MIAMI — Schmattas and Spam were among the topics during a conversation with George Feldenkreis, executive chairman of Perry Ellis International, at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU on Monday. The event acknowledged the 50th anniversary of when the Jewish Cuban refugee got into the schmatta business through founding Supreme International in Miami, renamed Perry Ellis when he purchased his first designer brand in 1999. The Spam was part of his staple diet until he could get on his feet (“With cheese, you could make a very good dip!”).
In a conversation with FIU president Mark Rosenberg, Feldenkreis said there were even greater hurdles. Miami’s then notoriously marginalized Jewish community didn’t welcome Cuban Jews, he said, since local business owners thought the refugees wouldn’t be here long. Surely, the Cuban Revolution would be a blip in history, so why give them a job?
“I experienced the same hardships as other Cuban Jews…but I knew that somebody would buy something some day,” said Feldenkreis, who hustled to peddle nails, window glass and car and motorcycle parts, which unintentionally introduced him to manufacturing in Asia in the early Sixties, far ahead of competitors, before getting his big break with guayaberas. “The Cubavera collection continues to evolve. We currently have a collaboration with a Cuban guest designer who lives in Cuba and is creating exclusive folkloric prints,” he said.
Besides wardrobing homesick Cubans, his gamble to stay in Miami was bolstered with the city’s cachet as the gateway to Latin America and the American Riviera. But in all honesty, its similar tropical climate to his homeland swayed his decision more than anything.
“I went out of the subway in New York and saw all those big buildings and gray sky and thought ‘S–t, I better get out of here.’”
Though enjoying the fruits of his labor these days, such as spending time on his boat, the octogenarian hasn’t lost his business acumen. He shared insight into the retail “monster” known as Amazon and its much bigger threat to department stores and apparel brands like his as it expands into private label; Zara’s enviable speed to market model, which he witnessed when touring its facility for men’s wear design in Spain, and social media, which he believes his company excels in.
“We recently built a state of the art photo studio in our headquarters that supports digital and video content,” he said.
He’s up on production technology, too, having invested in 3-D imaging prototypes to replace physical samples for a new “smart to market” delivery schedule. Now if only he could find enough qualified tech workers to hire. Lamenting they’re expensive, he still could use 10 to 20 more immediately. He said education, the biggest problem in the U.S., is the answer and must be fixed, and immigrants are very important, especially in Silicon Valley.
“But immigrants need to be properly vetted,” said Feldenkreis, noting he came here legally. “In those days, you couldn’t come any other way.”