90 Years of La Perla Gris
24 August, 2015
La Perla Gris is heading towards its centenary with a commitment to e-commerce and ‘old-style’ customer service.
It was one of the most select establishments in Barcelona during the 1920s and later decades, with customers from marchionesses to the wives of the heads of government of the day and the most important Catalan industrialists. The stockings you could get at La Perla Gris couldn’t be found anywhere else and its selection of wool, corsetry and haberdashery items was exclusive. It was a name always on the lips of the city’s leading fashion designers and firms.
Couture designer Pilar Martori founded the firm in 1924. “La Perla Gris had the best that Barcelona could offer,” says the current proprietor, Pilar Martínez. Martori was a pioneering entrepreneur and businesswoman who devoted her life to women’s fashion design. In 1924 she decided to transfer her dressmaking shop from a flat in the Eixample district to a ground-floor space on Rambla de Catalunya, where the oldest store in the La Perla Gris chain still stands today. Here she had the workshop out the back, where she did the designs, attended her customers and made the patterns. Facing the street she set up a haberdashery shop where she sold the goods the customers needed and where knitting and crocheting classes were later given, using the wool, thread and patterns the shop sold. This was in the 1920s and 30s and Martínez recalls the firm’s history as told her by her parents.
“Biosca & Botey transferred the premises to Pilar Martori for 3,000 pesetas,” she says, with the original receipt showing payment for this amount on the table in front of her, dated 28 July 1924. Her mother also worked in the store. “She was like a daughter to Pilar Martori. It was also where she met my father, Julià Martínez,” recalls the child of the couple whose relationship was born in the establishment.
“My father was a man of vast energy. He worked in banking and was later a mechanic for Singer sewing machines. That’s how he met my mother, because he would come into the shop to fix them. He also worked with Santa Eulàlia,” Pilar Martínez says.
Santa Eulàlia, Pertegaz, Asunción Bastida and Rabat were La Perla Gris regulars. “We would supply them with the stockings for their shows. We had exclusive collections by JR Rosell and Margarita. We designed stockings in 50 different colours and had them all on display in the store, identified with a number,” Martínez recalls. Pilar went straight to work behind the La Perla Gris counter after leaving the Lycée Français school and has a thorough knowledge of the firm’s history from the 1950s on. “I used to deliver the orders to the home of the owner of Destino magazine, to the home of the Countess of Godó and to the Samaranch family. Everyone who was anyone would go to La Perla Gris for their silk stockings”.
Stockings by French firms such as Céline, Dior and Lanvin could only be found there, which is why, Martínez says, the phrase “you can only get it at La Perla Gris” spread. Its products were exclusive both in terms of quality and price. “A pair of stockings could cost up to 2,500 pesetas. We had some with prints and illustrations”.
Her father established a network of contacts across Europe with the major fashion labels of the day to source the finest stockings and, later on, the most select corsetry items. “The wool was in high demand, too. We imported unique wool from Iceland and Great Britain,” Martínez says, emphasising her father’s innovating sales vision.
What remains of that spirit today is, above all, the desire to preserve a family-centred and friendly form of personalised attention both at the retail outlets and in terms of customer services. “We serve you the old-fashioned way. We have had the grandmothers, the daughters and now the granddaughters of the same families. People trust us,” says Martínez, who has no doubt that this approach to trade still has an important role to play.
These days La Perla Gris not only sells corsetry and haberdashery goods but also, through its seven own-brand stores, a wide range of homewear items. The future, according to Martínez, will continue to focus on these three product lines which have characterised the firm from the start and which are still going strong today. However, starting next year the firm will have an online store as well. “It’s something we must do to adapt,” Martínez says, admitting that it isn’t her favourite sales channel. “I like working in the shop and dealing directly with customers. I go into the store every day and love to serve the people who come in,” she says.
At 62 years of age and with the same energy as her father, the force behind the La Perla Gris chain, she thinks there are many projects the company can still do. “We aren’t ruling out opening more stores outside of Catalonia. Madrid could be a good place,” she says.
La Perla Gris’s 90 years are, above all, nine decades of witnessing trade and fashion in the city of Barcelona first-hand. Pilar Martinez’s voice is part of the collective memory of the history of the fashion sector and particularly the multi-label store, a sales format which this businesswoman believes still has a lot of life in it.