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O pioneer!

After years on Newbury Street, Debi Greenberg will soon open luxury retailer Louis in a sleek new waterfront location. Will the high-fashion venture succeed and spark much-needed growth in the struggling area? Or will it be a ghost town?

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / April 15, 2010

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LouisBoston president Debi Greenberg first approached developer Nicholas Pritzker about moving her store from its historic Back Bay location to the South Boston waterfront 12 years ago. The reaction was tepid. She was told they only wanted “high-end retail.’’

“Of course, they had never been to the store,’’ Greenberg recalls, with a laugh. “They had no idea what they were talking about.’’

This spring, the straight-talking Greenberg finally gets her wish. The luxury retailer, owned by her family for 81 years, will open in a sleek building overlooking Boston Harbor. Along with its new location, the store has a new name: Louis. The “Boston’’ has been dropped.

It’s a nervy move in a less-than-stellar economy. Greenberg has departed busy Newbury Street for the windblown Fan Pier, an area still in its infancy, the victim of development battles and the real estate crash, where growth has been agonizingly slow. But Greenberg has shown little fear when it comes to change. Since taking over at Louis in the early 1990s, she’s earned a reputation for toughness and savvy in the city’s genteel luxury retail scene.

The new Louis — which is scheduled to be open by May 1 — is striking and modern, with floor-to-ceiling windows offering views of the Financial District, Logan Airport, the Institute of Contemporary Art, and, of course, the water. Floors are concrete. Exposed pipes and beams line the ceiling. Clad in corrugated aluminum and mahogany, the building could not be more different from Louis’ stately former home, which once housed the Boston Museum of Natural History.

But the question looms: Can Louis find success as a retail pioneer? Last summer, the Achilles Project, a high-end boutique and restaurant located just a few blocks away, closed in the face of weak sales. Will Louis fare better?

“I don’t think it will be the same experience here,’’ Greenberg says.’’ Achilles was a small store that had a restaurant and a few clothes. Louis isn’t a little store. This is a place where you drive up, get out of your car, and have a whole experience.’’

Retail experts acknowledge the move is either a genius strategy to stand out in the city’s crowded retail market — or an experiment that could go horribly wrong.

“Sometimes a little bit of a stretch doesn’t work because it’s not enough, it’s just a little bit outside the box,’’ says local retail analyst Michael Tesler, a professor at Bentley University. “This move is so far outside the box that my first reaction was that ‘This is totally crazy.’ ’’

This isn’t the first time that the retailer, which began as a pawn shop in 1929 run by Greenberg’s great-grandfather, has taken a risk. Some have paid off, such as the store’s nearly 20-year run at the Mall at Chestnut Hill. Others, like the short-lived LouisBoston store that opened in New York in the late 1980s, failed. Tesler has his fingers crossed.

“I’ve gotten over my immediate reaction of ‘This is crazy,’ and out of respect to Debi and the Louis team, I’m saying there are reasons to do this,’’ he says. “There are reasons to have foresight to go where no one else dares to go. . . . It would be cool if they are right and so many people naysaying this move are wrong.’’

Louis won’t be the only business in the waterfront location. Mario Russo, who for 19 years operated a branch of his hair salon inside Louis, will open on the first floor. The second floor, complete with a deck that overlooks the water, will be what Greenberg calls “a real neighborhood restaurant.’’

For his part, Russo sees Fan Pier as an underserved area filled with hotels and businesses, an influx of young professionals to Fort Point and South Boston, and an increasing number of restaurants.

“I give her a lot of credit,’’ Russo said of Greenberg. “This is a gutsy move that she’s made. I think that Boston can have a new neighborhood. I really think she’s taking it to the next level.’’

During a tour of the store, Greenberg, 54, seems unfazed over doubts that the area can support the shop, which is roughly half the size of its previous location. She believes Louis will be a destination, an antidote to such immensely popular websites as Gilt Groupe and Rue La La, where high-fashion offerings are sold at bargain prices for a limited time.

“You’ve trained people to create this frenzy,’’ she says. “The number one thing they’re looking for now is the markdown. They’re not there for the product, they’re looking for the brand.’’

Louis is known for a mammoth sale of its own in January when winter merchandise is cleared out. But unlike sample sale websites and even some luxury department stores, Louis avoids constant sales. It’s a strategy that other high-end retailers are gravitating toward.

“Among luxury retailers, what’s been missing is some sense of experience,’’ says Wendy Liebmann, CEO of WSL Strategic Retail. “Smart retailers are working to rebuild relationships with customers and create these kind of experiences. It was something that has been missing, and this level of customer noticed that it was missing.’’

Greenberg’s goal is to have her customers feel calm and relaxed, to give them something she knows they don’t already have. She concedes that people can buy a Marc Jacobs swimsuit on their iPhone at a bargain price. What they can’t do on the Internet is browse for offerings from designers such as the Row or Jason Wu, get a hair cut, and then grab a cocktail on a deck overlooking the harbor.

Still, even if Louis’ new location takes off, the long-term future of the business is open to question. The plan is that the new building will be on the property for 10 years. Then it will be razed for a high-rise condo development, and the store will once again be in search of a home. But Greenberg, who started working for Louis in 1991 at 35 (she previously worked in advertising), and took over from her father, Murray Pearlstein, in 1993, is motivated to keep the business going beyond the next decade. She wants her teenage daughter Samantha to have the option of taking over, when and if she’s ready.

“[Samantha] grew up there,’’ Greenberg says. “I was pregnant with her the first year that I worked there. It was hard for her to see the move, but this is really her future. I’m fourth generation, and I’d like to see a fifth generation of Louis.’’

Joseph Fallon, CEO and president of the Fallon Company and current developer of the Fan Pier project, said he and Greenberg began talking two years ago when he first heard that Louis would leave Back Bay. They met but couldn’t come up with a suitable location. The subject wasn’t broached again until last spring’s Volvo Ocean Race, which brought big crowds to the Harborwalk and to the temporary Puma City store, which was erected on what’s now the Louis location.

“She tracked me down on the site and said ‘We have to do something here,’ and we worked it out,’’ Fallon says. “Debi really gets it. She has a reputation, and that reputation proceeds her. Let’s face it, she can be tough, and she can scare some people. But I understand her. She’s from the retail world, and that’s not an easy place.’’

Greenberg doesn’t apologize for what she sees as foresight. “I realize that people do not think the way that I do,’’ she says. “I really understand that. But I’m usually not that far off. It’s usually just a few years before other people are talking about it. They eventually get it. And I don’t think it will take long for people to understand this move.’’

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.