Jerry Pozniak Interview
(Dry Cleaner To The Stars)

His business, Cameo Cleaners has been selected as one of America’s Best Cleaners.

His clients include Gucci, Yves St. Laurent, Brioni, Burberry, Prada, Yamamoto, the Metropolitan Opera and a host of celebrities.

He’s been featured in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Living Magazine, Time Out New York and interviewed on National Public Radio.

Jerry Pozniak is the owner of Cameo Cleaners.

He was kind enough to take some time off from his very busy schedule and speak with us.

Q – Jerry, how did you get to be known as “The Dry Cleaner To The Metropolitan Opera”? I would imagine there must be quite a few dry cleaning establishments in New York City.
A – They were doing work with another co. for a long time. They were an older couple and they were going out of business. A contact of mine gave me that information. He didn’t give me a name. He just said this co. is going out. They were doing the work for the Met. Maybe you want to give them a call. So, I did a little digging and found the name of the Wardrobe Supervisor for the Metropolitan Opera and I started leaving a few messages here and there. Nothing overbearing, just try and get in contact with. He’s a very difficult person to get a hold of. So, I never heard back from him. About 2 months later, out of the blue, the gentleman’s name was Bill Malloy, he called me. He goes, ‘Jerry, I’m very interested in speaking with you. But, we currently have a relationship. Someone else is doing the work. I’m going to take your information, put it in the Rolodex. If something comes up I’ll let you know’. That was in December 2006, January 2007. In the spring, April I got a call from him again. He said, ‘Jerry can you come up and see me? And can you be here in an hour’? I put my jacket on and ran up to the Opera. I figured it was just gonna be, ‘Hello, how are you’? and get a little more information about my co. But, he was so impressed with the way I handled myself and the way that I spoke about the kind of client services we have and my knowledge base of cleaning that I ended up spending 2 hours at the Opera. I met virtually everyone who had anything to do with the wardrobe and costuming. At that point they had started giving me a few pieces here and there. I guess to see if the quality was what they were looking for. I guess I passed that first hurdle, and they gave me an opera to do, a whole show. And they gave me one of the more difficult ones to do, which was the ‘Queen Of Spades’ which was the hand-painted gowns. We did a fabulous job with that. About a month after that they told us we are the Official Cleaner for the Metropolitan Opera wardrobe.

Q – Is there a lot of competition in New York for the work you do?
A – Yeah. There is a lot of competition. There are a lot of other cleaners. There’s a few cleaners that specialize in doing theatrical work. Our focus primarily in being one of America’s Best Cleaners is to focus on high-end dry cleaning and servicing our clients and clients’ with a very fine wardrobe and giving them the very best in service and quality. Giving them their garments back the way they’re supposed to be given back. The Metropolitan Opera recognized that quality in us and needs that kind of service and needs someone with the knowledge base that I have, being in the dry-cleaning industry for over 22 years and being able to look at a garment and being able to tell them from a glance, from an inspection on my part how it’s best cleaned and will there be any issues in cleaning it.

Q – Besides the Metropolitan Opera stars, do you have other stars that use your services? T.V, film, Broadway stars?
A – Well, the stars don’t generally come into the shop. (Laughs). We generally go to them, but yeah, we do have other celebrity clients. We’ve done work recently for Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Jimmy Fallon, Jodie Foster. We’ve done a lot of celebrities. Christina Ricci was a client while she was living in the city. She’s no longer living in Manhattan any longer, unfortunately.

