Nola landmark clothier Rubensteins celebrates centennial with new hotel

Kenny Rubenstein

One of the oldest continuously-operating menswear stores in America, Rubensteins in New Orleans is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year with a legacy of trying new things and adapting to the times.

At the 100-year mark, trying new things includes a completely different kind of venture — a boutique hotel, located upstairs from the store. The Rubenstein Hotel has 40 rooms in the upper floors of the six buildings they own.

The hotel opened at the beginning of the year, just in time to offer Mardi Gras packages, as the hotel is right on the parade route on Canal Street, with balconies for viewing the festivities. They offer king and double rooms, corner suites and a presidential suite with a loft bedroom and kitchenette.

“We are proud to showcase our family’s enduring commitment to downtown and the city of New Orleans,” said second-generation owner David Rubenstein. “Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, we are optimistic about the timing of our hotel’s debut and its contribution to tourism in New Orleans.”

A century of change

In a room overlooking Canal Street, with family portraits on the wall, third-generation owner Kenny Rubenstein recounts the store’s first 100 years of history.

Rubensteins — the clothing store — began in 1924 when Morris Rubenstein used his experience from the family’s dry goods store on Rampart Street, and opened a store selling “white shirts, with collars and cuffs.” Soon, Morris’ brothers, Elkin and Sam, joined, and the store became Rubinstein Bros.

Rubenstein said that they soon realized that “they had to expand and add product, and see where the niche was.” They sought out high-end items, and played a large role in introducing Italian fashion to the country.

Even their American suits were $300 or $400, “and that was a big deal, but it was the finest things made in the U.S.”

After expanding their space every two years in the rest of the 1920s, the Great Depression hit, and business fell. They approached the building owner asking for a reduction in rent, and the landlord figured that not only was some rent better than none, but when good times returned, the store would once again be successful. After the Depression, the Rubensteins were able to buy their building and embarked on an expansion, which was promoted in the Times-Picayune on Dec. 7, 1941.

Of course, World War II then greatly affected the business. “Everybody was gone,” Rubenstein said. It was “hard to sell men’s product, it was hard to get men’s product.” They added women’s wear, but in 1945 went back to just menswear.

After the war, they offered free white shirts to every soldier they knew, along with new charge accounts. That helped the store prosper after the war, and expansion continued, eventually encompassing six buildings along Canal at St. Charles.

As more New Orleans young men headed to the northeast for college, they weren’t as interested in shopping where their fathers shopped, so Rubenstein’s opened the Madison Shop around the corner on St. Charles, with a separate entrance. That entrance is now the hotel entrance, and The Madison Bar, a nod to its history. Despite it being separate from their fathers’ store, much of the merchandise was the same.

Elkin’s sons, Andre and David, ran the Madison Shop. In the 1970s, as the hippie revolution started, Andre and David launched the All American Jeans division.

The family also branched out geographically, for a while. When Lake Forest Plaza opened in East New Orleans in 1974, Rubensteins was one of the original stores. In the 1980s, another location was added, in Lakeside Shopping Center in Metairie.

Kenny and Mark Rubenstein joined the business in the 1990s, along with Andre and David’s wives, Robbie and Niki. In 2000, David’s children, Hilary and Allison, also joined.

Rubenstein said one way to stay on top of the trends, especially among the next generation, is to have members of that generation at the table to give their observations and expertise.

The late 1990s saw the decline of the Plaza, so the family closed that location, along with the Metairie location, preferring to expand and invest in the downtown location.

A ladies’ department was added, and to reflect the broader representation in the family, the name was changed from Rubenstein Bros. back to the original Rubensteins.

Decades ago, Rubensteins added valet parking, “trying to make it easy for people to come to the store.” James, the long-time valet, knows regular customers by name.

Many of the other employees have been at the store for very long times, building long-term relationships. Rubensteins offers 30-minute complimentary style sessions, where one can define or change their own personal style, with the expertise of the staff, and no obligation to buy.

Rubenstein said that the strongest part of their business comes from made-to-measure, something they have always offered. “People want to do something unique, something for themselves.”

