Interview with Mr. Lansky of Lansky Bros, Elvis' Favorite Clothing Store

August 17, 2017

Be Gold

When you think of Elvis, you think of his unique phraseology. The way he presented himself and his music still influences us today. From a young age, he experimented with his style and expressed himself through his clothes. When in Memphis, I stopped by Lansky Bros. Shop, Elvis's favorite clothing store, and met Mr. Hal Lansky himself! Before taking his seat, Hal proposes to turn the store music down. It was an important detail because I was going to be recording our conversation. He proceeds to answer my questions, all while greeting incoming customers with ease.

Elvis, then a seventeen year old high school student, worked as a movie theatre usher near Beale Street. Hal explains, “Beale Street was an African-American street: it was alot of pawn shops, alot of juke joints. It was a pretty rough street and there weren’t alot of white [shoppers] then. It was alot of white-owned stores, alot of Jewish merchants.”  Opened by Hal’s dad, Bernard, the Lansky Bros. shop was located on Beale Street. The eye-catching window displays got Elvis’ attention. Bernard would dress his windows with flashy “Lifesaver colors: the reds, the greens the yellows, the oranges.” Elvis wasn’t the only one drawn to the store. Rufus Thomas, BB King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and countless entertainers all acquired street and stage outfits at Lansky’s.

Hal tells us the famous story of how his dad met Elvis and started a life-long friendship, “My dad saw this young man looking in the window and said, ‘Come on in, young man, let me show you around.’  This young man looked up and said, ‘Mr. Lansky, I don’t have any money but when one of these days I’m gonna come in and buy you out.’ Mr. Lansky said to this young man, ‘Young man, don’t buy me out, just buy from me.’ And that’s what started the relationship.”

When Elvis got his pay, “he’d come in, he would buy a cap or a shirt. You know, back then, a shirt— you could buy a shirt for like $1.95, a pair of pants for $2.95.” Elvis bought from the racks and shelves, but later “started getting stuff special made up for him.” Bernard outfitted Elvis for the Louisiana Hayride and his first television appearances. Hal recounts, “My dad would say Elvis would rather shop than eat. Elvis was pretty easy, my dad knew what he liked and— he went for some way out stuff— that’s what Elvis liked.”

Touring, recording, radio interviews, television appearances, good press, bad press— Elvis was a celebrity now. Any where he went, he’d get mobbed: everyone wanted a photo, an autograph, to touch him, and “they would literally tear his clothes off of him.” Hal says, “We were like a post office for Elvis. Everybody would bring letters to the store so we could give it to Elvis.”

He recalls, “My dad would open the stores for [Elvis] at night and eventually, I would take clothes out to him because he was just too busy.”

Hal tells me, “Last year I had the privilege to meet John Lennon’s step sister and I asked what kind of music they listened to growing up. She said it was all Elvis. John Lennon said, ‘Before Elvis, there was nothing.’ Elvis has been an influence on everybody: in music, in fashion, everything.”

 “The black and pink color combination of the 50s defined the 50s. Back then, men didn’t really wear pink but […] the guys started wearing it after they saw Elvis wearing pink outfits. It was no set thing, it was something new.” Bernard would get his inspiration from New York, California and Carnaby Street in London.

Hal illustrates, “We see a trend— we know a trend’s coming so we try to get on the trend. You know, it could be bell bottoms or ballon sleeved shirts or short jackets or green pants. We just got a feeling, we got a feeling that’s what’s gonna happen.”

When asked about the most important thing his father has taught him, Hal states, “Take care of the customers, treat everybody the same. I don’t care if you’re a rockstar or a person cleaning the streets.” He adds, “Just be nice to everybody, be kind, be fair. My dad would say, ‘You meet the same people going up the ladder as you do going down the ladder.’ ”

How to handle difficult customers?

Hal quips, “You just kill ‘em with kindness.”

“My father’s been gone 5 years, I’m second generation. I enjoyed working with my dad, I worked with my dad over 50 years. He let me make my mistakes and I made many, but he made sure I learned from [them]. It was a good relationship.”  This year marks a milestone for Hal, 65 years. His daughter is the family’s third generation to be busy working at the shop. “Julie and I— Julie’s my daughter— we’ve always wanted to do a children’s book. The title of the book in ‘Come On In, Young Man!’ ”  It tells the story of a young man who worked hard, believed in himself, and followed his dreams. It doesn't mention Elvis’ name and that he “turned out to be the King of Rock ’n’ Roll” until the very end. The book is now available at the store and online on their website. 

Many tourists and entertainers make sure to stop by the legendary Lansky Bros. Shop when they visit Memphis.

Hal points out, “They want to shop where Elvis shopped, they want to walk on the same streets Elvis walked on.”

The store has successfully married classic styles with today’s trends.

Hal explains, “We look at a line, we travel the market, we go to New York, California, Vegas and we [go]— Oh, I can sell that!   Oh, Bob would like this! We try to be different. I tell people, if we still sold navy blazers and white button down dress shirts, we would’ve been out of business 20 years ago.”  

At Lansky Bros, they maintain a good quality level. Hal says, “we try to get a little icing on the cake”— it sure does taste sweet!

“Try to be neat, I don’t care if you have a beard or whatever”

“Make sure [your clothes] are pressed”

“But most of all make sure they fit, you know, make sure they’re not to big or too small on you”

“There’s really no set rules”

“Elvis liked stripes and patterns. He wore all that stuff together so if you like it, you can rock it”