Scavenging the Sinewy Bones of Barney's Luxury Retail Experience

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Scavenging the Sinewy Bones of Barney's Luxury Retail Experience

Carrie Bradshaw’s enviable, fictional, rent-controlled Upper East Side apartment is known for its enormous bathroom, its French doors, and, most importantly, its address: “near Barney’s.” For an impressionable audience looking to channel the sort of uptown/downtown aesthetic that Sex in the City costume designer Patricia Field cultivated, Barney’s was it—an expertly-curated, well arranged retail experience of the kind current retailers will never be able to recreate. Jack McFarland from Will and Grace worked at Barney’s. Simon Doonan, husband of interior design impresario Jonathan Adler, built a career out of dressing the windows at the flagship store every season, making their unveiling an event rather than a matter of course. For a brief while, in the glitter of 1970s and ‘80s Manhattan’s cocaine high, Barney’s was king. Until, one day, it wasn’t.

Though Madison Avenue is the flagship, the original Barney’s location was downtown, in Chelsea, away from the stuffy suits and society women of other retail stalwarts. Bergdorf’s is where one might purchase an appropriately staid dress for a funeral, but Barney’s is where you’d go for the nasty little miniskirt for the afters. As Gene Pressman, the son of the original founder of Barney’s told GQ in October, “It was never a department store. It was a specialty store. We didn’t have departments, so to speak. We had adjacencies. The way we merchandised—it came from our madness, if you will. From the mixing of our cauldron. I find department stores formulaic.”

Establishing the Madison Avenue outpost as its flagship was a calculated attempt to bring the aura of downtown cool to a stuffier part of town, around the corner from the Plaza Hotel and a stone’s throw from Central Park South. Other department stores, like Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bloomingdales lacked the dazzle of Barney’s controlled, studied chaos. Much like the nearby Ralph Lauren flagship, which is designed to look and feel like one has stepped into a Ralph Lauren ad, Barney’s created the experience of wandering around the lavish walk-in closet of a downtown gallerist with a giant vault of money.

For a brief while, in the glitter of 1970s and ‘80s Manhattan’s cocaine high, Barney’s was king. Until, one day, it wasn’t.

The “madness” of Barney’s during its heyday is the same sort of magic that newer retail experiences are trying to capture, but probably never will. The shining jewel in the crown of the Shops at Hudson Yards, Forty-Five Ten, curates the kind of studied cool that Barney’s once cultivated organically, but comes off as too purposeful and intentional in its styling—a sordid necessity in the terrible age of Instagram. The online shopping experience, too, has contributed to Barney’s demise. Sites like The Real Real, which specializes in luxury consignment, democratizes designer fashion by flattening the landscape of exclusive, designer retail by making it accessible to anyone with an internet connection and money to burn. Barney’s doesn’t exist everywhere, so going to the actual store and leaving with the item of your desire is an event, but that sort of exclusivity holds less value today. Democratizing fashion by letting the internet run roughshod through the invisible walls built by retailers is exciting, but it means a certain kind of death for traditional retail outlets who simply weren’t able to keep up.

Barney’s was the first store to stock Giorgio Armani’s louche menswear and Christian Louboutin’s red bottoms. That exclusivity, which during its heyday was specific to rich New Yorkers, is now gone. The allure of Barney’s wasn’t necessarily the items sold in the store, but the name itself. As Robin Givhan wrote at the Washington Post, “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.” To shop at Barney’s meant that you were in the know about something—an ineffable cool cloaked in the kind of money required to buy anything at the store in the first place.

Richard Perry, the hedge-fund manager who bought Barney’s in 2012, made crucial mistakes that essentially laid out the store’s demise. According to Vanessa Friedman’s 2012 profile of Perry in The New York Times, he erased the store’s DNA as a cultural institution by bringing about changes that made Barney’s like any other store on Madison Avenue or otherwise. Overhauling the first floor of the store into what Friedman describes as a “sea of bags” was certainly a savvy retail decision—bags and shoes are the most accessible luxury items and are therefore marketed very aggressively—but it is certainly not in the spirit of what Barney’s ever was.

When news broke that Barney’s was going out of business, the joke was, of course, about the sales. Finally, the chance to purchase a slingback D’orsay heel in supple lilac leather for the price of high-end Steve Madden nighttime shoes! But its death has been merely a slow fade. There is something particularly grim about watching the slow decline of a retail giant in real time. Business publications have mourned the demise of the mall, pinning the blame squarely on millennials, but contemporary culture’s favorite villain, the internet, is more likely to blame. Barney’s significance was rooted plainly it its original owner’s vision and self-styled position as arbiter of cool. Writing in The New York Times in 2012, fashion critic Cathy Horyn noted that the rise of Barney’s in is heyday was also due to the yuppie, a generation “that would seek to define itself by what it consumed — be it contemporary art or dead-chic black. And Barneys was their store.”

