NEW YORK — How has Elliot Rabin survived for three decades as an independent specialty retailer in an industry as tough as men’s fashion in New York City?
“Because of myself and in spite of myself,” joked Rabin, owner of upscale men’s wear chain Peter Elliot, which on Wednesday will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a party at the Carlyle hotel here. Starting with a small storefront on Second Avenue in 1977, Rabin’s empire has grown to encompass his flagship Peter Elliot men’s store on Madison and 81st as well as Women by Peter Elliot and Peter Elliot Outlet across the street, Peter Elliot Blue on Lexington Avenue at 72nd Street, and three Barbour by Peter Elliot stores on Madison Avenue in New York, Boston and Andmore, Pa.
The opinionated and colorful Rabin isn’t joking about succeeding in spite of himself. Over the course of his early career, which was a frenetic hopscotch from one position to another, he weathered more than a few setbacks. But the enterprising Rabin wasn’t afraid to quit when the fit wasn’t right between him and his employer, and moved on when the boss was stubborn or when his talent and vision weren’t being appreciated. Rabin’s career began at age six when he was dragged to his father’s Ivy League specialty shop, Leon’s Men’s Wear, in Charleston, S.C., on Sunday mornings to help him work on the windows.
“I hated the business,” he recalled. “I hated the confinement.”
Nevertheless, he learned the retail business through osmosis—how to piece a suit together, how to serve customers and how retailers needed to change with the times. As the city of Charleston changed, he recalled, Leon’s had to shift its philosophy in order to survive. “I watched his stores change from Ivy League to ethnic,” Rabin said.
Hoping for a career outside retail, Rabin set off for college at the Citadel, a military school in Charleston, followed by a stint in law school at the University of London. He was drafted during the Vietnam War and served as a U.S. Army infantry captain in Germany. It was during his time in that country that a business opportunity would pull Rabin back into retail.
After finishing his tour of duty, he opened Harry’s Bar, a men’s apparel store that sold Italian leather goods and accessories to a clientele hungry for it. Despite having to drive to Milan to purchase his inventory at retail and “buy off the border guards with cigarettes,” his first retail venture was a triumph, amassing $90,000 in just 1 1/2 years.
After “spending every nickle cruising the Mediterranean,” Rabin sold that business and returned to America, eager to repeat that success. He landed in New York City.
He was hired as an assistant buyer at Bloomingdale’s 59th Street flagship in 1970 and is credited with helping to launch Saturday’s Generation, Bloomie’s young men’s department.
When Bloomingdale’s newfangled computer system was foisted on him, Rabin quit and went on to design shirts and sportswear for Chesa Boutique and men’s sportswear for Oscar de la Renta. He also worked for Zimberg Brothers, which owned the license for Givenchy and Pucci, and spent eight weeks in Florence honing his color palette at the venerable company famous for its exuberant prints.
Rabin, who has become known for his impeccable color sense, quit or was fired from each of those jobs, despite long hours and the companies’ commercial successes. It was for this reason that Rabin decided to open his own business.
“I thought, ‘If I’m going to work so hard, I might as well work for me,’” said Rabin. So in 1977, Rabin approached Peter Lonnigan, a retailer who operated a store on the Upper East Side. The store was struggling and Rabin asked if he could design a private label sportswear line for the company. Lonnigan agreed and together they started a new retail venture: Peter Elliot.
Shortly thereafter, the two parted ways; Rabin bought out Lonnigan’s share of the business for $25,000. “I had $5,000 in inventory, $5,000 in cash and empty shelves,” Rabin recalled. “So what did I do? Punt.” He filled the store with silk shirts that he bought at the Go Silk store in East Hampton, N.Y., and installed a controversial window of a woman standing on a lion’s head to advertise the military-style safari wear popular during the time. The display drew the wrath of an animal activist, who launched a brick through the glass. A picture ran in the next day’s paper and “caused a mob scene at the store,” Rabin said, delightedly. “We did $40,000 of business in three weeks.”
And Peter Elliot was on its way.
Over the years there were bumps in the road, including a short-lived shoe store, a boys’ shop called Peter Elliot Whimsy, which failed when he added girls’ wear, and the defunct Down Home America, which sold American-made goods under the price of $50. But Rabin was undeterred. He moved the flagship to Madison Avenue and 81st Street in 1991—“The best move of all,” he recalled—and hasn’t looked back since.
Next up is the conversion early next year of the Peter Elliot Outlet into a Canterbury of New Zealand boutique, proving that, even after 30 years, Rabin is still open to new challenges. “I’m having more fun than ever before,” he said. “Thirty years and it feels like the first day.”
Rabin relates his business history with gusto; his impressive memory for detail and repertoire of tangential tales make for fascinating lore. He attributes these successes to the discipline he learned from his father and his military training, but his positive can-do attitude surely helped him through as well. Even so, he couldn’t have done it without a strong team, including his sister, Eileen Sorota, who runs Women by Peter Elliot.
Rabin espouses Jack Mitchell’s Hug Your Customers philosophy/book, calling it, along with Stanley Marcus’s Minding the Store, tools of success. He recites maxims of the economist John Maynard Keynes, but at heart is very involved with the personal side of the industry.
“If you have fun in the business and smile, at the end of the day, you will have success.”