The King's New Clothes

August 2003

Southern Living Magazine
Article by Faith Ford
BERNARD LANSKY, DUBBED "CLOTHIER TO THE KING," AND ELVIS PRESLEY ENTERPRISES OFFER ATTIRE INSPIRED BY THE SUPERSTAR.

Dozens of autographed guitars line the ceiling and walls of Lansky at The Peabody, a clothier in Memphis. Bernard Lansky points to a guitar and recalls the time musicians Robert Plant and Jimmy Page stopped in to hang out and talk rock 'n' roll. "They were real nice guys," he says. "As a matter of fact, they invited us to their concert."

With his pocketful of tales and easygoing demeanor, this salesman and clothier possesses a legendary business acumen. Affectionately known as "Mr. B," Bernard has served countless stars and common folk alike for decades. Longevity explains only part of his appeal, says Hal Lansky, Bernard's son and business partner. "My father will talk to anybody," Hal says. "It doesn't matter if they're rich or poor, black or white, famous or not. He can relate to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and he's at home with the bellman at the hotel. It's amazing how he can relate to people from all walks of life. Maybe that's why he hit it off with Elvis. Elvis just knew Mr. Lansky would treat him right."

Down at the End of Lonely Street

Charm and a sense of adventure first brought Bernard and his brother Guy their success in the mid-1940s. Known then as Lansky Brothers, they offered Army surplus clothes to customers. In the 1950s, they switched to high-fashion clothing in a store on Beale Street, which caught the eye of a young and penniless Presley. Elvis worked as an usher at nearby Loew's State Theater.

When Bernard spotted the starry-eyed teen window-shopping, he recalls, "I said, "Come on in, young man.' I showed him the merchandise, and it blew his mind. We used to have Life Savers colors--reds, pinks, blues, yellows, purples. He said, "Boy, I like this. I don't have any money now, but when I get rich, I'll buy you out." I said, "Do me a favor. Don't buy me out, just buy from me.' "

A loyal Elvis did just that, from his first tux--a pink-and-black combo he wore to his junior/senior prom--to a black mohair suit after his Army discharge. "Man, they tore it off him," laughs Bernard. "They sure did."

Elvis's patronage proved a boon for Lansky Brothers. Once the laughingstock of Beale Street, the Lanskys and their way-out fashions soon became the envy of every clothier in town and even the nation. Bernard became known as "clothier--and friend--to The King." Says Bernard of Elvis, "He never forgot us."

The days when Elvis, followed by Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and B. B. King, frequented the store seem only a blues riff away. Yet Bernard and Hal readily admit their business today must keep up with the ever-changing beat. Recently, renewed demand for the superstar look heralded by Elvis in the 1950s and 1960s prompted the father-and-son team to enter a new venture. In collaboration with the estate of the singer, the "Clothier To The King" collection made its debut this spring.

Today Memphis, Tomorrow the World

Plans call for the new Elvis line to sell in department stores. "For years we have been trying to get together with Elvis Presley Enterprises," says Hal. "So we're now in the licensing business. We design the clothes and then license the name to different manufacturers in the U.S." With his typical enthusiasm, Bernard crows, "This new line of clothing will be all over the world."

The Lanskys worked with a fashion illustrator and 50,000 computer images to give a 21st-century flair to The King's look. The updated clothing line represents "what Elvis would wear if he were alive in 2003," says Bernard.

Items include pegged slacks, boxy sport coats, retro-style shirts, and belts--all crafted in fine silks, velvets, and leathers. "Don't worry," says Bernard, "we didn't forget the blue suede shoes." The line has something to appeal to everyone. "It stands apart but isn't too crazy," says Hal. "Blacks and taupes are paired with the bright colors and patterns that Elvis wore. It's got to be wearable not just for Elvis fans but for everybody."

To Thine Own Self Be True

According to Bernard, the man who put The King in his first pink-and-black suit, the singer's main legacy is self-expression. "He liked anything I'd put on him because it was different and it was sharp," Bernard says. "He gave artists the notion that they can do what they want to do, to not worry about what people think."

Today, Bernard--grandfather, storyteller, businessman, and legend among clothiers--still works seven days a week, every week. Cruising around The Peabody, he bristles with energy, striking up conversations and sharing stories with all who cross his path. It's almost like that long-ago day when a young Elvis happened by.

About that fateful encounter, Bernard says, "I was at the right place at the right time with the right man."