Summer 2009: Features
Long Live the King
From fashion to Facebook, Elvis Presley still leads the way to Graceland
By Mary J. Loftus
Elvis is on Twitter.
The iconic King of Rock, who died in 1977, nevertheless has thousands of followers who micro-blog about “listening to the King on the way to the Elvis festival in Tupelo” and how Elvis is “shaking things up in Vegas at the licensing expo.” He also has official MySpace, Facebook, and Bebo pages (and many more unofficial ones).
Elvis has been a trendsetter since he first rocked America in 1954, so his solid gold status on social media sites isn’t really surprising, says Kevin Kern, director of public relations for Elvis Presley Enterprises. “He’s still very much an influence in popular culture, from Elvis night on American Idol to YouTube videos and iPhone apps for Elvis sightings,” Kern says, sitting in a plush conference room at Graceland’s corporate offices. “Nobody was like Elvis. He changed the world in terms of a musical revolution but also in terms of a sexual revolution and a fashion revolution.”
The relatively modest Graceland estate, off Elvis Presley Boulevard in a well-worn section of Memphis, still draws more than six hundred thousand visitors a year. The annual candlelight vigil the night before August 16—the day of Elvis’s death—attracts nearly fifty thousand. “So many people walk by, we have to resod the grass around the grave afterward,” Kern says. Audio tours are available in eight languages.
Despite a light drizzle on this June afternoon, a line of tourists is waiting to walk through Elvis’s home, his car museum, and his private jet, the Lisa Marie, which is parked beside the Graceland shops, where you can get your photo taken with a life-sized Elvis likeness and sample his favorite fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
According to Forbes Magazine, Elvis was the top-earning dead celebrity in 2008 for the second year in a row. “Without so much as lifting a finger, the Memphis Flash earned a whopping $52 million in the last year,” writes reporter Peter Hoy. “The thirtieth anniversary of Elvis’s death helped boost attendance and merchandise sales at Graceland, and new ventures such as an Elvis Sirius Satellite Radio show add to a long list of publishing and licensing deals.”
Licensing deals such as the one that allowed Michael Feder 91MBA to create the Amazon bestseller, Elvis: Your Personal Fashion Consultant. The “Punch Out and Play” book features full-length photos of Elvis that can become free-standing paper dolls—with captions such as “Making the world a better place, one purple double-breasted suit at a time.” It retails for $12.95 and is available through Graceland’s shopelvis.com.
“It’s a very different book and has been quite popular,” Kern says. “It’s interactive in the sense that you can pop out the various Elvi in different states of fashion.” (Yes, apparently, Elvi—plural for Elvis—is a word that’s used at Graceland.)
Most of the archival images in the book are from Elvis movies, such as Jailhouse Rock and Blue Hawaii, and Feder’s wife, Karan, a Hollywood costume designer, painstakingly colorized the black and white images, pixel by pixel.
Michael and Karan, who now live in Nevada, eloped to Vegas in 1994 and were married at the Graceland Wedding Chapel there. “The Graceland Chapel now carries our Elvis book,” he says, “so it all comes around.”
Feder, who guest-lectures at Goizueta Business School, launched his company, Fame Farm, in 2005, when he acquired exclusive rights to the image and brand of Liberace. He and Karan produced their first book, Liberace: Your Personal Fashion Consultant, through Abrams of New York in 2008.
“We wanted to show that Liberace was cool, funny, and kitschy, and could attract a whole new generation of fans,” he says.
After consulting with sales reps, they decided the second in the series should feature Elvis. “I adore the brand,” Feder says. “Liberace’s fan base was older, but Elvis’s was young and rabid during his day. I used to live in Memphis and drove by Graceland all the time when he was living there. I was hoping when I turned sixteen he’d buy me a Cadillac. But I never had an Elvis encounter.”
Everything in the book had to be approved by Elvis Presley Enterprises, says Feder, from the photos to the captions. “Anything with Elvis has to be very carefully done,” Feder says. “The fans know if a sideburn is too long, and they will write Graceland.”
Elvis: Your Personal Fashion Consultant is in its first printing of fifteen thousand copies and has already achieved “top-selling Elvis book” status on Amazon.
Feder recently launched a third “Punch Out and Play” book of Star Wars figures and is working on a fourth on Marilyn Monroe.
“It’s extremely difficult to predict who will become an iconic celebrity, except in hindsight,” Feder says. “Will Michael Jackson become as iconic as Elvis? We might not have thought so six months ago, but recent events have shown how fast the landscape can change.”
Elvis Presley Enterprises generates income from two main areas: Graceland tours and licensing deals. About 250 licensees offer more than five thousand products made in the King’s image, from wine bottles to M&M figurines to a clothing line.“Elvis had a unique fashion sense,” says Kern. “He knew what looked good on him.”
In evidence everywhere at Graceland is Elvis’s singular style: his white jumpsuits and cowboy hats, form-fitting black leather and gold lamé suit—several of the outfits featured in the Feders’ book.
Well before his flashy stage outfits (most of which, like his gold lamé suit, were designed by Hollywood tailor Nudie Cohn), the young Elvis had a sense of style that he couldn’t afford to indulge quite yet. “He hung out on Beale Street back in the day, which was a blues alley then, but it was also where he bought his clothes,” says Kern.
One day he walked up to the Lansky Brothers’ family-owned clothing shop. As Bernard Lansky recalls, “I looked up and saw this young man looking at our displays in the window. I walked outside to greet him and told him ‘Come on in and let me show you around.’ He said, ‘I don’t have any money, Mr. Lansky, but when I get rich, I’m going to buy you out.’ I told him, ‘Don’t buy me out, just buy from me!’ ” Lansky remembers the first outfit he custom-fit for Elvis: the tux for his junior/senior prom. After Elvis became a millionaire in his early twenties, he was true to his word, and the Lanskys custom-made most of his casual clothing for decades.
While the Lansky Brothers main shop has moved to the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis, the store’s close association with Elvis remains: photographs of Elvis and Bernard Lansky can be found on every wall, Elvis memorabilia is plentiful, and sweaters just like the one Elvis wore in Blue Hawaii are arranged neatly on a table. Julie Lansky, who works in the store, and her twin, Melisa (who recently married Steven Weisman 98C), as well as their cousin, Rebecca Belz 08B, are the next generation of Lanskys. “My grandfather is the best,” says Belz. “He has stories and one-liners for every situation. He once took my mom to Graceland to deliver some clothes, and my mom was scared to death because there was a stuffed alligator on [Elvis’s] couch.”
An aged but spry Bernard Lansky is still a familiar fixture in the store, helping customers find the right size or color. He sometimes has fan encounters of his own with customers who want to hear insider stories. “Is this you?” asks one visitor—pointing to a poster of a young, bow-tied Lansky standing in his original store beside an equally young Elvis.
Lansky, standing among racks of dress shirts and suit jackets, just smiles and gives a quick nod—gratified to have been, for many years, Elvis’s personal fashion consultant.