrics Today
Doing business during the pandemic has required some adaptation, but as Zarin explains, it’s been a reasonably smooth transition. “We are seeing customers by appointment, currently,” he says; appointments can be made by phone or email. Due to the large warehouse space, “we’ve never really had an issue with our customers being able to maintain that social distance. Everyone’s wearing masks here, both employees and customers. We have a thermometer [which is] able to take contactless temperature, and we’re keeping the place clean and sanitized.”
There are advantages to the current setup. The emphasis on individual attention, an important component of Zarin’s custom department, is now even more emphatic. With people spending significantly more time at home, there’s been a significant rise in the number of home improvement projects. What better time to reupholster the sofa or replace drapes and shades?
In addition to fabric sales and custom décor services, Zarin Fabrics has a long history of providing fabric and design services to the film, television, and theatre industries. David Zarin has childhood memories of celebrity customers from the 1980s, including Phylicia Rashad, Rick Moranis, and Keith Hernandez. The company has worked on “almost every TV show or movie that’s shot in New York and needs fabric,” he says, mentioning The Cosby Show, NYPD Blue, Law and Order, Sex and the City, Girls, and Power. He cites The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel as “one of the shows that I love so much today, that we’ve not only sold fabric to, but we’ve actually worked on their set, and one of our guys went down to help their crew put the drapery up and made sure it was done all right…that’s a great show, and we have done a lot of work on it.”
But one television production has the recurring potential for fabric needs considerably more specific, and more urgent, than any other. “We do a lot of work for Saturday Night Live,” says Zarin. “They have to get everything together really quickly. So they use us because we have the fabric in stock. Their person will reach out to [us], tell [us] what they’re looking to do, on, let’s say, Thursday. Our guy will send pictures, or even Facetime with them, for the fabrics. And then we’ll manufacture the curtains, or whatever it is they need for the set, within 24 hours, and deliver it to them by Friday night.”
Zarin remembers the recent challenge of matching Congressional curtains when SNL presented its satirical take on the 2019-2020 impeachment hearings. “They recreated that room, with these blue curtains, and we had to match those curtains,” Zarin says, still in awe of the speed and accuracy with which his company met the timely challenge.
It was a perfect match.