Sunday, July 15, 2012

My First Job. Cape Town


Clothing factory. Cape Town. Industrial Area.

After we completed the course in Fashion Design  at the American Academy for Technology we all had to start looking for jobs.Our irresponsible student days had come to an end, and it was time to start working on our careers.

The glamour of a career in fashion flew out of the window as we started interviewing for jobs at the various factories in the industrial area of Cape Town. Most of my fellow students gave up very soon and decided to go into something else. It was dangerous for a young girl. A few of us persevered. Ten years later I was the only one left in the fashion field.

I had a couple of interviews but the company that I was very keen on was Hellas Manufacturing Company located on Voortrekker Road in Maitland. I had several interviews with Arnold Finkelstein who was their head designer. Arnold use to work for" Fairweather" that was the top fashion company in South Africa for women's wear. He joined" Hellas" a few  months before, as creative director,  and he was building his new team to assist him.

Voortrekker Road

Unlike America that uses contractors to do the  work ,each clothing company  in South Africa had their own factory where they produced all the garments they sold. During this time the clothing industry in Cape Town  was one of the biggest in South Africa and companies  like "Fairweather", "Rex Trueform" and "Hellas" were all located in Cape Town.

Bo -Kaap Cape Malay houses.

Cape Malay couple.

Cape Malay Wedding.

Cape Malay Food.

A big reason for this was a big talented work force that consisted of Cape Malays and Cape Colored's. The Malays where Muslim where the Coloreds were mostly Christian.

When South Africa was founded in 1652 there were not enough people to do the work so the Dutch imported slaves from India , Batavia, Indonesia and East Africa as workers to the Cape of Good Hope. These people of mixed race are the descendants of these early immigrants to Africa.
In the late 60's early 70s' there were very few Africans living in the Cape  and the Cape Coloureds and Cape Malays formed the biggest work force available.
The owners of "Hellas" were Mr. Edgar Fileman and Mr. Carl Feilman.They were brothers but when the family  immigrated from Germany to escape Hitler - their surnames were misspelled. Mr.C was a judge in Germany. Mr..  E was in charge of  the designing and manufacturing of the garments  and  Mr.C was involved in  the accounting and sales departments. The company was named after Mr.C's wife- Hella. Their sons, and sons- in- law , daughters ,and daughter's in law, were all involved in the business. Arnold had a tough battle as he had to fight the family to get his way. 
When Arnold offered me the job I was thrilled .Not too thrilled about the pay though .The starting wage for an assistant grader was  R9.95 a week, and that was what I was offered. Beggars could not be choosers.My fellow students did not do much better .Anne and Christine both were offered jobs opposite the road with a children's wear company. They got a little more money than I did, but I thought my job was at least more prestigious!

Arnold's team consisted of Shirley Rubin who designed the younger collection "Ricky Rand", while   Arnold and myself worked on the main collection under the "Hellas" label. Carl's daughter's  Irene and Barbara  also had a finger in "Ricky Rand" -so things were never plain sailing for Shirley!
Mr. E had the final say over everything that went into the collection.

Sony and Cher.
Carl and Hella's daughter Irene worked for Sonny and Cher as an au pair for several years in LA so she would regale us on stories about these two fashionable celebrities.

Gloria, Henry + Shirley.

The Sales Manager was Gloria Craig and  she ran the showroom over the road . The showroom was very glamorous .Lunches and drinks were served there- whatever was needed so that the buyers would spend money! As we were the number two manufacturer of women's wear in South Africa ,that was not the problem. The only problem was to increase their open to buy  and get as much  of their budget spent with Hellas.

Gloria was an amazing sales person and one of the most respected in the business. If she saw a customer was buying a style that was not bought by others, she would advise  them not to buy that style. It would drive Carl and Arnold up the wall but she would stick to her guns . Buyers loved her and respected her. Some smaller companies would call her if they could not make it into the showroom and tell her to make up an order for a certain amount of styles that she would recommend.

When I went for my interview I met Phyllis who was at the telephone switchboard and was the receptionist as well. She had the most unbelievable  memory. If she heard your voice once she remembered your name and would treat you if you were the most important person in the world. When reps called to make an appointment  to show us fabrics or trimming she new them all and would enquire about their families. It was a very stressful job as the phone never stopped ringing .She never lost her cool even is one of the bosses where screaming at her about their calls!  Every now and then she would tell them off -in a very nice way- as the "family" were the biggest culprits. She made my interviews so much less stressful as she would chat to me while I waited to see Arnold, and was as thrilled as I was when I got the job. 

