A last-ditch effort to save Barneys as an ongoing brick-and-mortar retail destination, a campaign led by entrepreneur Sam Ben-Avraham, failed. The store’s demise is heartbreaking for the employees who will lose their jobs, vendors who will lose money and the ripple effect the store’s liquidation will have on luxury retail in general.
Like the decline of other legacy retailers, such as Sears and Toys R Us, the sale of Barneys was bound up in the idea of the store as something more than simply a merchant of fine clothes and accessories. ABG is betting that the Barneys name carries so much resonance that if a customer walking into a Saks in Raleigh, Philadelphia or Atlanta were to see it on a label inside a pair of cashmere trousers, it would mean something. ABG believes the Barneys name carries a certain cool, cosmopolitan cachet that extends outside its home base of Manhattan, even though New York is precisely where Barneys was ultimately done in — doomed by the ripple effect of being unable to muster enough sales to pay its exorbitant Madison Avenue rent.
The deal that Ben-Avraham was trying to pull together was even more firmly rooted in the mythology of Barneys as a shopping destination like no other. Central to his argument — and his #savebarneys social media campaign — was the idea that the store was a cultural institution, a hub for a uniquely New York form of creativity, intellectualism and sophistication. In his accounting, Barneys New York was a place, not merely a sensibility.
But it has been a long time since Barneys was all that, which is why Ben-Avraham’s pitch was so quixotic and why it gave way to the ABG plan, which feels like what happens when a mad scientist hacks off the limbs of its victim and keeps the brain floating in formaldehyde. Both are predicated on memories of Barneys during the 1980s and ’90s, when it was run by the founding Pressman family and defined by its high-minded merchandise, eccentric windows, and creative approach to retail that wasn’t based on simply buying more of what’s already selling but convincing a customer that this, this is what you simply must have. The store had character, and part of the lure of shopping there was in determining whether you were part of the glamorous narrative that Barneys was telling.
Barneys was unique at a time when there were a fair number of unique department stores. Bloomingdale’s had its bonkers special events, steeped in Broadway inspiration and mass-appeal frivolity, orchestrated by its influential fashion director Kal Ruttenstein. Macy’s was the store of abundance; it was stocked with everything a shopper could imagine. Henri Bendel was high fashion for very skinny women. Out in the Midwest, Marshall Field’s had its Frango mints. I. Magnin epitomized West Coast elegance. And so on. Barneys built a reputation on its embrace of avant-garde fashion, its devotion to 50 shades of black, its championing of new designers and its seeming willingness to put creativity above everything else.
The store excelled at a time when fashion was elitist and its elitism only made people want it more. That was the selling point of Barneys in its heyday; it’s what distinguished it from other department stores. It wasn’t a place to make you feel more comfortable; it was a place that encouraged you to stand up straighter and try to impress others — or really just yourself. It might have induced insecurity in some folks; it made others aspire.
Shoppers could pick a tribe. And if they chose Barneys, they could spend an entire afternoon in a place that, simply by being there, made them feel as if they had a more sophisticated understanding of style. And if they walked out with a sleek black bag, it announced to the world that not only did they understand fashion, they’d participated in it. They’d gotten past the velvet rope.
Today, fashion is blissfully more democratic, more welcoming. Less aspirational. Stores that try to dictate get a stern dressing down on social media. The terrain shifted and Barneys began to wobble.
A lot of things happened to send Barneys tumbling. Some of it was of the store’s own making. It overextended itself with outposts across the country. It declared bankruptcy in 1996. It was sold and sold again. The Pressmans left. Management changed, and with each change, the store’s personality was tweaked. Its edge got buffed down, as did some of its creative panache.
Barneys couldn’t control other stressors, such as the growth of e-commerce or the stranglehold that athleisure and streetwear put on the clothing business. How does a luxury retailer find the right mix when an entire industry seems to be riffing on sneakers, track pants and hoodies? Barneys has its website. It had plenty of merchandise that is surprising. It brought in new names such as Koché and Marine Serre and continued to support its longtime favorites such as Dries Van Noten and Azzedine Alaïa. But that wasn’t enough.
“Over the past several months, we have worked diligently with the court, our lenders and creditors to maximize the value of the Barneys assets and we’re pleased to have reached the conclusion of this process,” company management said in a statement. “We want to thank all of our hard-working employees, talented designers and vendors, and our loyal customers for being part of the storied history and iconic brand that is Barneys New York.”
Indeed, through all of this, the salespeople, whose reputation for haughtiness was always overblown, dutifully soldiered on. In an era when so many department stores have gutted their sales staff, the Barneys crew, even through bankruptcy, serviced their customers. They told the story of their merchandise; they shared tidbits about the designers; they offered opinions to browsing shoppers.
They cared about fashion. And they encouraged their customers to care, too. They made fashion matter. That may be Barneys’ ultimate legacy.
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