Murray Pearlstein, Retail Visionary

The legendary owner of Louis Boston died Sunday at his home in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 84.

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Murray Pearlstein in 1990.

Photo By John Aquino

A retailer’s retailer, a visionary, an innate merchant with an inimitable sense of style.

Those were just a few of the expressions used to describe Murray Pearlstein, the legendary owner of Louis Boston, who died Sunday of dementia at his home in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 84.

Pearlstein was opinionated, feisty and often controversial, but he was also the man who built a landmark specialty store that was among the first to bring European designers to America in the Sixties and one of a handful of merchants credited with transforming the men’s wear industry.

“Murray Pearlstein was one of the leading creative minds of the men’s specialty store world,” said Ralph Lauren. “He had his own design philosophy that shaped his store and its products. He had a voice and that voice was Louis Boston.”

Joseph Abboud, a Boston native who spent 12 years working for Louis part time as a salesman during college and then as a buyer, said: “He was one of the giants in the men’s wear industry with Fred Pressman [of Barneys New York] and Cliff Grodd [of Paul Stuart]. They were the three merchant princes. They were larger than life and marked an amazing, special age in our industry.”

Abboud recalled the first time he saw Pearlstein. He was 17 years old and window shopping at Louis for a tie to wear to the prom. “I saw this man yelling at the window dresser. He was wearing a melton wool blazer and a Pierre Cardin hat. That was Murray. He was a rough guy, but he had style. He was the Steve McQueen of our industry.”

Abboud said that after his parents died, Pearlstein and his wife took him in. “He was like a father to me and he was respected by everybody. The Italians genuflected when he went by.” And even though it was a comparatively small store, Abboud said the orders he placed were substantial. “He said if you believe in something, buy it like you believe in it. Without focus groups or anything like that, Murray just had raw instinct and talent.”

Ron Frasch, president and chief merchant of Saks Fifth Avenue, said: “Murray Pearlstein will be deeply missed. He is an inspiration for the way we buy today, had a strong point of view about how his business ran and never compromised his views. He spent time gathering the right European designers and mixed them well with important American brands. Murray also took risks on the younger generation, bringing new eyeballs to his store. The power of offering a compelling mix of merchandise for different types of consumers with a distinct point of view is key to Saks’ success and something Murray really pioneered.”

“He was an icon and a giant,” said Jack Mitchell, chief executive officer of Mitchells Family of Stores. “When I first came into the business, my first thought was to go to Louis of Boston. He was always innovating, always changing and always talking about product and fashion.”

His son, Bob Mitchell, copresident of Mitchells, added: “Growing up in this business I always idolized Murray Pearlstein and what Louis represented. I always made special trips to Boston to see Louis and to have Murray give me his passionate, direct viewpoint. I will forever remember Murray as a visionary and pioneer in our business.”

Richard Cohen, senior vice president of business development for Saks Fifth Avenue, who was ceo of Ermenegildo Zegna’s U.S. business, called Pearlstein “the ultimate merchant in men’s wear. He had a taste level and a point of view that communicated to Americans what Europe really was.” He said Pearlstein was the “cornerstone” that helped build the Zegna business in the U.S. “He understood the styling and creativity of Europe and challenged American consumers to wear it. He was before his time, but he’s been proven right.”

Although Pearlstein was viewed as a superior merchant, he could also be tough as nails. Abboud said he was a “tough boss. There were times when I thought I just couldn’t take it anymore, and I’d have to go out and take a walk around the block to cool off.”

Cohen laughed when he recalled Pearlstein’s prickly side: “Our industry lacks personality, and Murray, along with being a creative genius, was high maintenance. And that’s OK.”

Joe Barrato, former U.S. ceo of Brioni, said: “Murray was a true innovator and supreme visionary merchant. His passion for what he believed always labeled him outspoken, and he missed no opportunity to express his point of view. I considered him a friend and mentor, and he was always generous to me with his advice and insights. He was one of a handful of stores responsible for supporting and developing the luxury Italian statement.”

Gene Pressman, son of Fred Pressman and former ceo of Barneys New York, said Pearlstein was “an excellent merchant. We were in different markets, but he was a contemporary of my dad’s and they had a mutual admiration society. My dad was responsible for bringing European designer merchandise to this country and Murray followed soon after, focusing on classical Italian looks. And classic never goes away.”

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