MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Bernard Lansky, the Memphis retailer who helped a young Elvis Presley establish his signature clothing style of pegged pants, two-toned shoes and other flashy duds in the 1950s, has died. He was 85.
Julie Lansky, the clothier’s granddaughter, said he died Thursday at his Memphis home.
Bernard Lansky and his brother Guy started a retail business in Memphis in 1946, with help from a $125 loan from their father, Samuel.
After World War II, the store started selling Army surplus goods on Beale Street. When the supply dried up, they opened a high-fashion men’s store, where Bernard Lansky established his reputation as a natural salesman and storyteller.
Lansky Bros. ended up supplying Presley with the pink and black shirts and other outfits.
“It’s a statement to say that he dressed one of the most influential entertainers of all time,” Julie Lansky said in a telephone interview. “He knew that for any entertainer, they had to look different.”
Even though his style of dress changed over the years — including sparkling jumpsuits — Presley shopped at Lansky Bros. the rest of his life. Presley died at his Memphis residence, Graceland, in 1977.
Lansky picked out the white suit and blue tie that Presley wore when he was buried.
“I put his first suit on him and his last suit on him,” Lansky was fond of saying.
By the early 1950s, Lansky’s shop was known as a place where a man with a taste for flash could find the styles Lansky referred to as “real sharp.”
At the time, Beale Street was a hot spot for blues, rhythm and blues and jazz, and drew a colorful parade of musicians, gamblers and hustlers from the Mississippi Delta.
Presley began hanging around Beale Street as a teenager and picked up quickly on its music.
One of Lansky’s favorite Elvis stories was how he first met the future King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Presley was a teenager working as an usher at a nearby theater and liked to window shop at Lansky’s.
“He said, ‘When I get rich, I’m going to buy you out,”‘ Lansky said in a standard version of the story. “I said, ‘Don’t buy me out. Just buy from me.’ And he never forgot me.”
Presley made his first record, “That’s All Right,” at the old Sun Studio in 1954. Before long, Presley’s star was rising, and he began shopping at Lansky Bros. in earnest.
The Lansky brothers often opened the store at night so Presley could avoid drawing crowds and took outfits to Graceland for him to check out.
Lansky dressed him for the “Louisiana Hayride” and his first TV spots on the Tommy Dorsey and Ed Sullivan shows.
Eventually, Lansky became a favorite of the Elvis faithful who flocked to Memphis by the thousands for annual gatherings in Presley’s honor.
Lansky Bros. kept drawing the fans even after moving in 1981 from the Beale Street entertainment district to the Peabody Hotel, a downtown Memphis landmark a few blocks away.
“We get them from all over the world. The first thing when they get here, they’ve got to come down to Lansky’s,” Lansky said.
Fans weren’t his only visitors. Entertainers like B.B. King, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, ZZ Top, Kiss, and Hootie and the Blowfish also dropped by to shop and visit.
Bernard and Guy Lansky parted ways in the 1980s, family members said.
In 1997, the Presley estate opened a nightclub called Elvis Presley’s Memphis at Lansky’s old store on Beale Street. It closed in 2003, and the building was left unused once again.
Lansky and son Hal came out with a line of 1950s-style clothes in 2001, and one of their four shops in the Peabody was called “Lansky 126,” the street number of the old Beale Street store. All four shops are open to this day.
Lansky continued working past the age that most people retire.
“What am I going to retire for? What am I going to do?” he said at age 77, in June 2004. “I get here every morning at 6 o’clock, seven days a week.”