Obituary: Murray Pearlstein of Louis Boston

Murray Pearlstein, the legendary owner of Louis Boston, died Sunday at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Pearlstein was widely known and hailed as one of the most visionary retailers of his time. His 45,000 square foot store located in the former Museum of Natural History and Bonwit Teller location on Berkeley Street in downtown Boston was, for 20 years, one of the largest, highest grossing and most influential retail stores in North America.

His daughter, Debi Greenberg, joined the business in the 1990s and was his partner until his retirement. She runs the business today and gave this statement to MR. “Murray Pearlstein was one of the great retailers in the last fifty years….his passion and integrity for the product and retail experience pioneered what retail is today. His ‘rules for excellence’ are just as relevant to the art of retailing today and a map for retailing in the future.”

Murray Pearlstein

Pearlstein, who grew up in the family’s retailing business, recalled to MR in 1998 how he started working for his father Saul and uncle Nathan assembling corrugated boxes to ship the world’s most expensive suits. The brothers took over their father Louis’ pawn brokerage and incorporated it as a tailored clothing business in 1925. In the 1960s and ’70s, it was Murray Pearlstein’s vision that directed the store’s lines towards Italy, where they linked up with Giorgio Armani and later Luciano Barbera and other exclusive lines catering to the most expensive tastes. The store helped launch the career of many prominent menswear executives including designer Joseph Abboud, who started there as a salesman.

In 2010, Debi Greenberg moved the store to a beautiful new building in the up-and-coming Fan Pier section. At that time, in comments reminiscent of her father’s vision, she told MR “Luxury retail really needs to redefine itself. We commercialized it, it was a bubble that burst, and instead of stopping we need to go forward.” She saw the new Louis Boston space as a relaxing waterfront retreat. “It is uncharted territory, but that’s the point; charted territory isn’t working.”

It seems everyone who worked with Pearlstein was deeply influenced by his passion and perfectionism. Notes Gary Drinkwater, who worked for Pearlstein at Louis Boston and now has his own menswear store in the Boston area:  “Often misunderstood, Murray Pearlstein was a great scholarly individual who made tremendous inroads to understanding the fashion and fit of today’s man. He was my mentor and I’m very proud to be part of his legacy.”

Says industry icon Joe Barrato, who sold him Ralph Lauren in the early 1970s and Brioni after that, “He was a very unique merchant, highly innovative and miles ahead of the crowd. Many vendors thought he was difficult, but that’s mostly because he was a perfectionist and expected things to be done his way. He loved what he did and was very protective of his business, something I truly respected.

“Of his many accomplishments, he was among the first to pioneer luxury Italian clothing. He had an extreme taste level and didn’t compromise, even for his customers. He presented his vision and expected them to trust and accept his point of view. When I first joined Brioni, I waited a year before calling him because I felt it wasn’t right for him. When I finally called, his response to me was: “Are you sure you’re ready to show me?”

James Rarus, founder of James Menswear Services, worked for Pearlstein at Louis Boston and considers him more than a mentor. “It’s been over 20 years since I worked for this man and I’ve come to believe Murray Pearlstein was as important to menswear as Louis Armstrong was to jazz, George Carlin to comedy, Julia Child to cooking or Pele to sport. His work might not have reached audiences as large as these other artists, but his art was no less influential.”

Rarus also provided MR with the following excerpt from a memo that Pearlstein issued to his staff in the fall of 1988:

Our own vision of what clothing can be stands apart from the perennially warmed-over offerings of today’s apparel retail community. Moreover, we are totally aware that what we believe in can only be interpreted through the use of the very finest of materials and workmanship; and that a commitment to properly serving such a product is an ambitious undertaking. On both counts, we will make no compromise. Our selections reflect our desire to show only the special and tastefully unique. We avoid the commonplace, pedestrian, ‘’safe’’ offerings of the large stores and the transient fashion of many of the smaller ones. To be sure, our clothing costs dearly but as in every field, genuine quality and service are not available at a low price and often not at all. We submit that our level of style, quality and taste are as much collectible as many other fine and rare possessions. Louis Boston does not play it safe—but we are very sane.”

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