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Nearly five years ago, Debi Greenberg moved Louis to the waterfront, and it's official—she beat the critics. At the time, relocating to the Seaport District was the controversial issue in Boston retail but under Greenberg's trained eye, Louis has become an even more experiential, more premium destination than many thought possible. Not only does it have the Beyonce and Jay Z stamp of approval but in its 89 years, Louis has transformed from just a store to a symbol of Boston's cultural milieu: Ever-changing yet steeped in history, respectful of its forefathers but far from staid, and beyond welcoming to emerging talent. Here, we chat with Greenberg about fast fashion, why e-commerce is the "Sears catalog of 2015," and of course, Beyonce.
Louis Boston has a really long and rich history. What's your favorite part of the story and how do you relay that history to the people that come into the store?
I'm the fourth generation. Louis was my great grandfather and his two sons started a men's made-to-measure tailored clothing store in June of 1929. They spent the next twenty years battling it out through the Depression and the war and my father took it over with his cousins in the '50s and really transformed it into a retail store during the boom years. Louis was the owner of a pawnshop in Roxbury and he was known for refurbishing immigrant clothing and reselling it. All three generations had really transformed the store into what was valued for their generation, their times, whatever. And that's how I was trained.
There were several rules that I was trained to do that are as relevant today as they were in the 1800s. And those are: Always go for the best products you can find, make sure to present them well, and bring your customer into a new endeavor, into the next generation. You know, we moved to the waterfront because I felt the new generation wanted something a little more modern, a little more relaxed. Luckily we found some space which had a beautiful view and a private, intimate setting for shopping.
How did you scout the location?
When I took over the company in the '90s, Newbury Street was the place but I slowly saw that Newbury was transforming itself into a mall…and the landlords were taking on more mall-oriented businesses. One day I actually looked out my window and saw Filene's Basement and thought to myself "That isn't right, that isn't where we should be." Even though we were housed in a beautiful building, times change. I knew that the Big Dig was happening and it was opening up the waterfront—and if you think about men (menswear is a very integral part of our business), they're the harder of the two customers (between a man and a woman).
Men are always at peace and happiest by the water. So, I wanted to be here. But finding a place that was going to be viable (because nothing had been developed yet) was hard. I worked with the developer Joe Fallon because right before I took it over it was nothing but a parking lot. And with the Mayor we developed a temporary building to get people down here and it definitely worked.
Once you got this space with Joe Fallon, did you know how you wanted to decorate it or was that a different process?
That for me is a very natural thing. I just wanted a glass cube. I wanted the water to be the focal point of the view. I wanted it to be a space that I could reinvent every season, so everything has wheels and it's all easily movable. When someone walks into the store it never looks the same as the last time they came in—which is against the rules of retail right now, where a Gap store in Minneapolis should look like a Gap store in San Francisco and that familiarity should make the customer feel great but to me it gets boring very quickly. And being part of retail, you need to entice.
How has your customer changed from Newbury Street to the Waterfront?
It's a funny thing. Another rule of thumb that I think we broke was "location, location, location." The more people that walk by your store, the more chances you have to sell items. The fact remains we had a great store in Back Bay but people were wandering in and wandering out. Our store on the waterfront is more of a destination. Their determination to be there and to really look and come in and experience it...we hold their attention much better. And their propensity to shop is much better because they come all the way here and they know why they're coming. They want to see what's here, they want to be enticed, they want to enjoy the experience. And so it seems like it's become a much more friendly and much less standoffish kind of a store because of it. The customer is much more excited to be here because they've made an effort to get here.
The other thing is, when we first moved there were a lot of older customers (around my age) who were doubtful. Especially men. They were sort of thinking that it was going to be too young of a store and that they wouldn't belong. And I had also moved away from certain clothing that exists in other men's stores. I felt that [those styles] were old, they were dated, and it was time to change. And with the move I could do that, but we sort of lost a few [customers]. But I'm finding, especially now, that we have a lot of customers coming back. Going "Yes, this is the way I do want to look," "You know, my clothes look old and dated, it's so much more fun to be here." They're finding that in trying on more tailored clothing that their older clothes made them look dumpier and these clothes are more fitted and more modern and they feel rejuvenated by it. So it's nice to see that an old customer is becoming a new customer.
How have you seen the neighborhood change since being here?
Are you kidding? I had two buildings built within a year and a half right behind me. I have another big hole in the ground right next to me, and there are three major projects on all sides of me. It's like I'm this little oasis right by the water—thank God we have parking where customers can come. But they too are experiencing an entirely new neighborhood happening.
