I interviewed Bernard Lansky, who has died aged 85, for my first book The Look: Adventures In Rock & Pop Fashion early one morning in March 2000 at his menswear store which was by then located in Memphis tourist attraction, the Peabody Hotel.
His son Hal had forewarned me: “You’d better get there early; once the customers start arriving at 8.00am he won’t have time for you.”
Just as their most celebrated client set fire to popular music as a means of cultural expression, so Lansky and his brother Guy (who was bought out in 1980) formed the template for street fashion by servicing a hitherto ignored subculture – namely the black stylers, hipsters, roustabouts and juke-jointers crowding the city’s segregated area around Beale Street in the post-War period.
Like many of their successors in this field, the Lanskys started with deadstock and military surplus at number 126 in 1946 backed by a $300 investment from their Ukrainian emigre father.
When supplies ran low, the brothers instituted a change of direction by identifying a new market with socio-economic power in another move which would be emulated down the decades.
In the Lanskys’ case they serviced demand among young African Americans for what was known in the south as “high fashion”, exemplified by the zoot suit (claimed by some to have been invented by a Beale Street tailor named Lettes).
“We picked up what was happening on the street,” Bernard Lansky told me. “Rationing meant that piece goods were extremely limited so we went into unusual fabrics to make our own garments. If it wasn’t for that I’d have ended up in the regular man’s business, selling traditional merchandise.”
When Elvis Presley came knocking in the early 50s, Lansky’s black urban style became the look of rock & roll with The King as the perfect vehicle in a 42in coat with 32in waist trousers and size 10.5 (9.5 UK) shoes.
Over coffee in the lobby of the Peabody in March 2000, Bernard Lansky was charming and responsive as he talked me through his working and personal relationship with Elvis and many other musicians and performers.
He also presented me with a copy of the catalogue for the recent auction of the Graceland archives, and signed the back. Then, just as his son Hal had predicted, he noticed a trickle of customers enter Lansky Bros and was back on his feet and talking up a storm as they browsed the Hi-Boy collar shirts and flashy pants.
Thanks to my brother Michael for alerting me to Bruce Weber’s New York Times obituary. This is on the money; others make fallacious claims that Lansky’s was responsible for Presley’s clothing and stagewear after the early-to-mid-60s. As detailed in Chapter 1 of The Look, there were several notables who picked up the baton from Bernard and Guy Lansky, including Nudie Cohn, Bill Belew and Bob Mackie.
Taken from this post:
Bernard Lansky: Clothier to The King (1927-2012)