Murray pearlstein - Giants of Retail, Pt.2
In the everyday humdrum where everything actually happens, fashion does not exist. In magazines and cable channels it’s a fantasy world, the fashion in-crowd, a Kardashian reality show. In the real world clothing is less glamorous.
Henry Miller started out as a traveling salesman, one of those we now call “direct sellers,” who, like my great-grandfather, had gone around with swatches calling on gents to measure and fit them for Ivy League-style clothes made by New Haven tailors. Many of the best Ivy retailers started that way, and many, like Langrock, never made it around the Italian corner. But Henry was a merchant. A true authority. A bona-fide fashion critic. Opened a store in Hartford, on Trumbull Street, overlooking Bushnell Park, and proceeded to outfit the bigwigs of the insurance world in really good clothes. But no hype; special things from small and special makers. An early mentor, and in retrospect, my Platonic ideal of a retailer. He once asked me, “Know who’s the smartest guy in the menswear business?” And answered himself, “The guy who comes in knowing exactly what he wants. He’ll say, ‘That suit is not the right blue.’ Or, ‘Those shirts have the wrong collar.’ Or, ‘No. The overcoat I’m looking for is longer than that.’ He’s the smartest guy, absolutely. The only way to sell that guy anything is to show him stuff he hasn’t seen somewhere else. A fish looking for a certain kind of fly won’t bite on yours, and the customer who thinks he can get what he wants somewhere else? He is not your customer.” Henry started out selling Gant button-downs like everybody else, and when things changed, he was just ahead of the curve. He was carrying Kiton before the fashion press had ever heard of it; he was ahead of the hype.
What he meant was, in simple economic terms, that you’re either leading the customer or you’re chasing him. If you’re leading him; you have him engaged. He’s a believer. His friends and acquaintances have complimented him on things you’ve sold him. It’s not clothing he is coming in to buy from you, it’s confidence. Assurance. In simplest terms: pleasure. If the customer isn’t engaged you’re chasing him. It’s either price that wins out, or it’s that he wants what you don’t have yet. Not that he’s seen it in the paper, he just knows that style has moved on and you haven’t. This is what happened to retailers as styles changed in the 80s and then even more so in the 90s. Someone moved the cheese and the retailer mice found their fortunes dwindle. Princeton could be the site of a case study. By reliable estimates, among the four men’s clothing stores that flourished on Nassau Street in the 70s and 80s: Langrock, The English Shop, Alan Royce, Harry Ballot, there was at least $6,000,000.00 in annual sale volume. By 1999 every one of them was gone. The cheese was no longer cheddar; it had a different flavor. Gorgonzola. Pecorino Romano.
The real critics in our business don’t work for newspapers or magazines; they run stores. They don’t write reviews; they write the checks. They keep these designers in business. In every era there are a few brave retailers who create the showcases for emerging designers – retailers who are sensitive to change; who welcome it and embrace it, and see it for what it can be: a necessary stimulant. They are the champions of change, and they have admirable qualities, courage, perceptiveness, and insight, but the most important faculty they possess is a sort of sixth sense, an instinct for sensing the direction the consumer will take. They have ESP of a sort, like diviners of water springs. They know, in short, what will sell, in the legendary manner of Steve Jobs: they know it before the customer even knows it exists. Their leadership seems sometimes to come from a sense of isolation, a sort of work-related autism; some of the great ones are not very nice guys – or gals. I once waited, in the middle of a presentation to Clifford Grodd, the boss of the enormously successful and influential Paul Stuart, while he took a phone call, turned his back to me, and continued for some time talking, looking out his office window at the traffic on Madison Avenue. Finishing the call, Grodd turned around, saw me, and said, “Are you still here?” That was his way. Sounds funny. Wasn’t. These retailers were driven, obsessed by their convictions; had no need to curry favor. Their irascible, contentious, arrogant eccentricities the result of concentration, dedication to a stylistic muse, not endearing. Passion drives them. The people who work for them, whom they confide in and rely on, are in a special circle, spared the withering criticism, adored children. Everybody else, Guilty as Charged. I have known them all my life, recognized the type because of my father. The effect he had on people was awe mixed with abhorrence. There was a rumor in the company that an unnamed employee, after a few after-hours drinks, had opened the closet door in Norman’s office and pissed on his custom-made John Lobb shoes. Apocryphal, probably, but not improbable.