In October, the fate of Carrie Bradshaw’s favorite department store was sealed in a courtroom in Poughkeepsie, NY, approving the sale of Barney’s to Authentic Brands Group, who would, as the New York Times reported, separate the intellectual property and brand name from the actual merchandise. The dresses, handbags, shoes, and high-end beauty products sold at Barney’s would now belong to B. Riley, a liquidation group. The sales, when they started sometime in November, were tiny. WWD reported a measly five percent off, and noted that high-end luxury brands like Fendi were still selling for full price.

There is something particularly grim about watching the slow decline of a retail giant in real time.

Details of how the sale came to be are woefully scarce, but per WWD’s reporting, it is a mysterious equation that considers the inherent culture value of each item. A pair of Balenciaga’s Triple-S sneakers, which retail at Neiman Marcus for $925, most likely would not be part of the discount, because of streetwear’s current dominance in the retail landscape.

Apparently, it all boils down to “a somewhat mathematical, somewhat artful formula,” which takes into account an item’s “sense of desirability.” It’s new territory for B. Riley, which readily acknowledged that this approach is a far cry from that of its past liquidations like Payless and Toys “R” Us.

That formula, which was clearly in place for the beginning of Barney’s death throes, was out the window when I visited the store on a sleepy and unseasonably warm Tuesday morning in February. Everything was on sale, from the fixtures to the $5,000 Tom Ford gown that I touched—velvet, sequined, with cutout shoulders—with prices slashed to a shockingly affordable 90 percent off. For those incapable of doing the math, helpful neon pink xeroxed discount sheets were plastered to every available surface, like the sort one might see in discount shoe retailer DSW’s sale section.

To be fair, the deals were incredible. I made it out of the store alive and empty-handed, but found myself standing in the windowless depths of the shoe department, clutching a single Maison Margiela mule—winter white, quilted nylon, highly impractical— and considering whether or not it would be a good idea to purchase said shoe for $195. A Roberto Cavalli handbag (leopard print and the shape and size of a Louis Vuitton Speedy bag, both high-class and declassé in one) enchanted me for one moment; never mind the fact that my purse of choice is one of many free tote bags found in the depths of my closet.

Turning a corner in what used to be the shoe department, I found myself staring at plastic tupperware bins full of $150 thongs and Eres string bikinis.

Simply getting off the escalator at a different floor was a journey in and of itself. I dutifully visited every floor, but often found myself alone except for headless, nude mannequins and metal clothing racks. One brief stop brought me to an area blocked off by caution tape, like a crime scene. Wandering through the floors, which felt more like a tag sale, was extremely disorienting in a way that I didn’t quite expect. Turning a corner in what used to be the shoe department, I found myself staring at plastic tupperware bins full of $150 thongs and Eres string bikinis. Dutifully, I rifled through the piles of royal purple bikini tops, as I am weak to the siren call of a good sale, but found nothing but handfuls of nylon triangles big enough to cover a nipple and little else. The first floor—the “sea of bags” as described by former Barney’s owner Richard Perry—was a dejected pile of throw pillows, children’s clothing, and straw handbags. Inexplicably, two neat stacks of Martha Stewart’s Grilling sat on top of a glass display case, with no price tag affixed.

Luxury retail experiences are often intimidating for shoppers who know they cannot afford what’s being sold, but the fact that Barney’s now felt like a dystopian TJ Maxx emboldened me to touch everything in my sight with reckless abandon. A sign on the wall alerted me to the presence of Zac Posen gowns, all of which were fit for a very nice junior prom, for prices that, yes, were too low to be believed. (It is worth noting that Posen’s eponymous line also met its demise in the same Poughkeepsie bankruptcy court that Barney’s did.) “I’m in from out of town,” a woman told a store clerk as she unloaded her bounty. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

What was most remarkable about Barney’s new life as a TJ Maxx for the one percent is the environment itself. Stripped of both mood lighting and organization, the sales floor felt more like a strange hotel lobby, with dirty carpets and bad couches. A structured dress in oatmeal taffeta from the Row ($1,500) hung next to a tangle of sequined party dresses, looking as if it had lost its way. Removing the clothes from the madness curated by Pressman reduced their importance. Shoved together in a tangle of plastic hangers and taffeta, a rack of gowns becomes tawdry and therefore, somehow, more accessible. In its death, Barney’s New York is now selling an attainable dream, which is probably exactly what its founders didn’t want.

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