BY JUDITH STEININGER | PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
Decades ago, little Marina Krejci and her two sisters tried on Florence Eiseman dresses at Saks Fifth Avenue in Chicago. As a young mother, she bought the brand for her three children, all now grown. But as a political science graduate of Lawrence University, Krejci never expected that she would someday be president of the iconic children’s fashion house. Since April 2019 she is.
The company headquarters on South 4th Street in Milwaukee is bright and airy because of its large windows, but even on the dreariest winter day, the joyful colors of Florence Eiseman children’s clothing on display radiate happiness.
Beautiful, fashionable housewife Florence Eiseman started the eponymous company in Milwaukee in 1945 after her doctor-ordered hobby sparked consumer demand. Her basic tenets for good design still resonate: the clothes are classic, designed for children’s bodies (mannequins in the design room range from infants and toddlers up to a girl’s size 16), and look good coming and going — but equally important, they allow kids to be kids and play comfortably. “Children should look like children,” Florence famously said. “You should see the child first, and not the clothes.”
Fabrics are currently imported from Asia, South America and Europe. Colors are chosen for the way they look against a baby’s skin. All design is done in Milwaukee, with manufacturing completed in Peru and El Salvador.
It would be rare for a piece of Eiseman clothing to not feature a signature Eiseman applique — such as a tugboat, truck, strawberry or flower. The company also creates cruise wear and holiday lines for the smaller set.
A team of three designers led by Teri Larson is responsible for the classic, upscale styles that make mothers and grandmothers smile. Larson, a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, majored in children’s design. She began working for the company in 1971 when Eiseman was still in charge and says, “Mrs. Eiseman impressed on me the light, whimsical factor in design.”
While the clothing is definitely an investment, just like well-made couture clothing for adults, it lasts forever. In her office, Krejci displays several items her children wore. They still look new. Given the exquisite workmanship and classic designs updated with a small, fresh nuance, it’s little surprise that Florence Eiseman is the longest continuous selling brand in Neiman Marcus stores, available since 1946 and besting world class designers like Chanel and Oscar de La Renta. For generations, children of the rich and famous — from the Rockefellers and Kennedys to Princess Grace and modern-day political figures and entertainers like Jay-Z and Beyoncé — have been sighted wearing pique sundresses, tattersall holiday plaids and two-piece, black velvet shirt and pants sets. The Obamas commissioned outfits to give as official White House baby presents; as a special touch, the Presidential Seal was embroidered onto each.
Minority investors for years, Krejci and her husband Frank, the CEO of Strattec, watched Florence Eiseman encounter a rocky and shifting retail market in recent years, as online retailers appealed to overscheduled parents. But they strongly believed in the brand. Wanting more involvement, especially with the company’s employees, they became its lead investors in 2016.
Krejci’s commercial playground now includes the company’s headquarters in Milwaukee, sales offices and associates from New York to San Francisco and additional offices in Florida, Texas and Georgia. Krejci now meets with buyers on Fifth Avenue in New York. And though the clothes may be traditional dressing for little princes and princesses, the company has entered the digital age with a website that offers online buying.
“A few [online buyers] are young mothers [who are] Brand Influencers with over 40,000 followers,” Krejci proudly reports, “and we are in 150 stores nationwide.”
Next year marks the company’s 75th anniversary, but, Krejci says with a smile, “children don’t understand anniversaries. So we’re planning a 75th birthday party!” MKE