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Elvis Week Pumps Up Memphis Retailers

The 31st anniversary of the icon's death means big business.

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Bernard J. Lansky and Elvis Presley in Lansky Bros. shop on 126 Beale Street in Downtown Memphis. Circa 1950s.

Elvis Presley Enterprises

It’s Elvis Week in Memphis, and retailers are taking care of business.

This story first appeared in the August 15, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Saturday marks the 31st anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, forming the nucleus for a week of events, drawing an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 fans of The King and generating $40 million in revenue, said the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The entertainment icon is a powerful economic presence, pumping about $400 million a year into the local economy.

The throngs who began arriving for Elvis Week last Saturday to tour Presley’s mansion, Graceland, and his grave, as well as the city where he started his career at Sun Records, are never more fervent than during the buildup of movies, concerts and other activities that lead to the candlelight vigil tonight at Graceland.

Lansky Bros., which opened on Beale Street in 1946 as an Army surplus store, is one of the few retailers with a direct connection to Presley.

Chairman Bernard J. Lansky, who founded the business with his brother, Guy, remembers Elvis as a teenager peaking in the windows of the store and making his first purchases — two shirts for $5 each.

“He came in before he was going to New York to be on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’” Lansky recalled. “He said he needed some clothes, but he was broke. I fixed him up and gave him 30 days to pay. That was our deal.”

After Elvis became famous, he became obsessive about clothes, Lansky said.

“He’d call me up at 2 a.m. and I’d go down and open the store. He wouldn’t let anybody wait on him but me,” Lansky said.

Their relationship had its perks. Lansky said the entertainer once returned from a trip to New York in a new car that had been given to him by RCA Records.

“We drove around in it for a while, and then he said ‘It’s yours,’” Lansky said.

Lansky outfitted Elvis from his high school senior prom tuxedo to the white suit in which he was buried.

Although no commercial activity is allowed on the grounds of Graceland, there are 11 gift shops directly across the street that are owned by Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. Tourists choose from thousands of products supplied by 230 licensed manufacturers, ranging from a $4 Elvis sticker to a $350 “anamatronic talking Elvis.” At shopelvis.com, the merchandise includes women’s and men’s apparel, jewelry, accessories, toys and home decor items.

“The die-hard fans want clothing with authentic photo reproductions from ‘Blue Hawaii’ [one of Presley’s 33 movies] or the ’68 comeback special” on NBC, said Alex Alvarez, marketing director of Steady Clothing Inc., a clothing licensee.

Officials won’t release total sales figures, but a spokesman for Elvis Presley Enterprises cited a Forbes magazine listing of Presley “as the number-one deceased celebrity in merchandise sales.”

For specialty retailers, Elvis Week can be Christmas in August.

Lansky Bros. moved on from Army surplus long ago. There are now four stores at the Peabody Hotel downtown: Lansky Essentials, Lansky Lucky Duck, Lansky at the Peabody for Men and Lansky 126, named for the original Beale Street address, offering men’s, women’s and children’s clothing, accessories and gifts.

And Elvis is a major presence.

The men’s store offers a private label collection of retro-inspired Elvis styles called Lansky Bros. Clothier to The King, including buttoned shirts in his signature pink and black color combination, and replicas of some of his concert and movie costumes that customers can have custom-made.

The Elvis obsession is less evident in Lansky 126, a gift shop converted to a contemporary boutique in 2003. In September Lansky 126 will expand to 3,000 square feet, expanding women’s contemporary product, including dresses by Max Studio, BCBG Max Azria and Free People, fashion shoes by Yellow Box and brightly colored leather bags by Tano and Anteprima Nueve.

During Elvis Week, Muse, a downtown Memphis store with an East Memphis, Tenn., unit and a store in New Orleans, is decorated for the occasion. The store specializes in “artistic, funky,” designers, often up-and-coming New York and Los Angeles lines, including Robin Kaplan, Ohm and An Ran, said owner Lisa Doss. But in homage to The King, there is a large Elvis cut-out, mannequins with Elvis-style sunglasses, and handbags made with replicas of Elvis album covers.

Flashback, a store selling new and vintage clothing, furniture and decorative objects from the Thirties through the Seventies also gets a bump from The King.

Europeans, Asians and Australians, frequent the store, decked out in retro rock ’n’ roll for the entire week, helping boost August sales 30 percent compared with other months. Bestsellers include vintage cocktail dresses, cashmere sweaters and pointed-toe shoes.

“Europeans love the American Fifties-inspired look,” said owner Millett Vance. “The men often dress like Elvis. They don’t consider it a costume, it’s their regular mode of dress.”

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