Press "Enter" to skip to content

Of Barneys’ Bankruptcy, Pride and the Fall

It has been striking, over the last few weeks, to watch the almost gleeful flow of reports and speculation about the maybe-probably-now-confirmed bankruptcy of Barneys New York, the fabled department store.

Starting in mid-July, when Reuters broke the news that a rent hike at the Madison Avenue store was putting Barneys under untenable pressure, the rumors have come with notably regularity: It could happen as early as this week! O.K., maybe next week! They have hired bankruptcy advisers! Designers won’t send their merch! Bathrooms aren’t being cleaned!

And so on until Monday, when it all proved true.

Barneys is not the first New York store to have problems, nor the first department store. The sector as a whole has been experiencing a major retrenchment in the face of changing consumer shopping habits and the growth of e-tail, which has made going to a store much more about experience than just buying stuff.

[A visual history of how Barneys built a brand of cool.]

As Scott Malkin, the founder of the luxury outlet malls Value Retail, once told The New York Times: “The war is over. Alibaba won.”

And unlike stores like Henri Bendel and Lord & Taylor, which have disappeared from the map of Manhattan — Lord & Taylor becoming (shock! horror!) a WeWork — Barneys is staying on Madison. (The company is downsizing 15 other locations, but using a $75 million debtor in possession financing to restructure the business. That’s the point of the Chapter 11.)

Yet its ills have been chronicled with almost obsessive attention. Indeed, it’s possible the attention contributed to the ills: As the store stayed silent about what was going on, rumors flew, creating an atmosphere that sent many of the smaller designers Barneys stocks into fits of nervous terror as they worried about what they would do with orders the store placed five months ago and for which they feared they might never be paid.

At which point they decided to stop delivering the orders, at which point Barneys looked like it was in more trouble, and so on.

So what makes Barneys so special? Why was the tale of woe at this store different from the tales of all other stores?

Because of what Barneys set itself up to represent.

From the beginning — especially in the beginning — Barneys held itself apart from the other department stores, not only in New York but pretty much everywhere. Its Madison Avenue store, which opened in 1993, was an extravagantly unmistakable symbol of that separateness and that aspiration: the largest new specialty store to be built in Manhattan since the Depression, and one that broke all the rules.

ImageCreditBettmann Archive

As Gene Pressmen, the grandson of Barney Pressmen, the founder, told The Times: “Of course, there are a lot of stores uptown. But there’ll be only one Barneys. We’re different.”

Employing the architect Peter Marino, who is now the crown prince of fashion store design (he created the look of boutiques for Armani, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Zegna), the company let him loose to change the paradigm.

That’s what the Pressmans did, starting when Fred (second generation, father of Bob and Gene) brought Armani’s relaxed tailoring to the United States in 1975 and threw men’s suiting into an uproar.

As he did, so did Gene with women’s wear, championing Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons and Azzedine Alaïa, of the clinging bandage dress, as well as black in all its permutations, and the idea of the exclusive. As Joshua Levine writes in his 1999 book, “The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys,” “If it couldn’t be bought differently, Barneys insisted that it be made differently.”

ImageCreditFred Conrad/The New York Times

Barneys changed trims and buttons according to its own taste, just as with Mr. Marino it changed the conventional wisdom about how a store should be organized. It put perfumes at the back of the first floor instead of the front, as was customary (perfume being an entry-level product); it put Kazuko Oshima’s idiosyncratic jewelry constructions of crystals and semiprecious stones wrapped in wires at the front; and, most of all, it used the windows — windows! — on most floors to let the light in, instead of covering the walls to create more shelf and rack space.

The implicit message, on all counts, being: Barneys knows best.

The result was wonderful for the new designers the store might take a gamble on (despite the fact that Barneys often demanded exclusivity in return, a promise that could seem alluring but often proved stifling), and it made Barneys a destination for shopping tourists in search of the cutting edge.

But it was also unabashedly elitist, proudly exclusionary — you got it or you didn’t, and if you didn’t, that was your problem, not theirs — and imbued with an arrogance that, at a certain point, began to chafe. Even if it did feel representative of a certain, almost fictional, New York ethos. Even if the warehouse sales, held at the downtown outlet with the excitement of an open secret, were open to anyone willing to wait in the always very long lines, and navigate the scrum once inside.

ImageCreditKirsten Luce for The New York Times

And though the Pressmans lost control of the store after its first bankruptcy filing in 1996, and in 2010 a new management team embarked on a renovation that gave the store a more familiar, if somewhat generic, elegance, and it became much more interested in service (a change that, perversely, caused many to start mourning its former, our-way-or-the-highway incarnation), Barneys never quite lost that reputation.

As a result, when the possibility of its demise was discussed, it was with a certain lascivious horror: Ooh, it would be terrible, but we just can’t look away.

Barneys put itself up on a precisely buffed onyx pedestal that it built for itself, and it turned out everyone was just waiting to knock it off. To blame it for not recognizing the rise of digital fast enough or for abandoning its original idiosyncrasy. To see this as a story of taste atrophy, more than, say, the shadow real estate world, or disaffected ownership, when it was probably a combination of all three.

If the attention paid to the bankruptcy proves anything, however, it is that the brand itself still resonates (and rankles) in the imagination. In other words, the rumor mill will now turn to whether or not a buyer for the company will emerge.

Let the speculation begin! But as it does, it’s worth remembering: As much as chroniclers of New York love a comeuppance story, they also love a comeback.


Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *