Last days in the Back Bay

Famed Newbury Street luxury store LouisBoston ready for waterfront move

By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / January 7, 2010

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Shoppers began bidding farewell yesterday to Back Bay fashionista LouisBoston, which is abandoning its historic Newbury Street building in a little more than a week and opening in a temporary space by the waterfront at the Fan Pier on Feb. 15.

The luxury goods purveyor will move again in April to a larger spot on the water with a restaurant and hair salon in an effort to reinvent the high-end designer business in a largely undeveloped neighborhood.

Customers flocked yesterday to LouisBoston, which began its 50 percent off moving sale this week on everything from a $1,025 Marni black sateen finish jacket to $695 Proenza Schouler platform bootie shoes. They found deals, waxed nostalgic about the 20 years there, and got directions to the new location.

“I’m devastated that it’s leaving,’’ said Wendy Stuart of Newton as she poked around the slim pickings of CDs and home goods on the first floor. “This is the center of the fashion industry here. It’s a landmark. And I have no idea where Fan Pier is. It could be an amusement park for all I know.’’

LouisBoston’s lease at the Back Bay marquee property, home to the New England Museum of Natural History until the late 1940s, expires at the end of January. Owner Debi Greenberg said she wanted to open in February in the temporary spot - about 9,500 square feet - on the first floor of the office building at ONE Marina Park Drive to get shoppers accustomed to visiting the neighborhood. The new 20,000-square-foot location - about half the size of the Back Bay property - is currently under construction and expected to open in April at the water’s edge, diagonally across from the Institute of Contemporary Art.

It is a bold move for LouisBoston, making it the first retailer to sign on to the struggling project that has faced financing challenges. Even though the Fan Pier is just more than a mile from the Back Bay store, many customers have complained that they do not know how to get there. These days, Greenberg is like a human GPS, spitting out directions to the waterfront from any address in the area. LouisBoston even pokes fun at the confusion, promising shoppers in promotional materials about the move that “You won’t need a passport.’’

Greenberg acknowledged that others have questioned the relocation to Fan Pier but said the shop needed to start over and the Back Bay spot had too much space in this difficult retail environment. LouisBoston announced plans in 2008 to move the store from its grandiose building and create a new, edgier identity in a more relaxed setting.

Steven Pellegrino, a spokesman for the Fallon Co., which is developing the Fan Pier, said there has been “considerable interest’’ in the overall project since LouisBoston officially selected the waterfront as its new home last fall.

“If you want to win in this game, you have to start over and reinvent yourself in a new way,’’ Greenberg said. “All of the old ways of doing things we’ve had to shed - from vendors to the way you show clothing. My nostalgia over leaving the Back Bay came last fall when I realized it can’t be the way it used to be. What was in retail is no longer.’’

It took some time to convince Maria Fei, LouisBoston’s vice president of operations, that leaving Newbury Street was the right move. But Fei, who has worked at the company for 30 years, said she now believes the challenge in relocating is best for LouisBoston’s future.

“LouisBoston has always been cutting edge,’’ Fei said. “This is what Louis is all about.’’

On the second floor of the stately building, 70-year-old men’s salesman Lino Zanella, who has worked at LouisBoston for 37 years, said yesterday he has mixed feelings about shuttering the Back Bay shop on Jan. 19. Zanella, who dressed up celebrities including John Travolta, Paul Newman, and Michael Douglas, said he believes the time is right for a change as Newbury Street has struggled to keep up its reputation as a distinctive shopping district.

“Still, after being here for 20 years, to see the empty floors at Louis Boston - it’s a little sad, especially for an old guy like me,’’ Zanella said.

WS Development, which runs the LouisBoston property, said the prime real estate will be vacant for up to two years as the space undergoes renovations. Thomas DeSimone, a partner at WS Development, said the firm is not in negotiations with any tenants for the space at the corner of Berkeley and Newbury streets, and it expects to begin the rehabilitation work within the next six months.

As Beth Shipley of Hamilton made her final tour of the LouisBoston shop, she recalled some of her favorite purchases, including a Scandinavian lamp, brown suede Christian Louboutin boots, and a $345 Marni pin she recently bought as a Christmas present. Shipley, who made weekly visits to the designer emporium for hair appointments and shopping trips, said she is sorry to see the shop leave Newbury Street.

“It’s such a central location with a great sense of style,’’ said Shipley, who yesterday paid $20 for a French cookbook that was on sale for half off. “But I think it will be a good move for LouisBoston to Fan Pier. Eventually it will be a really vibrant neighborhood. I just hope they make it until then. I’d hate to see Boston without Louis.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at

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