Celebrity Designer Sues Developer for $2.5M After Fire Damages Gowns

By Mathew Katz on July 31, 2014 7:11am 

 Reem Acra, left, designs dresses for stars like Kristen Bell, right, who wore one to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences' Scientific & Technical Awards in February.
Reem Acra, left, designs dresses for stars like Kristen Bell, right, who wore one to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences' Scientific & Technical Awards in February.
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Brian Killian/Getty Images and Valerie Macon/Getty Images

MIDTOWN — A bridal designer to the stars says that a developer damaged millions of dollars worth of her high-end fabrics and gowns, according to court records.

Reem Acra, whose couture has been worn by celebrities like Halle Berry, Kristen Bell, Olivia Munn and Bette Midler, is suing the Chetrit Group for $2.5 million after she says a fire started by Chetrit's contractors ruined her dresses and damaged her studio.

The two-alarm fire broke out on March 27 when contractors were using blowtorches to remove steel beams, duct work and wiring at 245 W. 34th St., according to a lawsuit filed in New York State Supreme Court.

More than 100 firefighters battled the blaze inside the former Conway clothing store, where the Chetrit Group plans to build a 17-story mixed-use building.

Reem's 5,700-square-foot studio at 240 W. 35th St., right behind Chetrit's building, filled with smoke, damaging her "library" of 2,400 gowns for rent, along with a large collection of high-end fabrics that cost up to $900 a yard, the lawsuit claims.

"Reem suffered from real and/or personal property damage, interruption of its business, loss of income and/or incurred losses and expenses including the cleaning of garments and replacement of materials, in the amount of $2,500,000," the suit states.

After the fire, Chetrit spent weeks ignoring the designer's requests to send a fire investigator to the site, the suit alleges.

Acra did not respond to requests for comment.

Along with the Chetrits, the suit names the building's management company, Cornell Realty Management LLC, along with the contractors, MJR Construction Services Corp. and Marge NY Inc.

According to the suit, the Chetrits "willfully failed and refused to respond to" requests from a fire investigation firm, TJ Russo Consultants, along with Reem's attorney, Robert A. Stern, asking for access to the West 34th Street building so they could determine the cause of the fire — and build a case against the Chetrits and Cornell.

An employee of MJR was allowed to briefly investigate the fire on March 31, but did not get enough time to properly inspect the building, the suit says.

"Despite four (4) separate requests over the course of a month for access [to the building] and evidence retained by [the Chetrit Group], Respondents have failed and refused to respond," the suit says. 

Marge NY finally responded to the requests on April 22, but asked for another month before responding because they were closed for the Jewish Passover holiday, which lasts only seven days, the lawsuit says.

Matthew S. Aboulafia, an attorney for Cornell and the Chetrit Group, said the delay in responding was justified.

Chetrit had to forward the issue to its insurance company, which took time to decide whether Chetrit was liable for the damage to Acra's gowns and studio, Aboulafia wrote in an email.

"Until then nothing could be done," Aboulafia said.

The insurance company ultimately decided that Chetrit was not responsible for covering the damage to the gowns, Aboulafia said.

But a judge disagreed, saying the issue was unclear, and in May ordered the Chetrits to hand over any evidence related to the fire and let the bridal designer's experts inspect the entire premises by July 7 — more than two months after the fire.

The Chetrits previously employed Marge NY to work on its renovation of the Hotel Chelsea — a project so filled with accidents that the entire building lost gas, heat and hot water for days during the winter of 2013. The Chetrit Group eventually gave up on transforming the historic landmark into a luxury hotel and sold it to hotelier Ed Scheetz later that year.

Marge NY and MJR Construction did not respond to a request for comment.

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