Oscar Feldenkreis on Perry Ellis' Miami Legacy
by beth landman
As COO, vice chairman, and president of Perry Ellis International, Oscar Feldenkreis controls more fashion brands—30 and counting—than anyone else in Miami, and ranks among the top fashion moguls in the US. He shuttles between his Florida office, on Northwest 107th Avenue in Doral, and his perch on the 36th floor of the Grace Building in Manhattan. The New York location, with its sweeping vistas encompassing the Empire State Building, the rising Freedom Tower, and Lady Liberty, may be only a few blocks from the first office the Feldenkreis family had in New York, but in every other regard, it’s light-years away from those early days. “When we came to the US from Havana, my father had $700 and my mother was pregnant,” he says, taking in the view. “Our showroom was a small place in the Empire State Building that we shared with another company.” It was a decidedly no-frills setup. Feldenkreis recalls getting “stuck in the elevator and having to jump out between floors.”
Dressed in a sharp navy pinstriped Isaia suit offset by a yellow Bertini tie, and accessorized with a rose-gold Rolex (his Miami attire is more casual), Feldenkreis wears his profession well, and has thrived in it, bringing a company that was an $8 million revenue producer in 1980 to nearly the billion-dollar mark this year.
“Even when I was young, I had a passion for fashion,” he says. “Most boys hate to go shopping, but I never had an issue with it. I liked putting outfits together.”
Feldenkreis developed a strong work ethic early, and as a teenager in Miami, he helped out in his grandfather’s shop. “Saturdays I would go with him on a bus to the little mom-and-pop men’s specialty store he had in downtown Miami,” he recalls. “I really liked dealing with customers.”
At 20, he worked beside his father, who launched Supreme International, a company focused on producing a single item of clothing—the guayabera, a four-pocket tropical shirt popular with the Latin community. “Since we were Latin, we went after the Hispanic consumer. They were the fastest-growing segment of the population and continue to be,” he says. The Feldenkreises’ success with the Latin market gave them the retail clout to expand rapidly. They became vendors to Kmart, along with other retailers, creating private-label clothing, and a few years later developed their own line, Natural Issue, which produced colorful, printed shirts.
Feldenkreis says with Natural Issue their business “began to explode. It gave us a brand and product beside the guayabera.” The year after Supreme International debuted the line, gross sales jumped nearly 75 percent, from $33 to $54 million, and Feldenkreis and his father decided to take their company public to raise additional capital for growth.
After the IPO in 1993, Supreme International went on to snap up Munsingwear, a menswear company that owned the Original Penguin label, known for polo shirts and underwear. An even bigger coup came six years later, when the Feldenkreises bought Perry Ellis International, a portfolio of well-known licensed labels, for $100 million. That purchase really “transformed us from a small apparel company,” says Feldenkreis. And the expansion continued. In 2002, he and his father acquired Jantzen, which came with a license to do swimwear for Nike; the next year, they bought Salant Corporation, enabling them to produce merchandise for the Perry Ellis label. “That, too, was a pivotal acquisition,” he says. “They were doing $300 million, which put us between $500 and $600 million.” During the last decade, the Feldenkreises have scooped up C&C California, Laundry, and Rafaella, all now under the Perry Ellis International umbrella.
No march to moguldom is without setbacks, however, and the Feldenkreises have weathered a few. One of the most significant came in ’93. Kmart made up 45 percent of the company’s revenue, but the next year, after changes in management and strategy at the mass retailer, that revenue was gone. “By ’94, we did zero with them. I was concerned, but I had confidence in our business. We expanded our products and went after new [areas] like golf lifestyle.” A retailer is at the mercy of the consumer market, but Feldenkreis feels the toughest part of his job “is walking away from a deal I thought I wanted because it winds up not making sense financially.”
Despite the demands of running an international conglomerate, Feldenkreis maintains two bases of operation, living and working in Miami and shuttling to his New York office. “Miami is my home. I look at Biscayne Bay while I am having breakfast, and my dad lives five blocks away.” He estimates he’s on the road about 160 days a year.
Feldenkreis says his father was a big role model and having such a mentor was key to his success in the competitive retail business. When encouraging the careers of others, he looks for an entrepreneurial spark. “I hire from the gut,” he explains. “I can feel whether people will blend well with our culture. They need to be creative, strategic, and have a desire to grow. I take them to stores and strategize with them.” As for the next generation of the family business, Feldenkreis says, “I have three daughters, and they are all fashionistas. Maybe they will get bored one day and join me.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GARY JAMES
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.