Q – These Opera costumes have to be very delicate, and brittle. It’s not like they’re changing costumes every season. How do you prevent them from falling apart in your hands?
A – Well, to be honest most of them are in pretty good condition. Most of the shows the Met puts on are usually 9-12 performances. Then they go back into the warehouse. One the clothing, the costume gets to that stage they fabricate new pieces or make repairs on them. I haven’t had any issues with things falling apart. We did have an issue with ‘Iiada’ ‘cause that is an older show and those costumes are not in terrific condition. Those are all linen and most of it was pleated and it was very difficult pressing-wise to keep the pleats in them. If anything we get is that fragile we’re gonna hand clean it. We’re not going to put that in the cleaning machine. What we’re really doing is a multi-step process for them. First, we’re doing a deodorization, because we can’t give them a traditional long cleaning cycle that we would normally like to. So, we’re doing a deodorization first using ozone and then after we ozone them for 2 days then they’re being cleaned. Then we pick the most appropriate method of cleaning. My company has more than one type of solvent to be used. So we can either use it in the percroethlyne or the new organic solvents or lastly if it’s something that’s very fragile like for example the ‘Queen Of Spades’ gowns, those had to be cleaned by hand. They were fragile in the sense that the hand painting would have dissolved if we had used any sort of solvent on them, and they could not go into a water base cleaning method ‘cause of shrinkage. So, it was tedious and time-consuming, but the end result was the Opera, especially Bill Malloy was very happy with the results.

Q – I wonder what would’ve happened had they taken those costumes to someone who didn’t have as much knowledge as you have.
A – Well, they knew that. These people are very experienced. The head of the wardrobe Bill Malloy has got a lot of experience. They point out to me sometimes issues that they know about prior to me cleaning it. For example on a piece for the opera ‘The Last Emperor’, there was one Kimono that’s worn by the principle male solo artist, whoever that might be for the certain performance and it was red and white striped silk. The garments were all made in China and they knew in advance that this was going to be a problem garment and that the red would bleed into the white unless we took extra special care of it. In fact we were even able to see evidence of that sort of transference of dye from the red to the white from just the normal wear and tear and perspiration. So, we knew in advance that it was a problem. These people are sharp. They know their stuff.

Q – Do you go to the Opera to see the people wearing the costumes you’ve cleaned?
A – I have not seen a show from the front of the house, but I’ve been following it any time The New York Times reviews a show which is whenever a new performance comes out, which is basically a couple of times a week. If there’s a photo in the paper it’s usually a piece that I handled. The grand opening night they did ‘Lucia’. Lucia, in that opera murders her husband on their wedding night. Her white wedding dress is blood splattered with stage paint which is actually painted on ‘cause it’s permanent. We actually got a sample of that fabric, that white lace that was going to be used to make the dress and they had splattered it with the stage paint and then they gave it to me to clean to make sure the garment would be cleanable. But, it’s always fun to open up the Times and look in and see the costumes and know that a few days before I had those in my hands.

Q – Cameo Cleaners is a family business?
A – Yes.

Q – So, you trained for this job under your father?
A – Yeah. My dad had been a dry cleaner for over 52 years. He’s now retired. I’d gone to school and majored in photography. I was going to become a photographer. After graduation I started working and became a photographer’s assistant. He was having some issues with his partner so they ended up going their separate ways. But, he asked me to come on and help him for a few years. I said, ‘I’ll stay for 2 years Dad’. That was 21 years ago. So, I’ve been here awhile.

Q – What do you like about your job?
A – Well, at times it can be mundane. There’s no two ways about that. Five, six years ago when my Dad was starting to retire I decided in order to continue to grow the business economically I had to look outside the neighborhood for additional revenue and at that point we transformed ourselves from a neighborhood dry cleaning co. to a higher end garment care co. going after the clients who wear the very best clothes, going after the Madison Avenue boutiques and offering them our assistance on garment care and advice. It’s picked up steam and we’re poised on the precipice as they say at this point. Being selected as one of America’s Best Cleaners last year was just an incredible honor to be amongst only 50 dry cleaning cos. throughout the United States that are in this organization.

Q – How do you get the attention of this higher end clientele? Did you have to go out and pound the pavement?
A – Exactly. My managers out today handing out press kits to retailers. My assistant will do that from time to time. I have relationships with various managers on Madison Avenue for Brioni, Gucci. Plus, we’ve been in business since 1956. The name Cameo Cleaners of Grammeroy Park, for the people who live in this area, we’re sort of like a neighborhood icon. But, as my client base moves-----they move to the Upper East side. They move to the Upper West side; they move downtown to Tribeca, they take us with them because we do pick-up and delivery throughout New York City as well as we do international, world-wide shipping. I had a client who was on her honeymoon in Italy, in Tuscany, who shipped me back her blouse. We just did work for a boutique in Palm Beach, Florida which the garments were shipped up to me and shipped back. I had a high- end piece from Maine. We have a reputation and we also make it as easy as possible for our clients. We have special boxes that we’ve had created for us, specifically for shipping so the garments can remain on the hanger, so things aren’t being folded. We go out of our way and word of mouth is always the best way that the word gets around. There was a lot of pavement pounding as well.

