Tender Buttons, housed in a 12.6-foot-wide (3.8-meter) brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, is stuffed to the ceiling with a cornucopia of clothing fasteners. For decades, it has been providing relief to anyone who has lost an unusual button and needs to replace it.
“Each button has its charm, its quality, its aesthetic,” said Millicent Safro, who opened the store in the 1960s with her friend Diane Epstein as an artistic jaunt inspired by New York’s burgeoning pop art scene. Safro runs the shop, named after a book of poems by Gertrude Stein, following Epstein’s death in 1998.
Decades later, the shop is stuffed to the rafters with buttons, some dating back to the 17th century, organized in multiple floors of Safro’s slender townhouse.
“A woman bought a dress in Rome and lost a button on the airplane. And we had the button. It was a very proud moment, Safro said.
She steadfastly maintains the store’s tradition of sharing the often rich history of each button with the customer in pursuit of it.
“When you came to buy a humble shirt button, you got the entire history of that button,” Safro said.
That includes the metal and faceted glass buttons from 1890 that sell for $225 each and that collectors describe now as “Victorian jewels” but once called the less-politically correct “Gay 90s,” Safro said.
“It was a time when the railroads were being built and everyone was prospering,” she said, explaining why the enormous, showy knobs emerged as status symbols just before the turn of the century.
In the 1890s, such a button may have secured a cape. In the 1980s, they were snapped up for couture wear by Chanel’s newest creative director, a rising designer named Karl Lagerfeld, who died last month, she said.
The fashion visionary who dressed former first lady Nancy Reagan, the late James Galanos, also was a customer. As was Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who sat down for a cold beer with then-President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden of the White House in 2009.
When Kermit the Frog needed to secure his raincoat for an appearance on the U.S. children’s television show “Sesame Street,” the Muppets’ clothing designer turned to Tender Buttons for help.
Much of the store’s inventory is contemporary. But it also includes antiques such as early American buttons made of copper, tin and brass and engraved with “Long Live the President – GW” to commemorate George Washington’s inauguration as the nation’s first president. The buttons sell for up to $4,000 apiece.
Safro was unable to provide a figure for the total number of buttons in the store. A Columbia University professor did manage to count them, but she said she had forgotten the total.
This week, Fabio Malaver, 53, a household butler, clutched a Mulberry suit bag and scoured the wall displays for an exact match to replace a long-lost button. Asked if he had found what he was looking for, he replied emphatically: “Yes, yes!”
(This story corrects spelling of surname to Malaver in final paragraph)
Writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Dan Grebler