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Much has changed downtown since Barneys’ heyday on Seventh Avenue, but Armani believes the store will be well-received by the community. “Barneys is famous not only for being the point of sale of major brands, but also — and especially — because of its glorious windows, which are small masterpieces of invention and set design,” Armani said. “I strongly believe these are all prerequisites for a great success with the public.”
Barneys discovered many other designers in its former downtown digs. “It is simply impossible to tell my story as a designer without Barneys,” said Dries Van Noten. “It was the first in the world to buy my collection, and we’ve enjoyed a close and symbiotic relationship ever since. Barneys returning to the mythic downtown location must be as much a spiritual homecoming for them as it is for all of the designers who have enjoyed their support over the years. In my case, it’s from when Barneys placed that first order up until today with Barneys a key patron of my upcoming exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris opening on Feb. 28.”
Since becoming ceo of Barneys, Lee has wasted no time in reimagining the retailer, upping the luxe quotient, emphasizing exclusivity and infusing the store with a sleek, contemporary vibe.
“What Barneys always stood for was modernity, then and now,” said Lee. “The new store design will be related to how we’ve brought that modernity forward in the last few years. It’s what we’re starting to do now in Beverly Hills. The link to the long past is that Barneys always pioneered a feeling of openness in retail. Our hallmark is not to chop the store up into shop-in-shops. We’re anti-shop-in-shop. We’re reclaiming the architecture of Barneys.”
In an ironic twist, off-pricer Loehmann’s in 1996 opened a flagship next door to Barneys downtown in a part of the building that Barneys had once occupied. Barneys in 1996 filed for bankruptcy protection following a dispute with Isetan Co., its Japanese partner. It closed the downtown location the following year.
Loehmann’s, which filed for bankruptcy on Sunday for the third time, had no bearing on Barneys’ homecoming, according to sources close to the company. Barneys had previously disclosed that it was looking for a downtown location. Sources said Loehmann’s has a valid lease until March 2017. Barneys reportedly planned to wait until Loehmann’s lease expired, but will be able to speed things up if the discounter is forced to close the location early.
There’s been a dramatic amount of growth in the Chelsea environs and beyond in terms of luxury residential in the last 15 to 20 years. Buildings and conversions and real estate prices remain positive, which Lee sees as a sign pointing to Barneys’ success. Besides the High Line, there’s the upcoming Whitney Museum opening, which will attract locals and tourists. “When you talk about the downtown community, the broader picture is that everything below 34th Street to the tip of the island and extending across to Brooklyn is dramatically underserved. Logically, for anyone in those areas, it will be more convenient to shop this new flagship than to get to Madison Avenue and 61st Street.”
The retailer’s downtown store was a cultural phenomenon, with irreverent windows designed by Doonan that often captured headlines. “Downtown, we did an homage to Magic Johnson that coincided with him coming out being as HIV-positive,” Doonan said. “He wanted to incorporate a message about safe sex. I incorporated gold-wrapped condoms into the scene.” Then there were the caricatures — Nancy Reagan, the Queen of England after her annus horribilis, Margaret Thatcher in a bondage dress and Madonna wearing the cone-shaped bra designed by Jean Paul Gaultier.
Still, if there was high jinks and rule breaking facing outward, the store was a serious temple to high fashion inside. A dramatic circular staircase in the center of the women’s department had all the glamour of a Hollywood movie set. “It felt like a place that was a refuge,” said jeweler Cathy Waterman, who sold her collection there. “It was almost churchlike, a little hushed and quiet and reverent.
“I think it’s smart,” Waterman added of Barneys’ latest move. “People tend to shop locally, and even though Barneys is a mecca, I believe there are some people who aren’t going uptown. To find the space and be able to move back in is amazing. It feels like the right spiritual move.”
“This is a great addition to downtown and is a return to a part of the city that represents the diversity I love about New York and which Barneys embraces — a place known for freedom of expression in art, sexuality, fashion and self,” said Givenchy creative director Riccardo Tisci.
“The reinvention of New York never ceases to amaze me,” said Chloé designer Clare Waight Keller. “For Barneys to return to this location, where I actually shopped when I lived in New York City as a young designer, is fantastic. It will be bringing its modernity to a part of the city that now stretches further and thrives with fashion and photo studios, art galleries, museums, new architecture and historical areas, and the magnificent High Line. It’s why I am constantly inspired by this amazing city. Things like this happen that make it new and interesting and relevant.”
“I remember the Barneys downtown store extremely well as I was living [near there],” said Christian Louboutin. “It was the one and only store downtown, and I couldn’t be happier when I saw my shoes for the first time on the ground floor on 16th Street. After all, Barneys was the first New York store to purchase my work, so I cannot be more delighted that, 20 years later, the story of Barneys downtown is getting a second act.”
“The roots of a brand are very important,” said David Schulte, ceo of Oliver Peoples. “For Barneys to go back to the site of its first location will just reinforce its already clear identity. Barneys has also figured out a very cool format that will work in this neighborhood. I think it will be incremental business. I believe there’s Barneys’ customers who live downtown who don’t necessarily make the trek uptown as often as they might. It will be a presence downtown.”
George Malkemus, president of Manolo Blahnik, said Barneys was the company’s first wholesale account. “They bought the first collection in 1985, when they just had the duplex,” he said. “When I first heard the news, it was like going back in time and old home week. It was a very, very special place to be associated with. They had the most exquisite taste. Just the idea of that facade becoming a Barneys again.…We’ve never said ‘no’ to Barneys. When Barneys moved to Madison Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman told us they hoped we wouldn’t sell to Barneys. We said, ‘Anytime Barneys moves, we will sell to that store.’ That store had a very special place in New York’s history.”