Now moving in-store, what's your inspiration for the merchandise you sell?
Well, there are a couple of things that inspire me right now that most people are not looking at. I think that the fashion industry as a whole has become a mechanical paradigm starting with Anna Wintour and Vogue and brands like LVMH and Kering and all the major brands and the major stores that are owned by hedge funds. They're guiding the luxury consumer into one way and I find that it is going down the wrong road. There's a new generation coming up that you have to look at and you have to see what marks they're going to put on fashion—not so much the fast retailing like H&M or anything like that, those are trends that come and go.
We've been in a sort of rut I feel because we've been puppets for these major conglomerates who want to be able to sell things in a very massive global way and therefore we've seen a lot of repetition, a lot of randomness, a lot of quick hits, a lot of quick trends but not a lot of major changes. Having said that, I do see trends happening but it's more underground. When I go from city to city I never have a car or a driver; I take the subway everywhere I go mostly whether it's Paris, Milan, or New York. I'm always walking and going to different areas and when you start to do that you get to see a youth culture and you get to see a trend that is working with them. So, I've been inspired by that. They say it's a sportswear or sportif wear thing but they're incorporating a little bit of sportif with a little bit of urban into a luxury wardrobe, and it's done in a very luxurious way.
Moving on to price point: What are your customers willing to spend?
I find with fast retailing there's no way I'm going to win on that note. Those people are really good at what they're doing. They're hitting on fast trends, manufacturing them, and bringing them to the floor within four weeks—and they're doing it with a price point that is easily disposable to most people. But the problem with that is it makes the clothing disposable and I think even if I could get into those price points I wouldn't want to. We're not about disposable clothing.
I follow in my grandfather, my great grandfather, and my father's footsteps of always bringing the best possible product that you possibly can to the marketplace and you're never going to find that for $29.99. That being said, you can find a lot of very good things made in this country and in Europe within the $200-500 range that we carry all the time. And of course, we can go much higher than that depending on the product.
What's your best advice for new boutique owners?
Buy what you like and believe in. Have a passion for it and have a focus. Therefore it'll be easier for you to buy. If you're chasing something—someone else's success or a brand that is already successful or you're chasing something that already is you'll never win. The only time you'll ever win is if you really have a passion and a belief for it and therefore you can present it, show it, sell it. I find that every time I think I should buy something for somebody else—for a woman who is not like me, someone who "would" like that or "might" like this—it ends up on the sale rack. The things where I walk in and go "Oh my God, I love that" are the first things to walk out the store.
What are some of your favorite items in-store right now?
Some of my favorite items are track pants that are made out of both leather and beautiful fleece, some knits that are mixed knits with different fabrics because they're woven differently than has been done before, a little bit of drop crotch pant that gives you an urban look even though they're done in a luxurious fabric….
Let's talk about the future of the store. Would you ever consider e-commerce?
Well it's a big question, isn't it? Right now I look at e-commerce and I'm not so excited about it. I think the presentation is lousy, I think it's random, I think it forces the consumer to buy randomly. E-commerce is nothing but the Sears catalog of 2015 and it bogs my mind how people just sit there and keep buying from it and how many mistakes they must be making. Obviously, you can return, but the essence of that back and forth...why not go into a store and try it on and have someone explain to you how to wear it or how to change your look or update your look?
I think with the absence of that, people have not changed their look very much in a long time. And you're seeing a repetition of the same look over and over again. If you do buy on the internet, you tend to buy things you already know, what you already like. Why not do something different? But it's really hard to do something different and buy it on the internet. And my whole premise is to find something new and different in your wardrobe that you haven't already owned, and to do that you really need someone to say "Here, let me show you how to do this." So, no.
Any other kinds of expansion?
I don't know, I'm getting a little old. It isn't my number one priority. I have a daughter; if she ever wants to get into the business that can be her priority. It isn't mine. Mine is to make sure that in this time when retail is in such flux and fashion is in such flux that we maintain who we are and the integrity of who we are.
Lightning round: 8am or 8pm?
Whiskey or Tequila?
Fort Point or the South End?
Favorite neighborhood lunchtime spot?
Favorite celeb to visit the store?
· Boston's 38 Essential Shopping Experiences, Winter 2014 [Racked Boston]
· Mr. and Mrs. Carter Shopped at Louis While on Tour [Racked Boston]
· Louis [Official Site]