Rags To Riches: George Jacobstein

While Rose Brand is the “one stop shopping” spot for designers looking for soft goods, the company literally has a “rags to riches” story. When Rose Brand president George Jacobstein joined the company in 1975, it was called Rose Brand Wipers and its specialty was not scrims, LED curtains, or drops, but rather cleaning cloths and rags that were used by machine shops and furniture finishers. “We sold mill ends to lots of different customers; that led to selling muslin and canvas to schools, and that's how the company got into the theatre business,” Jacobstein says. “When I joined we only had five or six products — muslin, canvas, cotton scrim, and maybe a couple other things — that we sold to schools.”

Keep in mind that Jacobstein did not come from a theatrical or design background; he received his master's degree in education and taught for four years in Potomac, MD. However, when the opportunity came to join Rose Brand, like many young people with the itch to go to New York City, he packed up and headed north to seek his fortune.

Luckily for Rose Brand — and the theatre community — Jacobstein saw the writing on the wall that the rag business was not going anywhere, so he started to pursue more clients on the theatre end, specifically in schools. Rose Brand would get a call for a piece of muslin or canvas, and since Jacobstein was more interested in the theatrical aspects of the business, he would pursue it. At that time Rose Brand was on 138 Grand Street, on the Lower East Side. There Jacobstein would visit a shop on Canal Street called House of Pile Fabrics. “I would go over there and see these piles and piles of fabrics and I would dig through with my own hands and pull out cotton velour and velveteen and commando cloth,” he explains. Soon he developed relationships with the manufacturers and helped them develop new fabrics based on the feedback from his growing customer base. “When I first started, most of our customers were high schools and universities and slowly we got into a more complete line of theatrical fabrics.”

In the late 1970s, Rose Brand was approached by some of its customers to see if the company could get into sewing draperies because there was an apparent shortage of such services in New York at the time. “They were looking for additional sources to make drops, scrims, and curtains so we made a connection with some ladies who worked in the costume business,” he explains. “They would come in and work at night. We would leave a pile of fabric, like in the Rumplestiltskin story, and the next morning we'd have a scrim or drop all finished, ready to be shipped out!”

As the years went by, Rose Brand became known as the company to go to for specialty fabrics, Jacobstein made sure that no customer went away empty-handed. If the company did not have it, they could direct the customer to a similar product or go out and get what they were looking for. But Rose Brand probably had the item in stock. “From the beginning, our philosophy has always been that you have to keep the shelves stocked,” Jacobstein says. “In this business everything's based on deadlines and we pride ourselves on a having a huge inventory. Nine out of ten times we have what our customer wants. If we don't, we can point them towards another product. It's not unusual to get a call at noon from someone who needs a scrim shipped out that day because something has changed in his or her show. And more often than not, we can do it. Since we have facilities in both New York and Los Angeles, we can beat the clock in terms of deadlines.”

While inventory is important, nothing could be accomplished without Rose Brand's staff, colleagues in whom Jacobstein takes great pride. “We spend a lot of time educating our staff in ways they can help our customers, whether it be in new product info, seminars, or training sessions,” he says. “Educating our own people so they can help our customers is certainly one of the factors — if not the biggest factor — to Rose Brand's success.”

Despite being the industry leader in soft goods, Jacobstein and his team at Rose Brand realize that soft goods are only a small part of the overall production. Virtually every production mounted around the world needs soft goods. Rose Brand's goal is to take care of customers' needs so they can move on to all the other demands of their production. “It's amazing that people come to us to order everything from muslin and paint to tape and curtains. We've become a major resource for theatre professionals,” Jacobstein says. “When I first started, we only we had a half-page mimeographed price list with five or six items; this year we have a 136-page catalog. I take pride in the fact that we are good at sourcing out new fabrics, and we're constantly on the search for new products, whether it's fabric or tape product, fiber optic, or track. We'll even bring products in from other industries and adapt them for entertainment.”

One of those things that did work was using synthetic fabrics when some in the industry thought it would never succeed because most theatrical soft goods had always been manufactured from natural fibers. With issues of flame resistance becoming more and more important, the industry has supported Rose Brand's decision. “In the past almost all of our fabrics were 100% cotton,” Jacobstein says. “Now more than half of our entire line of fabrics is synthetic.”

As for Rose Brand's future plans, Jacobstein says that he will continue to make sure the company stays on the leading edge of technology and listens to what customers want. “Rose Brand will always be willing to try something out to see if it will work and if the industry wants it,” he says. “We find things and we try them out. Some things work and some things don't. But in the end, more things work than don't.”