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September 23, 2004

'They make our habits last longer' - Sister Mary Immaculata


She's a 69-year-old nun in Pennsylvania, and she's referring to sweat shields.

What're those?

Well, Ms. and Mr. "I'm so 21st-Century," sweat shields are a 19th-century product that have somehow survived into our scent-free present.

They were a drugstore staple across the land back in the 1800s, before deodorant use became widespread.

Well, enough blather, already: what exactly are they?


They're also known as "dress shields" or "garment shields," and they were first made by the I.B. Kleinert Rubber Company in New York in 1869.

The company took thin panels of rubber and sandwiched them between two pieces of fabric, to be worn under the arms.

Dan Morse wrote a most fascinating and amusing story for the front page of today's Wall Street Journal about an ongoing fight to the finish between two aggrieved parties, each of whom believes they have the right to now-bankrupt Kleinert's name and customers.

Here's the article.

Temperatures Rise In Long-Cool Market For Sweat Shields

Two Men Battle to Dominate An Underarm Industry; Preserving Nuns' Habits

Last year, Barbara Bear realized something had gone very wrong in the U.S. sweat-shields industry.

For more than 10 years she had received sales brochures from a factory in Alabama owned by Kleinert's Inc.

Ms. Bear, 62 years old, mailed in her money and about two weeks later her cotton sweat shields - each about the size of a cocktail napkin - were delivered by mail to her home outside Washington.

She preferred a style with light elastic straps, wearing them under blouses to stave off embarrassing blotches at her job evaluating applicants for the federal government's air-marshal program.

By last fall, though, the brochures stopped coming.

Ms. Bear had only a few shields left and their vinyl interiors were starting to crack.

She called Alabama, hoping to place an order by phone and learned Kleinert's had filed for bankruptcy.

"I'm so sorry to hear this," Ms. Bear told a worker. "Is anyone taking over?"

That question is fueling a bitter legal fight over a 19th-century product most of America has forgotten.

Before widespread use of deodorant, sweat shields were a drugstore staple across the land.

They survived, thanks in large part to the company that mailed them to holdouts like Ms. Bear.

That explains the two issues central to the current battle: The right to the name "Kleinert's," the most-established brand in sweat shields, and exclusive use of the Holy Grail of the sweat-shield industry, Kleinert's mailing list.

There are about 19,000 names on the list.

Users range from people who perspire heavily to those who need the shields to protect uniforms.

"They make our habits last longer," says Sister Mary Immaculata, 69, a Pennsylvania nun whose name and convent address are on the list.

Two former business associates are suing each other.

In one corner is Michael Brier, 53, who says he has the right to use Kleinert's name. In the other is Joseph Connors, 48, who says he and his wife have exclusive rights to the mailing list.

Backed by more than 300 pages of legal documents, the two sides have a federal civil trial scheduled to begin in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia as soon as November.

Also weighing in is a U.S. bankruptcy trustee in New York.

The trustee alleges Mr. Connors orchestrated financial fraud, which included fabricated transactions and forged documents, while he was chief operating officer of Kleinert's former parent company.

In a separate lawsuit, the trustee alleges Mr. Brier wrongfully obtained the mailing list and shouldn't be allowed to use it.

The cases are filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan. Both Mr. Connors and Mr. Brier deny the trustee's allegations.

Tensions are rising. Earlier this year, Mr. Brier allegedly telephoned Mr. Connors' wife and threatened to kill her, according to the Connors.

"He's taken it way over the line," Mr. Connors says.

"This is a dress and garments-shields business, for God's sake."

Mr. Brier denies making a threat.

He says he called Ms. Connors just to vent frustrations over the business disputes, according to a police record of the incident, filed after a complaint by the Connors.

Sweat shields, known among users as "dress shields" or "garment shields," were first made in 1869 by the I.B. Kleinert Rubber Co. in New York.

The company took thin panels of rubber and sandwiched them between two pieces of fabric, to be worn under the arms.

Over the years, Kleinert's expanded into other garment-making, such as children's clothing and sleepwear. It shifted much of its manufacturing to lower-wage Elba, Ala. Last year, struggling with a sluggish economy and laden with debt, Kleinert's filed for bankruptcy protection in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan.

Hundreds of garment workers - including the half-dozen who sewed sweat shields - lost their jobs.

But both Mr. Brier and Mr. Connors believed there was still life in sweat shields.

In addition to customers on the mailing list, there were also larger buyers, such as the U.S. Military Academy, which orders cases of shields to sew into the armpits of its formal-dress gray uniforms.

