For the past 82 years, the Perlis family has relied on creativity and ingenuity to help its clothing business prosper.
In the years after original founder Rogers Perlis first opened the store in 1939, he would work in his shop, selling new clothes to customers Mondays through Saturdays. In the meantime, he would collect unwanted clothes from more affluent customers and friends. On Sundays, he headed to lower income New Orleans neighborhoods to sell those clothes out of his car.
“He would do more business on Sundays in those first couple of years than he did during the rest of the week,” said David W. Perlis, Rogers’ grandson and one of the current store owners. “His Sunday work is really what allowed him to make the money to live on while he reinvested what he made Mondays through Saturdays back into the business.”
The business continued to grow as both New Orleans locals and tourists gravitated to its selection of classic Southern clothing. But in the late 1970s, things began to look rough. The owners of Izod Lacoste, then one of the world’s most popular shirt businesses, pulled its American licenses, meaning that Perlis and other stores could no longer sell those products. A new company, Polo Ralph Lauren, entered the market around the same time, but Perlis couldn’t reach an agreement with them to sell Polo products.
David’s father, David G. Perlis, who was running the business by then, decided it was time to create his own products. He worked with a local artist to create a unique crawfish design that was then incorporated into shirts sold at Perlis. It was an instant hit and now, more than 40 years later, remains one of Perlis’ best sellers.
“It really came out of a scary time for the business,” David W. Perlis said. “It was successful quickly. I think the people of South Louisiana relished having something of their own on a shirt rather than something that was a bit more generic.”
Through the years, some of the most popular items at Perlis have been shirts with the iconic crawfish design as well as Mardi Gras-themed shirts and dresses, especially ones with a rugby design. They’ve been especially popular with tourists, but Perlis expects at least a 50 percent drop in his first quarter revenue in 2021 because of the cancellation of parades and balls.
“It’s not about profit and loss right now,” Perlis said. “It’s really about managing our inventory and our expenses and understanding that it’s going to take a while. I’m fortunate to lead a business with a great staff and resources that have been left in the business by previous generations. My grandfather really built a sound financial structure. My father appreciated that and learned from him and he’s passed that down to me. But there is no doubt that it is a challenge.”
Today, David W. Perlis is thinking more about how his father and grandfather adapted as he navigates the rapidly changing world of retail. There is a renewed focus on online sales as more people prefer websites over physical stores. Perlis said that before the pandemic, online sales accounted for about 7 percent of the store’s business. Now, online sales make up about 13 to 14 percent of all sales, meaning Perlis and other store leaders are working to make the online shopping experience as enjoyable and easy as possible.
In addition, Perlis said he is taking a closer look at the store’s inventory and talking to his employees, especially those in the younger generation, about fashion trends and customer needs.
“We’ve always benefited from being in this region, where some restaurants ask you to have a jacket on or people want to dress up for events, fundraisers and balls,” he said. “Those things aren’t happening right now. We look forward to them happening again, but even when they do, we expect people will want to dress more casually. We want to make sure we right-size our inventory and focus on what customers are actually wearing.”
Even with those changes, Perlis said there are some things that never go out of style. His grandfather and father both taught him the value of treating employees well and listening to their feedback. Today, many Perlis employees have been with the store for 15 years or more. That helps create stronger relationships with customers, something Perlis knows is key to any business’ success.
“It’s about taking care of people so that they choose to build a relationship with us and become a regular customer,” he said. “My grandfather and father really showed me how important it is to become a part of the fabric of someone’s life. It’s become harder now because some people are not used to that sense of familiarity and they want to engage in a different way. We have to roll with it and learn how to adapt.”
Perlis currently has stores at 6070 Magazine Street in New Orleans, 600 Decatur Street in New Orleans, 8366 Jefferson Highway in Baton Rouge and 1281 North Causeway Boulevard on the North Shore. For more information, visit www.perlis.com.