Arnold and I would work on sketches together and then they will be given to the pattern makers to make the patterns- and produce a sample. The samples would be shown to Mr.E on a model and chosen or be discarded. It was a nerve wrecking process as each design is your creation or "baby" and when it is thrown out it is difficult to cope with.
The pattern makers also feel the pain as they are responsible to interpret the sketch so it is just as creative for them. We had three pattern makers for softer clothes and two that did the coats and suits. "Hellas " was famous for it coats  that was a big part of the winter collections. Mr.. E did most of the coats himself by going to Europe and buying sample that they would copy.

Shirley,  Eunice, Arnold's wife ,and daughter, Arnold Finkelstein
Elsa + Gloria .

My friend Elsa de Bruyn was one of the pattern makers or technical designers. She was great  and also studied with Mrs. Morgan a few years earlier. Years later I would live with her and her Italian husband Furio in Rome when I worked with Pino Lancetti in Italy. We still keep contact.

Elsa de Bruyn

Naime was one of the other pattern makers and then the tailored pattern makers were Geoffrey Lee from London, and Fuad ,a great  tailor that went to London later and worked for Jean Patou . Both Naime and Fuad were Malay.
The first day I walked into the factory I faced 300 + seamstresses at their machines. As soon as they saw me they started to whistle and cat call. This went on for about a week as soon as I walked into that factory. They tested you this way and they would make rather crude remarks . I dreaded it ever time that Arnold sent me into the factory to do something .I think he sent me in  there on purpose as they were all hysterical when I came back .After about a week they stopped but you never knew what they would call out when you walked in there.
There were two Supervisors. Mrs Yon and Farieda. Farieda was a Muslim woman and rather sweet .Over them was Brian Aubrey , the factory manager. Mrs Yon was half Chinese half African and a terror.The factory workers were petrified of her.

Part of my job would be to order the trimmings for the production. Gail ,who assisted me with the trimmings  was a beautiful Cape Colored girl that could have been a model .Unfortunately she threw her life away  at 18 , by becoming pregnant by one of the cutters who was a real low life. We were all so sad when this happened. .Gail was good at her job but I was responsible for it at the end. When there are 800 garments waiting for buttons and they are not ready ,and dyed into all the colors, there is hell to pay as the factory looses time.
Mrs Yon would have to check with me as soon as a style went into production, if the trimmings were ready. Sometimes she would not inform  me .and the trimming would not be ready .She would march straight into Mr.E's office to inform him that I am the reason the garments were not finished.
He would call me in and she would accuse me - to cover herself. I told Arnold what was happening and he marched in there one day , all 5 feet 7" inches of him, and he sorted her out on my behalf. After that she treated me with more respect. He took no nonsense from anybody.

I would have to drive into Cape Town, past Groote Schuur hospital where Dr. Chris Barnard performed the world's first heart transplant. Every second day I used  Arnold's company car to go and see the Mrs Connie- the beader- and go to Jensen's Belt or check on the button people.

Jacques Fath

Rita Hayworth wearing a Jacques Fath dress for her wedding to Prince Aly  Khan.

Sometimes he would come along and he would tell me about his days working with Jacques Fath in Paris .He also knew that this was a dead end job for me and told me I should go overseas and gain some experience in Europa specially as I was interested in high fashion or Couture.
Shirley would come with us now and then and try and work all her personal business in as well .She was a real schemer. I still have contact with her and I see her when get to Cape Town.
To get to Maitland from Cape Town was a pain. To get there  we had to take two buses and it was a rough ride with many strange types on the bus. I found a guy that was working for a bank in Maitland that lived in Saasveld. Anne and I asked him if we could car pool with him .We agreed to pay him for gas, but at least we could sleep a little later when we went by car. He was not the friendliest guy so I told Anne to sit in  the front seat and charm him, while I caught a few extra winks of sleep. When it was his day off I would take the bus down to the foreshore and  be picked up by Arnold or Geoffrey on their way from Sea Point.

Barbara Barnard, Gerhard Kokt, Gloria Craig.