Theater-industry wholesalers sell shields to Broadway shows to protect costumes.

With aggressive marketing, the Connors say they could push sales from an estimated $500,000 annually to more than $4 million.

On Oct. 9, 2003, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York, as part of its management of the Kleinert's company estate, auctioned off its sweat-shield business.

The Connors successfully bid $101,000 for the sweat-shield assets, after Mr. Brier declined to bid more than $100,000.

The Connors sent two 53-foot trucks to the Elba, Ala., factory to haul the shield-making machinery and inventory off to Florida, where they had a partner set to start production.

They prepared their first brochures to send to the 19,000 people on the mailing list.

The Connors call their business, based in Blue Bell, Pa., MKR Group, using the initials of their three sons.

They initially advertised themselves as "formerly Kleinert's."

Mr. Brier had his own plan.

For starters, he had a copy of the customer list.

Four months earlier, Mr. Brier had asked a Kleinert's employee to e-mail him the 19,000 names.

As a former Kleinert's sales and marketing representative, he says he'd always had access to the list, and asked the employee to send him a copy after his computer crashed.

He had another ace up his sleeve.

A company in Texas had purchased the "Kleinert's" trademark.

Mr. Brier locked up a five-year agreement with the Texans to use the "Kleinert's" trademark on dress and garment shield products.

Mr. Brier now crows that the Connors didn't get much at the auction.

"They're like the gang who couldn't shoot straight," he says.

Since then, Mr. Brier has leased a small space along the tree-lined square in Elba, Ala., and rehired about a dozen garment sewers who'd just lost their jobs, offering $7.50 an hour with health insurance.

"You will never know how much I appreciate this job," 32-year Kleinert's veteran Johnnie McBride wrote, signing a card to Mr. Brier along with the rest of the crew.

Mr. Brier mailed out brochures to the 19,000 people on the list, calling his Miami Beach-based operation "Kleinert's."

In a letter to customers, he touted "125 Years of Excellence," and added, "I sincerely appreciate your loyalty, patience and cooperation as we now forge forward."

The Connors sued him.

They claim he stole the mailing list, the most critical part of the assets they'd purchased.

They demanded he stop using it.

Mr. Brier filed a countersuit. It was the Connors, he said, who were acting improperly - by using the "Kleinert's" name when they didn't own the trademark.

Mr. Brier demanded they immediately recall any shields they'd shipped to customers that were linked to the "Kleinert's" name, and send them to him to be destroyed.

While Mr. Brier and the Connors tried to get their operations going, customers couldn't get products.

Supplies ran out at Manhattan Wardrobe Supply, in New York, which delivers shields and other products to stage and movie sets.

Word spread on Broadway about a shortage.

"Everyone freaked out," recalls Tommy Boyer, one of the owners.

He phoned Mr. Brier and said: "Look, you've got to send me some stuff."

As production increased, customers slowly started getting their shields.

Mr. Brier expanded his Elba operations, renting out more space.

Products to individual customers are placed inside hand-addressed, brown envelopes.

The Connors' shields are shipped from Florida and from their house in Pennsylvania.

The competition isn't all bad for consumers.

Both companies offer more than a dozen styles, in white, black and beige, and are pushing softer models without vinyl inserts.

Prices range from $5 a pair to $16.25 each for a high-end lace shield.

In Fern Creek, Ky., Geneva Reynolds, 70, recently purchased products from both the Connors and Mr. Brier.

She needs the shields to ward off blotches while calling on retailers as a sales representative for her brother, who paints landscapes and portraits.

"I wouldn't feel comfortable if I didn't have them on," she says. "I love them."

Barbara Bear, who has retired from her job evaluating air-marshal applicants, still wears shields whenever she goes out to dinner or the theater.

Ms. Bear has always perspired a lot, she says, remembering doing so even as a kid on the school bus.

The shields help put her mind at ease.

"The mere concept of sweating something up," she says, "is just disgusting to me."

September 23, 2004 at 06:01 PM | Permalink


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My father, H.J. Fine, was V.P., Operations for I.B. Kleinert Rubber Co. in College Point, Queens, NYC for many years. He died in 1976 in Scottsdale, AZ, where he & my mother, Florence, had retired. I remember giong to pick my father up at "the factory" many times when the 5:00 bell rang ending the work day. I also remember my mother wearing the dress shields described in this article. There were many other products which I remember well, especially the fancy rubber bathing caps which were worn by Esther Williams & others. I left NYC in 1970. Would love to hear from anybody who knew them.

Posted by: F. Slayton | Dec 23, 2004 7:30:59 PM

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