Millions of television viewers know Kleinfeld’s as the setting of the TLC show “Say Yes to the Dress,” in which real-life brides, often in the company of an entourage, set out in search of the perfect gown for their special day.
By the time the show debuted in 2007, Kleinfeld’s had moved to Manhattan from its longtime location in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, and Mrs. Schacter and her husband, Jack, no longer owned the operation.
The reality-TV treatment was only the icing on the proverbial cake — multitiered, no doubt — of Kleinfeld’s fame. For generations it had been the best known bridal store in the world, a destination for shoppers who came by appointment only and “from as far as Nigeria and Ohio,” Mrs. Schacter once observed, not only for a dress but for the Kleinfeld’s experience.
To uninitiated visitors, the store might have looked like a wash of white, but Mrs. Schacter ensured that no bride would be lost in a sea of tulle. With a tape measure dangling around her neck, she ran the operation with military precision, marshaling bridal consultants who, like Special Forces of the wedding-industrial complex, matched each client with the dress to meet her dreams and budget.
“You are creating a heroine on a stage,” Mrs. Schacter once told Women’s Wear Daily. “The bride is on display, she has to be put together beautifully, and we have to edit and guide the customer, and be able to picture her under the chandelier or in a church. She has not only got to look good in the mirrors of the fitting room.”
By her own account, Mrs. Schacter was “good with dresses, not with faces,” and knew the precise location of any of the hundreds of dresses the racks of her store contained — long-sleeve or short, empire waist or mermaid style, tulle, taffeta, satin, silk, lace or organza. She at times addressed her lieutenants over an intercom system, her graceful Viennese accent rising over the din of excitement and emotion.
During her decades in business, Mrs. Schacter witnessed the evolution of marriage conventions, from the era of simple church-basement nuptials to the expectation of ever greater opulence, from barefoot countercultural weddings to beachfront destination ones.
For her part, Mrs. Schacter had married her father’s best fur cutter in 1941, when she was 17, in the midst of World War II.
Her dress “was custom-made, pure silk, and cost $199.99 on Grand Street,” Mrs. Schacter told the New York Times. “During the height of the war, with the fabric shortages and all, I lent it to so many friends getting married that it finally got lost.”
Hedda Kleinfeld, the elder of two sisters, was born to a Jewish family in Vienna on Feb. 5, 1924. Her father ran a pair of fur stores, and her mother was a milliner, a maker of women’s hats.
Mrs. Kleinfeld recalled hearing glass shattering on Kristallnacht, the pogrom in November 1938 that marked a turning point in Hitler’s persecution of Jews in Europe. Austria, at that point, had already been annexed by Nazi Germany.
Mrs. Kleinfeld’s father lost his businesses and was briefly detained at Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp in Germany. Upon his release, the family managed to leave Europe for Cuba, where they found refuge before settling in Bay Ridge.
After Hedda’s father opened the fur store and she married his associate Jacob “Jack” Schacter, the store became I. Kleinfeld and Son. Hedda and Jack, who for years lived in an apartment above the shop, expanded her father’s operation to include the sale of suits, coats and formalwear.
By 1968, it had become primarily a bridal operation, with Mrs. Schacter often traveling to Europe in search of the latest styles.
Kleinfeld’s became so successful that it ultimately covered 30,000 square feet of commercial space in Bay Ridge. It became an anchor of the neighborhood, where other wedding-related businesses, as well as restaurants catering to shoppers, opened around it.
The Schacters sold their store in 1990, the first of several times that it has changed hands. When Kleinfeld’s left Brooklyn for Manhattan in 2005, a reporter for the Times observed that it was “like losing the Dodgers all over again.”
Mrs. Schacter’s husband died in 2008. Besides her son, of Brooklyn, survivors include another son, Ronald Schacter of Newton, Mass.; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Schacter told USA Today that she received more than 100 wedding invitations a year from the brides she helped outfit. She politely declined, not for lack of interest but because she felt that if she accepted one invitation, she would, in fairness, have to accept them all.
She did think about her brides, she said, and the impression their dresses made. Her customers may have been the ones getting married, she noted, but “it’s my name going up the aisle.”