They recently opened a custom desk for Munro, one of several of the world’s best brands that they work with. Rubensteins was the first retailer in the United States to offer the luxury Italian label Zegna, and the Italian Trade Commission honored Rubensteins for that distinction.

In a corridor with historical photos and awards, there is the Order of Merit medal of the Italian Republic given to Rubensteins “for their role in introducing Italian clothing to the USA.”

Biggest challenges

Of course, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath “was a mess,” as the flooded city emptied out.

The family gathered in Houston and decided that they were going to return, then “sat down and made a plan.” They continued to pay their employees and didn’t lose anyone. Seven weeks later, they were the first retail store on Canal Street to reopen, and they had 40 customers that day.

The first customer was Mark Schroeder, a New Orleanian who had been on “The Amazing Race” and was heading to New York that day to be interviewed on “The Early Show” the next morning, and because of the flood, didn’t have anything to wear on national television.

Part of the post-Katrina plan was relying on the relationships they had developed over the decades. One example Rubenstein cited was seeing a clothing line you are pretty sure you won’t be interested in, but you know the salesperson is starting out, and the fact you took the time to look at it is meaningful — and when that salesperson has something you are interested in down the line, the early gesture is remembered.

With that sort of philosophy, after Katrina, “they are calling you — ‘what can we do?… Don’t worry about paying anything right now’.” Customers also called, from New Orleans and around the country, saying “they want to help, want to buy.” Those who made it back to New Orleans “were trying to get together and they had no wardrobe left.”

While times change and the current trend is much more casual — Rubenstein noted he has seen that trend at Shabbat services — New Orleans is still “a dressy town. We dress in a tuxedo to go to the zoo.” Because of the sheer number of events in New Orleans, everyone has to own a tuxedo, while in most other cities, one can get away with the occasional rental.

But even the dressier fashions are more casual — softer, unlined sports coats are an example. “It goes between dressy and casual,” Rubenstein said.

While there may be more of the casual dressy look, he added, “the fully dressy look isn’t going to go away any time soon.”

Canal Street has also changed with the times, from department stores to the current mix of hotels, gift shops and restaurants in the “gorgeous buildings.” Rubenstein said the area is “definitely in a renaissance,” with far fewer empty storefronts. For buildings that had stores, most of the time upper floors were sitting empty. A combination of tax credits and developer interest has changed that, and many buildings now have short-term rentals upstairs, or other uses.

The upper floors at Rubensteins had been used for storage and executive offices, but over the years had become underutilized, so they started looking for innovative ways to use the space. They partnered with Joe Jaeger of J Collection Hotels and Development.

Jaeger said “My family is committed to New Orleans and, as the largest operator of independent hotels in the city, we are always looking for opportunities to introduce projects that embrace the city’s uniqueness and character. Working with the Rubenstein family, who share our love of the city, to bring The Rubenstein Hotel to life was both an honor and a privilege.”

A larger-scale project, like the hotel, is more unusual in upper levels of older buildings, but in this case, Rubenstein’s owns six buildings in a row, making it feasible. “Just one building is not enough space,” Rubenstein said, and having several in a row owned by the same individual or group is unique.

The location is ideal, not quite in the French Quarter “but close enough… everything from here is walking distance.”

Even though the six buildings were side by side, they did not have the same floor heights, so in planning the hotel they had to do 3D imaging and figure a way to have a cohesive second and third floor throughout the property.

A much longer closure than Katrina came with the Covid pandemic in 2020, as the store was closed for three months. Still, loyal customers in town and around the country supported them, and business came back strong after the pandemic.

The pandemic also slowed down the hotel, as few people were traveling. Construction had already begun on the first phase in February 2020.

As part of the hotel construction, the store itself was remodeled.

While about a quarter of the store’s business is from tourists, there’s another 10 to 15 percent who are regulars but do not live in New Orleans. They have a second home, an annual convention or other reason for frequently coming to the city, “and when they do come, they come to shop.”

The new hotel will give them a convenient place to stay and shop.