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“I must have been a born opportunist,” Ira Neimark confided over lunch at Patroon in Manhattan.
With the usual twinkle in his eye, Neimark was discussing ambition, and how his knack for networking early on and being lucky enough to be mentored by strong merchants contributed to his successful career, taking him from a page boy at Bonwit Teller to executive vice president and general merchandise manager at G. Fox and B. Altman, and ultimately chairman and chief executive officer of Bergdorf Goodman.
“I realized at 17 years old that networking was a vital part of success in business. I knew you could not be a success by isolating yourself, no matter how smart you are. I realized that Bill Holmes could open doors for me. He took me under his wing,” Neimark said, referring to the former president of Bonwit Teller.
Neimark persevered while several stores he worked for, like Altman’s, Bonwit’s and G. Fox, years later disappeared through consolidation. He made his mark propelling Bergdorf’s from a second-rate, dated fashion store, to one of the world’s most luxurious emporiums, a feat chronicled in his second book, “The Rise of Fashion and Lessons Learned at Bergdorf Goodman” (Fairchild Books), to be published Oct. 18. The book is filled with name-dropping, decades of photos of parties and fashion shows, encounters with celebrities, designers and socialites, and captures retailing at its most romantic, but features less of the daily rigor. Neimark also provides “lessons learned” from his experiences, as he did in his first book, “Crossing Fifth Avenue to Bergdorf Goodman.” However, the most important overall lesson Neimark conveys in the second book, a more detailed account of Bergdorf’s evolution, is that retailing, a profession generally perceived as more grinding than compelling, can be a wonderful opportunity. “Retail has everything — excitement, passion, merchandising, advertising, finance, and it can be highly profitable for a company and yourself,” he writes.
Here, Neimark, who turned 90 this year, discusses the good life he led stewarding Bergdorf’s from 1975 to 1992 and the pivotal designer strategy he devised.
WWD: In the book, you said leading Bergdorf’s was like living “la dolce vita.” Was it really like that?
Ira Neimark: It was very glamorous. You are involved with all these society people, but you have to rise to the occasion. I appreciated meeting people and recognizing talent, sharing their success with ours. You go to Europe three or four times a year and I flew on the Concorde. I enjoyed all the parties, particularly in Europe. However, every night after work, I left my briefcase at the door and spent as much time with my family as I could.
WWD: What was the essence of your designer strategy at Bergdorf’s?
I.N.: We grabbed the ball and promoted the very devil out of every up-and-coming designer so they became highly recognizable. The association helped elevate them as well as Bergdorf’s. We overpromoted designers since we were the last guy on the block with them. Barneys had them. Saks had them. Bloomingdale’s had them, and Bendel’s had them. So we had these major fashion shows by the fountain at The Plaza hotel or the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center, for Fendi, Calvin Klein, others. We promoted designers to such a degree they felt they were more important in many cases than retailers. It’s still important to present designer merchandise in an environment that showcases the elegance and talent. The stores that don’t lose “the magic” of the fashion business. Designer merchandise has to be presented individually. It’s not to be put on racks to be browsed. This happens in certain stores.