Q – Could you franchise this business?
A – This business is not franchise able in the sense that franchise dry cleaners would be more for a middle of the road dry cleaning co: a moderate price. But, in all actually there has never been a successful dry cleaning franchise as long as dry cleaning has been around. In fact the biggest franchise for dry cleaners is a co. called Zoots and they’re having financial difficulty and not doing very well. It doesn’t really translate well in the franchise market, especially on the higher end level. For the amount of customer service we give our clients and the amount of traveling that I give my staff in order to speak intelligently and give honest and real answers about the proper way to care for your clothing is something that’s difficult to replicate.

Q – How many people work for you?
A – Company wide we have over 50. In our Manhattan location we employ 9 people. In our production facility where we produce all of our work which is outside of the city, by Kennedy Airport we have two 5,000 square foot production facilities and we do all of our work in those facilities. The reason we do that is there’s just not enough space in Manhattan and the retail rents are way too high.

Q – Do you personally work on the cleaning of these garments?
A – I supervise the cleaning of the garments. I don’t physically do the work any longer. I lead my expertise to my staff. I’ve got my stain-removing technicians and my dry-cleaning technicians. My head technician has been with us over 10 years. Most of the information they have we discuss before the garments are cleaned, so while I’m physically not cleaning each garment, my influence is definitely known as well as if there’s any issues on a garment, will be discussed with me.

Q – How do you prevent breathing in the chemicals used in the cleaning of the garments? Do you wear a mask?
A – We do. My staff has respirators that they put on if they’re handling any of the type of chemistry which is noxious or caustic. They have nylon resistant gloves that they’ll put on as well as the goggles. Generally most of the chemicals we’re using for stain removal is pretty benign and not anything that’s used in great quantities. For example if you’re trying to remove a small red wine stain on a garment you would put the type of stain removing agent which is best for that. You’re not using such quantities of it that it’s an issue. They dry cleaning machine itself where the main solvents are is a self-contained unit. So, the garments go into the machine in a state where they’re dry. They go through a wash cycle where the clothes are now tumbling with detergents, with the dry cleaning solvent. The clothes get wet; I mean hence the name dry cleaning. It’s sort of a misnomer. The clothes do get wet. They’re getting wet with the solvent. It’s called dry cleaning because there is no water being used. But, they do get wet. They go through an external cycle where the solvent is extracted. It then goes through a controlled heat cycle or dry cycle where the temperature never exceeds 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Once all the solvent is removed and the machines are set up so that the door cannot be opened until all the solvents are out of the clothes. Once that threshold is reached, the clothes go through a cool down. They are then dropped from a temperature of 140 degrees down to about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. That gets rid of the last bit of solvent that could be in the clothes. At that point they’re removed from the machine. So, my staff is never exposed to any sort of high levels of any sort of chemicals which is completely different of the way it used to be done. When I started here 23 years ago it was not done that way at all. In fact, we handled the clothes wet with solvent routinely, but the health risks were unknown at that point.

Q – Does it get hot back there in the summer?
A – It is unbelievably hot in the summer. We try to ventilate the production facility as much as possible with roof vents and roof vans to suck out all the heat. The problem is the outside air is hot. All the pressing equipment is hot. You’re using steam pressure. Everything is generating heat. What I used to equate it to when I ran production here in Manhattan is like on a hot summer day putting your heat on full in your apartment or home and that’s what you have to deal with.

Q – Air conditioning doesn’t help?
A – It’s difficult to air condition a production facility because of the amount of heat and humidity that’s being produced. You’d have to pump so much cold air into it, and you’re pumping out so much heat. It’s kind of like trying to heat your home by putting it on full and putting your air conditioning on at the same time. It defeats the purpose.

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