Iconic Rubensteins celebrates 90 years as N.O. trendsetter

Canal Street clothier a rite of passage for N.O.

If a single entity can take credit for the men of New Orleans being pretty well-put-together chaps — possessing an air of elegance and flair for detail — it is Rubensteins, the hometown go-to for everything from seersucker to Converse and an internationally recognized arbiter of style.

Since 1924, it’s been a time-honored rite of passage for grade-school boys to enter Rubensteins’ doors, Dad at their side, to get sized up for their first navy blazer. Then, years later, for those grown-up “little men” to return to the Canal Street

store with their own tyke for that local indoctrination that could one day lead the youngsters to become true men of distinction.

Testament to its staying power through economic and tropical depressions, fads and failures, Rubensteins is celebrating its 90th anniversary Saturday under the same Central Business District roof where it sold its first shirts and neckties.

Building to its April 12 birthday, Rubensteins has planned daily fashion events and has curated its fabled display windows with memorabilia showcasing its storied past.

While long regarded as a New Orleans institution, Rubensteins continues to challenge itself to stay on the cutting edge of men’s fashion, unstuck in the amber of time and accolades. While old-school amenities remain — including valet service, tailoring and delivery — there’s young blood in the ever-circulating collection. Everyday essentials such as khakis, neckties, Oxfords and polos remain staples, but Rubensteins also carries labels bound for later glory or otherwise unavailable in the region.

Once showcasing the brands of the day, such as Arrow shirts, London Fog trenchcoats and Jantzen bathing suits, today it’s common to see designer wares from Billy Reid, the Cool Britannia icon Paul Smith, Italians Zegna, Canali and Brioni, Peter Millar and all things Ralph Lauren. (Lauren, with whom the Rubensteins remain in contact, sold his first line of neckties at the store in the late 1950s.)

In sportswear, Rubensteins sells such downtown-popular brands as K-Swiss and Converse by John Varvatos sneakers.

And eschewing those roomy pleated trousers of yesteryear, Rubensteins now carries slim-fit suits and pants, having been one of the first to sign on to the look, beginning in 2011. That includes the newly relaunched Haspel seersucker, now retooled to a less-boxy silhouette, and its own label’s two-piece suit collection aimed at the contemporary high school- and college-bound guy.

“There’s still those who think of us as an old man’s store,” said second-generation co-owner David Rubenstein, a sprightly 73, whose wife Niki and daughter Allison Marshall both play key operational roles in the business. “But it’s not so much about what we carry as it is: ‘Does it fit the way you want it to?’ ”

David, who grew up in New Orleans, began working at Rubensteins at age 8, stamping shirts on Saturdays for his father, Elkin. His brother Andre also began working at the store as a boy and now, at 75, handles day-to-day operations. David and Andre have been co-owners since the 1970s, when they acquired the interests of their uncle, Morris Rubenstein, who founded the store along with his brother Sam.

The original owners — Morris, Sam and Elkin — came from an immigrant family with experience in dry goods and retail. Their parents, transplants from Russia, owned a work-wear shop on South Rampart Street in what was then a Jewish enclave.

From the 1930s through 1960s, the store went through various name changes, then in 1997, finally dropped the “Bros.” to become Rubensteins. It also expanded its corner space at Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue by acquiring seven buildings.

While never what anyone would call inexpensive, Rubensteins remained a place that aimed to welcome patrons from all walks of life. “We’ve never differentiated our customers,” said David, recounting how 15 years ago an African-American customer from California told one of the sales associates that he made a point of returning “because, when he was young, it was the only store in New Orleans where a black man didn’t have to pay for a suit before he was allowed to try it on.”

Ben Jaffe, the leader of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, similarly recalled that the older black musicians who played with his father “always bought their shoes at Rubensteins. It was a badge of honor and source of pride to shop there.”

As a grade-schooler, Jaffe shopped with his own dad there, too, seeking a seersucker suit for his bar mitzvah. “We did all of our clothes shopping with my dad on Canal Street,” he said. “D.H. Holmes, Maison Blanche … and Rubensteins. I was 12 years old and obsessed with having a seersucker!”

