Her Classy Clothes for Kids Make Florence Eiseman a Perennial Star Under the Christmas Tree

updated 12/20/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/20/1982 01:00AM

Many of the little people she dresses are taller than she is, but in the magical kingdom of children's clothes, 83-year-old Florence Eiseman is a towering presence. The 4'10" designer has been spiffing up America's youngsters for 37 years, and despite her emphysema, the sprightly octogenarian still holds sway in a drab factory in downtown Milwaukee.

It's an unglamorous setting for some of the most enchanting kiddie concoctions on the market today. Cut from the best imported and domestic fabrics, Eiseman's kiddie couture has adorned the most pampered tots around. The Rockefellers, Fords and Kennedys have traditionally dressed their babies in Florence Eisemans. Princesses Caroline and Stephanie wore Eiseman togs as toddlers. And these days John and Nancy Ritter's two children wear Eisemans, as does Zoe Emily Winkler, Fonzie's 2-year-old daughter. "Eiseman is a legend," raves Saks VP Robert Franceschini.

Widowed in 1967, the shy, genteel Eiseman, who is a grandmother of seven, has stood the children's clothing business squarely on its head. Says Stanley Marcus of the Texas department store chain, "Eiseman brought a completely new sense of fashion to children's wear." Back in the '40s she rejected the then popular notion that little girls should be dolled up in frills and ruffles. Later she pried little boys out of long pants and into shorts. "The biggest mistake mothers make," said Eiseman, "is to dress boys to look like little men. There is nothing worse, except possibly fur coats on little girls." She also scorned fitted waistlines. "Little children," says Eiseman firmly, "don't have waistlines. They have protruding tummies."

The classic Eiseman is simply cut—with appliqués of fish, flowers and trees. "All children are beautiful," she once said. "Their skin, their eyes, their legs and arms and hair are what you should see. Nothing must detract from them."

The grande dame of Kinder clothes was born Florence Feinberg in Minneapolis, the daughter of a picture framer. The youngest of seven brothers and sisters, she says, "All I remember is hand-me-downs." At 21, Florence moved to Chicago to work as her brother's Girl Friday. There she met her husband-to-be, Laurence. "There weren't any violins or fireworks," she says, "but we liked one another right away." Married in 1927, the couple had two sons, Laurence Jr., now 54, and Robert, 51, who both work in the family-owned business.

Eiseman didn't pick up a needle until her 30s, when a doctor prescribed handwork as therapy to calm her nerves after the birth of her second boy. She was modest about the little frocks she stitched up on her dining room table for friends' children. But when her husband's toy business folded in 1945, she whipped up a couple of pinafores, which her husband hurried over to Marshall Field's in Chicago. Even though the store snapped them up, and others quickly followed suit, those early years were rough. "I used to say to my husband," Florence recalls, " 'When are we going to make money? We can't eat organdy.' "

With 1982 sales expected to top $7 million, Eiseman no longer worries about finances. But she still wonders how she ever plucked up the courage to go public with those pinafores. "I'm not an achiever," she, insists. "Our backs were up against the wall. If anyone had ever told me i would be in business, I would have thought they were out of their minds."

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