Murray Pearlstein, the Boston retailer who transformed Louis Boston from a haberdashery and suit shop to an internationally known high-fashion boutique, died at his home in Santa Fe Sunday. He was 84. The cause of death was complications of cancer, said his son, Steven Pearlstein.
Mr. Pearlstein is credited with pushing Boston’s sartorial boundaries and introducing shoppers to some of the most sought-after fashion lines from designers the world over. But he also appreciated tastemakers closer to home, launching the career of well-known Boston designer Joseph Abboud.
In the late 1980s, Mr. Pearlstein owned multiple Louis locations, including a store on 57th Street in Manhattan. Three Boston-area locations were consolidated into the 40,000-square-foot former Museum of Natural History building at the corner of Boylston and Berkeley streets in 1990.
Mr. Pearlstein designed his own line of clothing for the stores and worked with top European fabric mills to design suits that could be found nowhere else. His daughter, Debi Greenberg, bought the business from him in 2003.
“He was one of the single biggest influences on my professional life,” said Abboud, who worked for Mr. Pearlstein from 1968 to 1980. “I would not be in the place I am today if it wasn’t for him. He was more like a dad to me than just a boss.”
Abboud was 17 years old and standing on Boylston street the first time he saw Pearlstein, nattily attired in a wool melton trench coat and a Pierre Cardin hat — and yelling at the window dressers. Abboud was mesmerized and decided he wanted to be as cool as the sharply dressed man who he thought resembled Steve McQueen.
“He was regarded as one of the most influential trend-
setters in the clothing industry,” said interior designer Frank Roop, who worked with Mr. Pearlstein from 1986 to 1999. “Most retailers simply present clothing they hope will sell. He was completely unique in the industry. His work was a labor of love.”
Mr. Pearlstein was instrumental in the evolution of Louis Boston, which traces its roots to a Roxbury pawn shop started by his grandfather at the turn of the last century.
Louis Pearlstein would buy suits from customers and resell them. Pearlstein’s father, Saul, and uncle Nathan turned the pawn shop into a men’s suit shop in 1929, selling American-made suits to a largely business clientele.
By 1950, Saul’s son Murray began working at the store with other family members, which by then was selling high-end, American-made clothing such as Hickey Freeman suits and Cavanagh hats.
But a dramatic shift for the retailer began when Mr. Pearlstein began bringing European merchandise into the mix, especially high quality, off-the-rack men’s suits.
“He went to Italy in the 1960s and worked with people like [Italian designer] Luciano Barbera to develop suits that would hang on the rack that men could buy immediately, as opposed to a made-to-measure garment,” said Greenberg. “That was a big transformation, and he was definitely part of that.”
He was not only working with fabric mills and designers to create suits exclusively for Louis, but he began importing clothing from some of Europe’s top fashion houses beginning in the late 1960s. Louis Boston was one of the first retailers in the United States to carry clothing by Pierre Cardin, Yves St. Lauren, Ermenegildo Zegna, Gianni Versace, Giorgio Armani, Paul Smith, Gianfranco Ferre, and Dries van Noten, along with the Kiton and Brioni lines.
Generations of Bostonians turned to Louis when they needed suits for graduations, weddings, and bar mitzvahs. And for decades, people would line up when Louis Boston merchandise went on sale at Filene’s Basement in Downtown Crossing.
Steven Pearlstein said his father was the first fashion retailer to publish a magazine for his customers.
Louis’s top salesmen and tailors were known to stay for decades. Those employees remember Mr. Pearlstein not only for his fashion acumen, but for his bigger-than-life personality.
“He wasn’t just a fire cracker; he was the grand finale,” said Arthur Jordan, who has worked at Louis Boston for 45 years, 20 of them with Mr. Pearlstein. “He was so fiery and passionate in everything he did and demanded the best out of people who were working with him. But on the other side of the coin, he was a softy.”
Steven Pearlstein said two of his father’s strengths, which propelled the business, were an astute eye for merchandising product and his unwavering perfectionism.
“He spent an inordinate amount of time and money hiring people to do windows, which were changed every week,” said Steven. “What distinguished the store was the merchandising. When people came in, they wanted the whole outfit because it all looked so good together. It made it a whole lot easier to sell.”
Under Mr. Pearlstein and his cousins Jerome and Louis Pearlstein, Louis Boston opened stores in the Chestnut Hill Mall, Harvard Square, and in the 1980s on 57th St. in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Women’s clothing was added in the 1980s. In 1990, Mr. Pearlstein consolidated the Boston-area locations at the old Museum of Natural History in the Back Bay. As part of the restoration, a restaurant and hair salon were added.
In 2010, Greenberg moved Louis from the Back Bay to a new location at Fan Pier on Boston Harbor.
Murray Russell Pearlstein was born and raised in Brookline and graduated from Brookline High School, where he was a track star. He attended Middlebury College and Harvard.
He lived for many years in Brookline and later in Rye Beach, N.H. with his first wife, Dorothy Stein Pearlstein, who died of cancer in 1989. He later lived in Gloucester and Boston’s North End before moving to Santa Fe in 2003.
Mr. Pearlstein leaves his wife of 23 years, Jeanne Barbour Pearlstein of Santa Fe; his daughters, Debi Greenberg and Nancy; his son, Steven, and three grandchildren.
No memorial is planned.
Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.