Gloria lived near me in Oranjesicht. She was divorced and had three kids Michael, Jenny and Wendy . Gloria was then in her early 40's.She knew everybody in Cape Town and Dr. Chris Barnard, that first heart plant surgeon  and his wife Barbara where big friends of her.She later moved to the Arthur Seat Mansion in Sea Point.

Arthur Seat Mansions. Sea Point .

If she had a late customer at the showroom she would ask me to stay with her  and after I took her home she would tell me to keep the car for the evening as long as I picked her up the next morning .We starting work at 8:00 am.
When I got to New York she was my first visitor on her way to LA to see her daughter Jenny  that lives in Los Angeles. She was very good to me and I remember her with great fondness. She passed on in 2009.I will always remember her kindness to me. She and her friend, Chris Barnard both suffered with asthma ,and they both died of it.

Sitting Shiva. Mourning the dead.

Working for Jewish people, I got to know their religion quite well .I was fascinated by it, as this was the religion of the Israelites that learn about in the Bible. When Arnold's father died I went to the funeral and also visited the family while they sat Shiva. It was interesting to see the family in "sack and ash". They would cover all the  mirrors and the men will not shave.
When Mr.E's grandson had his bris, I went as well.I stayed far away to the back when the men went into a room to witness  the rabbi circumcised the new born baby boy.

Bris or circumcision.

When Mr.C's daughter ,Irene married Nathan, I was invited to the wedding as well. We made her dress and it was a very grand occasion. I knew them both well as Nathan was being trained in the showroom by Gloria and Irene worked on the Ricky Rand  collection. I found the chuppah (canopy), and the groom stepping on the glass very interesting.

The next wedding was Shirley's when she married Jack. To get that wedding gown done was a pain and it drove Arnold around the bend. Poor Mrs. Connie beaded the dress .Shirley wanted raffia beading and it was a pain to do. Mrs. Connie was ready to throw her out, but Arnold had to smooth things over. We had a grand time after all.
As time went on I got very good at my job as I was a very organized person. The experience I gained helped me later to be able to run my own business. In manufacturing there is never a dull moment as things always  go wrong, and nerves get frayed .
Arnold learnt to speak Afrikaans from the Cape Coloreds. They speak a dialect of Afrikaans that is very different and very amusing to me that was born in Johannesburg .They have a great sense of humor and love double attendres.

The Cape Malay women have to bathe after having sex.They stand on a platform in the shower as they are not allowed to stand in the dirty water , and it has to flow away from her person. When a newly married girl comes to work they all tease her about her hair being wet -The poor girl is tormented to no end.
The men's toilet's floor was always wet. I could not understand why, until Arnold told me that the Muslims don't use toilet paper, they use water to clean themselves. Among Muslims, the left hand is reserved for bodily hygiene and considered unclean. They always keep the left hand under that table and they eat with the right hand .

Saasveld was close to the Bo-Kaap where many of the Cape Malays lived .When Ramadan came one could hear the Imam call them before sun rise to eat -as they had to fast until sundown. By lunch time they are weak and have headaches Not a fun time for us either, even if we did not need to fast.
One of the Malay office girls got married so the next day Arnold asked her "Fawzia het julle ge-sew gisteraand?" " Nei Mr. Arnold- net ge-tack".(You don't sew a seam -you only baste it.)
It was rather vulgar but that is part of the humor.
One day I was hysterical when he came into the office and said" "Hie wah erens wassie  ske"
He was asking where the scissor were ? To hear this Jewish man speak Afrikaans with a Cape Malay accents was very funny, but he used it constantly while dealing with the workers -and they loved him for it......Arnold Finkelstein died in 2015. He was in his 80's.

Thinking back we all worked together and respected each other's believes .Jews, Muslim and Christians. A true melting pot.

My father told me that after I  worked in a factory for two years .I could go to Europe to further my studies. I stayed with Hellas for two years. I was very sad to leave all my friends but ready to move on and broaden  my horizons.


  1. Good day, I stunled onto yours ite whilst googling for anything on the fashion housr Faitweather. In particularly looking to find any pictures and especially any information on a fashion model; Christina van Zyl (later mariied Gerald Lubner, close frind of the Rabies) Who left in the 60's to model in Milan. Do you have anything for me? Or recall anything? Please e mail me on
    I also got so entranced with yours tories, and before you know it, I read all your writings. So interesting, and what a wonderful life you lived. Thank you for sharing!