While he couldn’t find one at Rubensteins that fit, he opted for a navy blue blazer and gray slacks, which were fine. “What stayed with me is that the salesperson addressed me like an adult, and it was the first time I had someone help me put on my jacket. It was … comforting.”

Similarly, Monsignor Christopher Nalty, of St. Stephen Catholic Church, said that in grade school during the ’70s, he was enticed by the power of the Rubensteins window displays.

“I was a huge fan of Steve Austin, ‘The Six Million Dollar Man.’ He wore a leisure suit while running 60 miles per hour,” he said.

The young Nalty wanted one, badly. “While Rubensteins Bros. was always a little too ‘fashionable’ for my taste,” he said, “I’d see these great leisure suits in their windows. Fortunately, my dad put the kibosh on that.”

As nearly every power player in New Orleans has shopped there, the stories flow with nostalgic fondness, particularly remembrances, current and past, of being coddled or advised with a gentle touch.

Local restaurateur Robert LeBlanc said that since he was a boy, his father made it a tradition to take him and his brother to Rubensteins to buy a new suit. Four years ago, recalled the co-owner of Sylvain and Sainte Marie, “I tried on a blazer after Rubensteins had tailored it, and surprisingly, it was still a little large, with too much room in the chest and waist.” When LeBlanc questioned sales associate Ozzie Hunter, in his 30th year on the floor, the famously dandy salesman suggested LeBlanc would grow into it. “ ‘You just opened two restaurants, and the right blazer lasts a lifetime,’ Ozzie told me,” LeBlanc said. “Sure enough, five years and 20 pounds later, he was exactly correct.”

Other notable locals cut their teeth while working at the store. Judge Roland Belsome, now in his 10th year on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal, was hired as a salesman in 1976 at age 18. He worked there through law school.

“I met, through the ’70s and ’80s, mayors, councilmen, lawyers, doctors, sports figures, local celebrities,” Belsome said. “I even ended up selling clothes to lawyers I tried cases with and against years later.”

As for how Rubensteins matches up to competition from the larger metropolises, he said, “We were taught not to just be current but to be aware of future industry trends; they were always on the cutting edge of fashion.”

Bryan Batt, the former “Mad Men” actor and New Orleans native, said signature pieces he bought from Rubensteins carry nostalgia and lasting power he can’t find elsewhere. A former store model, he said, “They were the first to carry Perry Ellis, which I loved. I got this signature hand-knit sweater and wore it out. Even when it was far too hot and humid to wear it, it was on my back, the hardest piece of clothing I’ve ever had to part with.”

“I recently bought two blazers from there,” he added, “and I get compliments on both.”

Dubbing the Rubensteins look “masculine class,” New Orleans Saints co-owner Rita Benson LeBlanc likened the store to “a masculine version of sweeping into the New York showroom of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’: grand and stately, yet a home for elegance that puts a pep in your step. It’s a vibe of Southern charm and dashing men.”

Others seek out the vintage labels, admiring the style and seeing value in their appreciation. Rich Siegel, who co-owns the Uptown French bistro La Crêpe Nanou, said he seeks out in vintage shops “anything” with the Rubensteins logo on the lining, particularly vintage 1960s suits, “with that slim ‘Dr. No’ look.” Extolling its praises, he said, “Rubensteins introduced the European look to New Orleans.”

A Paul Smith man, Tony Tocco, co-owner of Atchafalaya Café, said: “It may smack of the old ways of doing things, but good for that. They take personal checks and keep ‘house’ accounts. When I first poked my head in there 15 years ago, I was almost intimidated. It became a learning experience.”

He admits the store is his wife’s worst financial nightmare.

“I took advice from another male customer: Take the clothes out of the blue bag and straight to a dry cleaner and smuggle them into the house,” Tocco said. “Then when she sees them, raise your hands in puzzlement and say: ‘Honey, you mean those old things?’ ”