Barneys New York, a symbol of success in simpler times
By Jackie Mallon
Aug 7, 2019
For many of us Barneys New York is more than the Manhattan mecca of minimalist cool whose fortunes are currently being ruthlessly chronicled in the Wall Street Journal or Financial Times. While these hungry pundits banter over whether the company can be saved by Tuesday’s bankruptcy filing, the sufficiency of the 218 million dollar investment, or if January’s 72 percent rent increase by the store’s landlord can be renegotiated, others of us quietly remember the times when Barneys New York found its way into our everyday lives, to mark career highs, dilute culture shocks, and reflect our efforts to crack the American Dream.
My screenwriter husband recalls being taken to Fred’s, the restaurant at Barneys New York in Beverly Hills, to be wooed by LA film industry agents during the aughts when he had a coveted screenplay to sell to the highest bidder. Fred's was a place to be seen and for Hollywood glitterati to make deals over grilled New York steak and frites. An Italian friend who started a luxury outerwear company with her husband had been excited to finally snag Barneys as a stockist several seasons ago. Her sell-through had been exceptional. Now she’s staring at her computer screen in Lombardy obsessively following the daily headlines out of New York and wondering whether the 150 thousand dollars worth of merchandise ready to ship at the end of August will sink her business if not delivered. But if Barneys owe The Row $3.7. million, where does that leave her? A designer friend who cut his teeth in Europe but has since ascended the corporate mass market ladder in the US pulls a 15-year old biker jacket from his bulging luxury closet and strokes it fondly. “Cooler and edgier than any from stuffy Bergdorfs,” he says, adding, “When I was living in Milan, I remember on Will & Grace the Barneys Warehouse sale was a big deal. It was so New York.”
Barneys and the image of successful New Yorker
In the pre-recession era of statement purses with dumbbell-heavy hardware, freshly hired from Europe, my head reeling from my elevated New York designer salary and confounding apparel terminology such as moderate, missy and junior, I got no further than the ground floor of Barneys on my inaugural visit. I had just passed a display of minimalistic wire and crystal jewelry from an unknown designer when I spotted what would become my celebratory first salary purchase: a Lanvin shoulder bag in soft slate leather with chunky silver chain and the house’s art deco logo of Jeanne Lanvin and daughter in a medal dangling for all to see, the jangle of metals providing percussive accompaniment as I strutted out onto Manhattan’s speedwalk-or-be-flattened sidewalks. I had arrived.
To me Barneys was fresh and welcoming, yet glassy and spare and enticingly aloof. Saks Fifth Avenue was dusty and wooden, and Bergdorf Goodman felt intimidating, gilt-edged with old money. This was before the anarchic arrival of Dover Street Market to Manhattan, and before we migrated to online platforms like Net-a-Porter and Farfetch to make our designer purchases while in our pajamas spooning steel cut oatmeal into our mouths. A time when its branded shopping bags, glossy black with sleek white font, were symbols of status and reward, not the epitome of unsustainable practices and abusive overpackaging.
Barneys New York, gallery of fashion
At Barneys you could make a day out of traveling from one floor to the next of its sprawling 9-floor Madison Avenue emporium and it was as enlightening as a visit to an art gallery. Whereas, to my eye, if the merchandisers in NYC’s other department stores had been art curators, they would have put work by Jeff Koons next to Gustav Klimt simply because both artists worked in gold, Claude Monet next to Louise Bourgeois, simply because both were French-born Modernists. Barneys as fashion gallery was never that obvious. The merchandising decisions from floor to floor were thoughtful and fresh, tying invisible threads that united establishment designers to up-and-coming talent, marrying rebellious unknowns with elder statesmen, thus marking each level with its own distinctive identity. I couldn’t help but appreciate how this bastion of American style cherished the nuances of European design as if they had been present in the design meetings at the Milanese ateliers. Having crossed the Atlantic to stake my claim on the American Dream, it provided comfort as I set about identifying my place in its fashion industry.
Almost a century old, Barneys New York is as unmistakably and iconically East Coast as Carolyn Bessett Kennedy and JFK Jr, corner delis and gaping pastrami sandwiches, yellow cabs and Central Park––or Central Perk, the cafe in TV’s Friends. Now as this upstanding but distressed denizen buckles on the brink only to be pulled temporarily to safety by white knights, Brigade Capital Management LP and B. Riley Financial Inc, with a combination of cash and plans to trim 15 locations nationwide, we can only continue to watch the nail-biting headlines. While we hope it’s enough to reset the course of Barneys you won’t fault this New Yorker for making a trip to its Madison Avenue flagship this weekend where I will spend a quiet day.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Photos Barneys Facebook