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MC Hammer Outfit Designer Hangs on by a Thread in Garment District

By Ben Fractenberg | January 24, 2012 6:52am

MIDTOWN — John Naftali's fashion portfolio includes icons of style.

In it are the oversized double-breasted suits that personified Hammer Time —  MC Hammer's reign of the pop world in the late '80s and the early '90s.

When British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's Muammar Gaddafi-like character rode down Fifth Avenue on a camel last summer while filming his new movie "The Dictator," his female "bodyguards" wore Naftali-designed skin-tight green skirt-suits.

In a career spanning 30 years, his creations have outfitted clients as diverse as Will Smith, gospel singer Dr. Bobby Jones and the cast of Saturday Night Live.

But he is part of a dying breed in the Garment District — an independent designer producing his clothing on-site. 

"People like to dress to impress, like sequins with a pattern on it," said Naftali, 65, who started the brand Panzai in New York in 1980.

"[It] can be tiger [print] or leopard or anything like that."

In fact, if you climb the stairs in the back of a non-descript souvenir shop on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 30th street, and enter his design suite, you'll find yourself face-to-face with a leopard print tuxedo.

But faced with high rents and competition from knock-offs, he's struggling to survive.

"The rent is going crazy. It has doubled the past two years," said Naftali, who went from paying $11,000 two years ago to $20,000 now.

"That's why all these people left."

On top of astronomical rent, new international competition is making it even harder to survive.

"A lady bought [a suit] for $1,200 and she called me and told me, 'I'm very mad. I saw my suit for $150 in a magazine,'" he recalled.

He found the magazine, produced by a Chinese Company that was selling an almost identical design to his.

"They copied it exactly the same; just a button was different," he said.

"And I told the lady, 'You're not buying bootleg. You're buying the original. You're not going to Canal Street to buy a Gucci or Versace.'"

Naftali grew up in Tel Aviv, Israel. After finishing the country's mandatory military service, he moved to France in 1970, where he was inspired by the fashion scene. He rented a small store in Cannes and would travel to Paris weekly to pick up the latest styles, which he sold to tourists back at his store.

After a year, he moved to Paris and opened up a store there. Within a few years, his business expanded to four outlets.

But by the end of 1970s he was ready for something new.

"Paris used to be like the center of the fashion of Europe. Not anymore. Today, Paris is also as expensive [as New York]," Naftali said.

So he made his move to the Fashion District just as New York was emerging from the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. After moving to the city and working primarily in the entertainment industry for 20 years, Naftali started to attend religious conventions.

He quickly found a new market, starting to design extravagant clergy robes.

"We do a lot of clothes ... for church members. For the pastor and pastor's wife. For special occasions in a church," said Naftali. "Like an anniversary or banquet, we specialize in that."   

Sam Brown stopped by the store last Wednesday to check out Naftali's suits and pastors' robes. A traffic enforcement agent by day, Brown preaches in a Queens church four or five times a week.

"Their suits are off the hook. It just looks so rich," Brown, 23, said. "They have elegance to them, a uniqueness and originality."

Even types of performers not usually known for flashy clothing come calling.

The Canadian indie rock band Wildlife recently spent $6,000 for Naftali-designed outfits.

"They do very tight pants with the fringes, you know," he said. "It's not the first time we've worked with them."

Naftali said he was glad to have such a diversity of clients keeping him busy. He said he is going to try and stay in the Garment District as long as possible.

"We have to work hard," he said. "I have no choice. Where am I going to go?"