Retail: Fit for a King

October 1997
Agenda Magazine 
Article by Bob Phillips

AFTER MORE THAN 40 YEARS IN THE BUSINESS, ELVIS' FAVORITE CLOTHIER, BERNARD LANSKY, IS GOING STRONG

When Elvis Presley reached one of the most important milestones of his life, Memphian Bernard Lansky dressed him for the occasion. 

Lansky was the owner of Lansky Brothers, a men's store at 126 Beale Street that sold a line of clothes the likes of which most Memphians had never seen. The garments - which couldn't be bought anywhere else except in New York and perhaps California - were high fashion. Sometimes outrageous, always light-years ahead of anything else in town, many of the items were made of bright, vivid colors and shiny, silky fabrics. Presley - the future King of Rock and Roll - was an early fan, admiring the flashy outfits even before he could afford them. 

"He had a job as an usher at the old Lowe's Palace movie house a few blocks away, and he'd walk over here and look at the clothes," says Lansky. "He was a good-looking young man - he had that hair in ducktails, and he stood out even back then. One day he told me, 'I don't have any money now, but when I get rich, I'm going to buy you out.' I told him, 'Don't buy me out, just buy from me.'" 

So he did. 

Several years after that first encounter with Lansky, Presley was about to perform before a national audience on one of television's most-watched programs - it was his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in September 1956. So Lanksy, realizing the show was Presley's big chance, made a special trip to New York's famed garment district to select just the right outfit for Presley to wear. Lansky selected black trousers and - even though the show was broadcast in black and white - some brightly colored shirts and three sport coats. 

The show aired on Sunday night, and Lansky, who worked seven days a week (and now, at 70 years old, still does), was at his shop. "We had the TV set on in the store, and as soon as Elvis had finished, we knew he was on his way," recalls Lansky. Presley wore his black pants and a plaid coat; sang "Don't Be Cruel," "Love Me Tender," "Ready Teddy," "Hound Dog"; and, as he swiveled his way through the show, captured a nation's attention. Presley continued to buy from Lansky, from the time he first started preforming until his last days at Graceland. And when the singer became famous, Lansky would open the store at midnight so Presley could avoid the crowds. At other times, he would just bring clothes out to Graceland for Presley to see. 

Certainly, Presley was the most famous of Lansky's customers, but the list of gamous musicians who walked through the doors of the Beale Street clothier includes Ace Cannon, B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, the O'Jays, the Tempations, Roy Orbison, and Otis Redding. Even sports stars such as basketball great Julius "Dr. J." Erving and Reggie White, now of the Green Bay Packers, would buy clothes from Lansky. 

Today, Lansky still sells cutting-edge fashions, but fdrom The Peabody, just a few blocks from the original store. Lansky's former Beale Street shop has since become one of the city's hottest new attractions - Elvis Presley's Memphis - a landmark tourist destination in and era when the King's popularity is surging, due in large part to events marking the 20th anniversary of his death. 

The Memphis chapter of the Lansky story began with the arrival of Samuel Lewis Lansky, Bernard's father, from Poland in 1910. He opened a grocery on Kansas Street - where his six sons and three daughters also worked - that eventually grew to include a dry goods department and a gasoline pump. 

Eventually, after the brothers served their stint in the army during World War II and returned to Memphis, their father helped set up four of them in business on Beale Street. In the late 1940's, Frank, Guy, Irvin, and Bernard Lansky opened an army surplus store on the famed street. 

The business did well, but by the 1950's, the store - which was now run only by Bernard - had chaged its focus. Lansky had begun selling the showy, high-fashion garments worn by pop musicians of the day - clothes that had been largely shunned by other Memphis-area men's stores that considered the flamboyant outfits to be in poor taste. 

"They thought I was crazy," says Lansky. "They couldn't understand." But Lansky clung to his belief that there was a market for the clothes. 

"These were silks and wools, and the [garments] were cut differently," Lansky recalls. "For example, there were no back pockets in the pants because [the entertainers] wanted to show their booty." 

And that wasn't the only niche Lansky filled. Believing existing stores offered a limited selection of clothing for larger men, he opened Lansky's Big and Tall Shops in 1980. Over the next 14 years, the number of Big and Tall stores in the Mid-South grew to 10 before Lansky sold them to a national chain. 

Also, in 1981, Lansky opened a shop on the lobby level of the Peabody Hotel only days after the Belz family reopened the extensively renovated landmark. His business in the South's Grand Hotel is Lanksy's only remaining clothing store today. 

Back on Beale, business continued to flourish until the 1990's, when the historic street became more of an entertainment and restaurant center. Lansky finally closed the store in 1992. However, he would not sell the building despite tempting offers. 

"I knew what I had, and I just played it cool," Lansky says with a smile. "That building is my insurance policy." 

Over the years, various offers were presented. One, a deal with a group representing Jerry Lee Lewis, looked promising, but fell apart. Then, in early 1995, talks began with Priscilla Presley, Elvis' ex-wife, and Jack Soden, CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc. (EPE). 

Finally, after 22 months of negotiations, an agreement was signed in November 1996, and plans for Elvis Presley's Memphis were announced the following month. Lansky didn't sell his building; he leased it to EPE for 20 years for an undisclosed amount. 

As one would expect, Lansky was a keen observer of the renovation, and felt mixed emotions at seeing the change. "You'd watch them tearing things out, and it would tug at your heart," he says. "But it's progress. The world keeps turning, and you've got to move with it." 

Today, Lansky is pleased with what has been done with his building, and says he is flattered that two windows facing Second Street are devoted to Lansky Brothers, and display the store's logo. Currently, mannequins in the window wear clothes from the 1970's - the "superfly look" with men's platform shows, bellbottoms, and the like. Every three months or so, the window display will change to reflect a different style. 

Meanwhile, at an age when many people are retiring, Lansky is hardly slowing down. In fact, he's gearing up to reintroduce his store and the clothes he sells to Memphis and beyond. First, Lansky and his son, Hal, have renamed their store, Lansky at The Peabody, where the shop's 18-foot-high walls are covered with autographed guitars, photos of Presley being fitted by Lansky, and other memorabilia. 

The Memphis clothier is also introducing a new line of clothes called Lanksy Bros., Clothier to the King. The line's items, which are in addition to other clothing sold at the store, have a definite 1950s look and feel, featuring materials and styles that are as nonconventional as they were when Presley first fell in love with Lansky's clothes. In fact, if Elvis were alive today, he would probably say that his buddy Bernard is "taking care of business." And, of course, the King would be right.