When in 1952 Presley first visited Lanksy Bros, the menswear store in Memphis that Lansky ran with his brother Guy, he was a 17-year-old high school pupil working part-time as a cinema usher. At the time the clientele of the Beale Street shop was mainly black — musicians, gamblers and hustlers from the Mississippi Delta wanting to buy the yellow suits, pink sports coats, silk shirts and snazzy pairs of white shoes on display in the shop window.
For some time before Elvis actually dared to set foot in the shop, Lansky had been used to the sight of the teenager’s nose pressed against the glass. “I seen him a lot of times out there. He stood out in the crowd even then,” Lansky recalled. “So one day I went out and spoke to him, invited him in... He’d seen the high-fashion black guys wearing my clothes and he wanted that.’’
Lansky showed him round the store, but Elvis could afford only a three-dollar shirt: “He told me, 'These are beautiful things. I like everything. I don’t have no money now, but when I get rich I’ll buy you out.’ I told him, 'Do me a favour. Don’t buy me out, just buy from me,’” Lansky recalled. He decided to take a chance on the good-looking young man, offering him credit.
For Presley’s high school senior graduation, Lansky recalled: “I put a pink coat on him, black pair of pants, pink-and-black cummerbund, pretty shirt. They tore it off him, that’s how crazy it was.” (Pink and black became something of an Elvis theme; Lansky would also make him a pink leather coat to match his pink Cadillac).
It was not long after the graduation ceremony that Lansky discovered that Elvis had landed a contract with Sun Records.
Although he used several other tailors over his career (Lansky was not responsible for the rhinestone-encrusted “fatburger” jumpsuits favoured by the star in his later years), Elvis stuck by Lansky, and much of the clothing supplied by other designers harked back to the Lansky style. “Whenever he came in, he would pay for everyone in the store, no matter who they were,” Lansky recalled. “And he was always real polite. He’d always call me 'Mr Lansky’.”
In 1956 the shop kitted out the star for his television debut on the Dorsey Brothers’ CBS series Stage Show. Performing Shake, Rattle And Roll and I Got A Woman, Elvis was decked out in black shirt, black trousers, white tie and sports coat. Later that year, for his first appearance on the Milton Berle Show, Elvis chose a Lansky grey-striped, two-button jacket with a velour collar, matched with black trousers — a combination that would inspire the “Teddy Boy” look in Britain.
Lansky also created a sensation with the gold lamé jacket he designed for Elvis’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show shortly afterwards: “Everybody started seeing it and they liked it. After a while, everybody wanted a gold lamé jacket.” Among other designs for the star, Lansky tailored his “big shirts’’ — oversized, richly-coloured balloon-sleeved velvet tops which would be matched with “peg pants” and half-boots of patent leather. Elvis called his Lansky style his “hillbilly cat” look, declaring that “cat clothes are a must as far as I’m concerned”. “He was cool as a pool, no fool,” observed Lansky.
After Elvis moved into Graceland in 1957, Lansky would regularly send truckloads of clothes to the house: “I remember one time we had these Dobbs hats — broadbrimmed, like the gangsters used to wear — for $25 apiece. He ordered them for everyone, all his friends.”
The Elvis effect boosted Lansky’s business, as hordes of fans, and stars such as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, sought to acquire a little of the Lansky stardust. As a result the Lanskys were able to expand, eventually moving to grander premises in Memphis’s Peabody Hotel.
Lansky kept up with the latest trends: “In the Sixties we branched into tight-fitting pants — the Carnaby Street mod look out of London was hot. We were the first to bring in big, bell-bottom flares.”
But for Elvis the good times did not last: “The last time I saw him alive he was a little bit heavy,” Lansky recalled tactfully. “It was 1977, and he was back in the store for a fitting. And when you saw Elvis on TV at that time it was really sad.”
When the star died in August that year Lansky was asked to dress him for burial: “I put his first suit on and his last suit on. It was kind of tough, but I had a job to do. I put him in the casket after he died. He had a white suit, white shirt and a blue tie. I wanted it to be beautiful.
“I was heartbroken.”
Bernard Lansky was born on March 10 1927 in Memphis. His father, a Jewish emigrant from Poland, ran a grocery store on Kansas Street where his six sons and three daughters helped out as children.
After serving in the US Army in the Second World War, Bernard and his brother Guy bought a second-hand goods store in Beale Street. Initially they sold Army surplus goods, but by 1950 they had moved into menswear, catering for blues artists who liked to “dress different”. For example, the trousers sold at Lanskys’ had no back pockets because, as Lansky put it, the entertainers “wanted to show their booty”.
Guy Lansky left the business in the early 1980s, and in 1996 Bernard Lansky struck a deal to lease the original Beale Street premises for 20 years to Elvis’s former wife, Priscilla, and Elvis Presley Enterprises, for an undisclosed sum. “That was my insurance policy,” he explained.
Bernard Lansky is survived by his wife, Joyce, and by their son and daughter.
Bernard Lansky, born March 10 1927, died November 15 2012