Among the most popular stops of the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the world, the rattling pine-green St. Charles line in New Orleans, is the corner of Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue. There, you’ll find one of the oldest continuously operating menswear shops in America.
Founded in 1924 by Morris Rubenstein as a haberdashery on Rampart Street, near the birthplace of jazz, it became “Rubenstein Bros.” when brothers Elkin and Sam joined the business. At its Canal Street location for most of its existence, Rubensteins has weathered not just hurricanes but also the vagaries of fashion, including the recent decline of dressing up for work, dinner, religious services and events.
“I was told about going into this business many years ago by my father: ‘It's a good business, but if you see men walking around naked, get out, because then there is no business,” owner David Rubenstein said in an interview at his store. “Until then, it's just going to change with the times.”
Rubensteins continues to thrive thanks to its location and clientele. (David Rubenstein, a son of Elkin, who has worked at the store for 60 years, declined to provide sales or profit figures.)
Above all, Rubensteins caters to a luxury customer who likes dressing well, Rubenstein said. Wealthy households are fairly well insulated from inflation and other financial challenges, and that’s showed up in last year’s sales figures at higher-end stores. Nearly all luxury brands in the U.S. and Europe generated positive growth in 2022, according to recent research from Bain & Co., which found that globally, the luxury market could grow 21%.
“What people don't understand is, when you have money, how do you enjoy spending it?” he said. “This guy, he doesn't want to wear the same thing everyday. So his sportswear buys have increased and there's a lot more of that being shown. But so has his clothing. Because he still does business. And this is about enjoying your money.”
Moreover, unlike in areas served by the likes of Louis Boston in Boston, Harry O’s in San Francisco and Abe Mandel and Sons in Philadelphia, which have all recently closed their doors, in New Orleans, a gentleman is still often expected to come to the table in a suit and tie.
“In this city, we have judges and lawyers and doctors that still wear a lot of suits,” he said. “In a lot of our restaurants, you still need a coat.”
That doesn’t mean that Rubensteins isn’t keeping up. Plenty of casual styles, including sweaters, quilted vests over suits and tasteful sneakers, are displayed in the store’s windows. But that itself is nothing new. During World War II, for example, the retailer tried selling women’s apparel, though that was short-lived. Around the time of the Vietnam War, as young people began dressing down, the retailer launched its own denim brand, “All American Jeans.” In the late ’60s, as the generation gap widened, Rubenstein’s uncle, “a really good merchant,” opened a shop aimed at younger men, dubbed the Madison Shop, with a separate entrance.
“Kids didn’t wanted to be seen walking in here, so they would go upstairs to the shop, and it worked out,” he said, because the fathers knew the clothes were good and the sons could charge them to their store accounts.
“That’s exactly how I started coming here,” said Chris Galjour, a longtime Rubensteins customer who also did a stint as an employee, who stopped by the store. “My dad had an account — he used to come in here every summer for a new seersucker suit — and I would go into the Madison Shop, until he cut me off. I got cut off here and at Galatoire's, where I would go to lunch and take my dates.”
Still, it’s hard to ignore the plethora of handmade Italian suits, and surfeit of silk neckties and pocket squares. Rubensteins was the first retailer to sell the luxury Zegna label in the U.S., which prompted the Italian Trade Commission to issue David Rubenstein an award. Rubensteins once furnished the city’s archbishop with a Zegna suit to match the pope’s. The store, and Rubenstein himself, also has a longtime relationship with Ralph Lauren, from when Lauren worked for a New York City necktie maker.
“My Aunt Gertrude was the buyer, and, according to his salesman, Ralph would come out and say, ‘What did Gertrude say?’” Rubenstein said. “Because if she loved it, that was it. If not, he knew it wasn’t quite right.”
Rubensteins is also a place where service is paramount, reflected in the salespeople’s helpful attention, 45-year tradition of free valet parking, expert on-site tailoring and well-stocked glass liquor cabinet. David Rubenstein works with brands for special orders, as when legendary musician Allen Toussaint needed a suit for his performances.
“He loved clothes and he comes in and says ‘I want a bright green suit, and I want a Brioni,” said Rubenstein, who had to get on the phone to Italy when only the jacket came in. “I had to tell them to find the pants. Nobody thought they would put something that bright together, but he needed to be seen on stage from far away.”
Rubensteins is diversifying further, putting the finishing touches on a boutique hotel that will occupy what has recently become a lot of extra space in the building’s upper floors. Its entrance will be on St. Charles, and its bar will be called “The Madison Shop.”
But the store below will carry on, with the help of longtime employees like Ozzie Hunter, who has been there for more than 40 years.
“The men's business is here to stay,” Rubenstein said. “Until I see the naked guy.”