You want to know if your line’s any good? Try to get an appointment to show it to a great retailer. In those days it was Murray Pearlstein of Louis, Boston. He’d let you know in no uncertain terms if your designs were worth what you were asking for them. Getting the appointment was nearly impossible; his reaction to your line unpredictable. The Sphinx of Retail. Not even his daughters, who worked for him, would dare to guess his opinion. It seemed that only Arthur Jordan, his affable and forgiving store manager, and maybe a few of his perennial favorite suppliers, like Luciano Barbera, knew him. He alone inspired more speculation and gossip than anyone, and winning his favor, having your line featured at Louis, was 4 Stars, Two Thumbs Up. Guaranteed entrée to America’s best stores. Murray was menswear’s El Exigente.
Louis Boston, had grown from humble origins. Originally a pawn shop that sold refurbished suits to arriving immigrants, by the late 80s it occupied a huge townhouse on an entire block on Boston’s most prestigious retail street. Murray loved to tell you how his father and his uncle, Louis, would travel down to New York to buy manufacturers’ left-over suits, which they would carry back to Boston on the train. into the most admired, high-priced, iconoclastic retailer in the country. Like Fred Pressman’s Barneys, Louis had evolved from a schlock-house. In Louis’ early days the exalted houses like Hickey Freeman and Oxxford wouldn’t sell to them because, they said, the store wasn’t high-class enough. By the time I came around these companies were tripping over each other, trying to get an order. Louis was undeniably the most admired retailer in the world. Louis carried Hickey Freeman, but wouldn’t use the name, preferring instead to label the goods Walter Morton. Different. Special. Exclusive.
Different, inscrutable, iconoclastic, Murray was famous for tossing manufacturers out on their asses just as the rest of the world was discovering them. He quit carrying pleated pants before anyone else. Closed his big Zegna shop when they opened a store down the street. He only valued something if it contributed to the store’s uniqueness. The mystique of this surrounded the business. No one really knew how to pronounce the name of his store. Some said “Lou-iss” as in St. Louis; others said “Lou-ie.” The store was universally referred to as Louis’s (Lou-eez.) Everybody called him Murray Pearl-steen, except he, himself, who pronounced it Pearl-stine. These little idiosyncrasies added to the mystique of the man, but the store itself was mysterious in a different way. The minute you went in the place you started asking yourself, “Who on earth spends this kind of money for clothes?” The aura of being able to attract anyone at all, let alone the notoriously arch-conservative, skinflint Bostonians to the rarest, most prestigious and highest priced clothing, furnishings, sportswear and shoes in the world, and to be so hugely, obviously, lavishly successful at it: that was what made Louis the enigma, and the cathedral, of the industry.
Louis was everybody’s Number One Prospect. But as had happened with so many of the giants in retail, we had a history. Murray had once been a believer, a member of Norman’s inner circle, the group of 20 or so key accounts, including Henry Miller, White of New Haven, Carroll & Company, in Beverly Hills, which he called The Doubloons. On crystal tumblers he’d had made and engraved by Tiffany, above the bar in my father’s three-bedroom East 60th Street “pied-a-terre” were all the names engraved. Murray Pearlstein had his own whiskey glass. But something happened. Murray would only hint at what had pissed him off; my father blamed Billy. A set of suits with a problem. In the 60s with the factory beyond capacity, it must have seemed reasonable to tell Murray to keep the suits. Reasonably arrogant. I gather the defective order was the finale of the Louis -Norman bromance. For years I couldn’t even make an appointment to see him. Once he called a tailor in to open up our garments and give me a stitch-by-stitch critique. It goes without saying it was less than flattering. Or even justified. By the late 80s though, it was my collection. I called Louis and – miraculously—got an appointment. I have a feeling that Murray identified personally with my struggle to recreate the Hilton brand, as he has recreated Louis.
It wasn’t immediate. I did some serious bowing and scraping. Thank-you notes. Flattery in various forms. I had some experience with overcoming the sins of previous generations. After a couple of seasons of checking it out, circling around it, Murray came to my showroom like Jesse James to a bank. He had apparently been trying to figure out how he was going to fit this Nick Hilton thing into his store’s mix and it must have come over him like a brain storm. Swatches flew, models were invented, linings changed, pockets taken off, put back on, buttons ordered, fabrics redesigned. Murray got so heated up in this creative process at one point – I’m not kidding – he took off his shirt and sat working bare-chested, throwing swatches, taking photographs, giving orders until finally he and I had reinterpreted my line to his liking. We created a special, Louis, Boston version of the Nick Hilton Collection, a distinctive, unique assortment that suited us both.
When he left that afternoon, we had a very substantial order from Louis for suits, sport jackets, topcoats, dinner clothes, trousers, shirts and ties. And what is considerably, infinitely more, we had undeniable, 24-carat credibility.