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Thread: Op-Ed: How Barneys Lost Its Cool

  1. #1

    Default Op-Ed: How Barneys Lost Its Cool

    by Eugene Rabkin

    "Back in 2014, in an Op-Ed for the Business of Fashion, I rang the alarm about fashion stores losing their edge as tastemakers. I was mainly looking at Barneys, the iconic New York department store, as one that was losing its cache with the fashion-forward customer by becoming too commoditized. Fast-forward to 2019 and Barneys is now exploring bankruptcy. Theories abound as to what went wrong with the store, and there is not one single reason for Barneys possible demise – there is the crazy rent hike on its flagship, increased competition online, changing consumer tastes. But out of all commentators Lauren Sherman, of BoF nailed a big one, “Instead of owning cool, Barneys began chasing it.”

    Any New York fashion fanatic who is old enough to remember will attest that until the start of this decade Barneys was the temple of the fashion avant-garde. In the pre-Internet era it was the place to discover new designers, and to see what the store hauled in from one’s already established favorites. I remember the tingling feeling walking into Barneys as a 21-year old ready to blow my first paycheck from my first full time job. The year was 1999. Barneys is where I discovered Ann Demeulemeester and Jil Sander, Raf Simons and Yohji Yamamoto, Dries Van Noten and Helmut Lang. My twin love for the Belgians and the Japanese was honed there. As someone with not enough money to buy at full price, I’d stand for an hour in line for its iconic Warehouse sales. I still remember my heart jumping into my throat upon fishing out a twelve-gauge cashmere Carpe Diem cardigan from the bottom of the knitwear bin that would cost me a tenth of its retail price. I didn’t care if it was two sizes too big.

    The start of each season that followed its clearance sale was an excitement of a different sort. “What’s new?! What’s new?! What’s new?!” my brain would leap up at me like an eager dog at his master returning from vacation. I’d walk the third floor of Barneys menswear department like it was sacred ground. I would chat with the sales staff, fashion fanatics par excellence themselves. It all just felt right, my freakish fashion escape from immigrant Brooklyn. In the subway car on the way home I would look at the reflection of me holding that black Barneys shopping bag – the ultimate sign of the fashion cognoscenti – thinking that I am probably the only guy in my neighborhood sporting one.

    And I wasn’t the only one. Marcus Paul, the stylist and image consultant, has shopped at Barneys for fifteen years personally and ten years professionally. “Barneys was always the place to find cool new designers and well curated selections from established designers. Barneys is a luxury institution, synonymous with New York City, that people from all around the world want to visit,” he says. For Joseph Quartana, who was a party organizer at iconic New York City dance clubs like Limelight and Tunnel, and went on to found his own fashion boutique, Seven, “Barneys and Charivari were the two temples I blew all my money at. Head to toe in Westwood, Gaultier and Mugler, I witnessed this fiery theatre [of NYC gay club scene] before my eyes weekend after weekend.”

    “GENE PRESSMAN, THE BARNEYS FOUNDER’S GRANDSON WHO COMMANDEERED THE STORE INTO THE CUTTING EDGE OF RETAIL, ONCE SAID, “IF YOU GIVE CUSTOMERS WHAT THEY WANT, THEN YOU DIE… THE FACT IS THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY WANT.” BARNEYS SEEMS TO HAVE FORGOTTEN THIS FOUNDING PRINCIPLE.”"

    Full article on SZ-Mag

  2. #2

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    Great article, and even though I haven't been to Barneys I think its history is symptomatic with a lot of stores who once set the tone.

    I think it's incredibly hard to show customers what they want as a lot of people rely on a celebrity face instead of a rather faceless shop selection when they make their decision. Not to speak to build a hardcore customer base in a time where the loyalty has ended.

    How do you think Barney would've kept its cool and make sure to be able to pay their dreadful rent?

  3. #3

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    Great article, Faust. As always...

    Is the solution, perhaps, something along the lines of what smaller resellers are doing?

    It seems like accommodating to the masses not only cheapens the stance of the store but also puts them out of business. Stores that stay true to their aesthetic (like The Office Gallery) survive the "aimmeless arrow" approach which Barneys has fallen under. Maybe "harder to get" and "well curated" inventory really do pay off in such a saturated environment such as that we live in today. Skilled craft should not be an easy to acquiesce privilege, but rather a privilege the few "who know" can reach. I see great designers like Zam Barrett need to mold to the norm and it makes me cringe. I am great to know that outlaws remain :/

    Let's make beauty a cult!

  4. #4

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    It seems like the age of big retailers is ending and it’s probably just a natural evolution. Idk the situation in the US but in Germany malls are closing one after the other while outlet cities are booming.
    Since you can get anything on the web, stores need to come up with ideas to make their shopping experience unique and this goes beyond friendly & professional customer service (which some can’t even provide, the time for SAs like at Jeffrey’s is over) and a good buy – this would certainly help incentivising customers to spend their money IRL.
    All of this is, of course, no new observation.
    Last edited by Nickefuge; 08-05-2019 at 11:24 AM.
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    kitsch killer Faust's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mmsix View Post
    Great article, and even though I haven't been to Barneys I think its history is symptomatic with a lot of stores who once set the tone.

    I think it's incredibly hard to show customers what they want as a lot of people rely on a celebrity face instead of a rather faceless shop selection when they make their decision. Not to speak to build a hardcore customer base in a time where the loyalty has ended.

    How do you think Barney would've kept its cool and make sure to be able to pay their dreadful rent?
    Like I said, it's a mix of things. But Barneys lost its fashion cognoscenti customer when they stopped taking chances on interesting designers and buying interesting runway pieces. The stuff they sell is so bland - and you can get it anywhere. Their men's designers section turned into a hypebeast / hip-hop* (*stereotyping here for simplification purposes only) logoed wasteland that no true fashion person will go near.

    Still, it's an institution and it'd be said to see it go.
    Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months - Oscar Wilde

    StyleZeitgeist Magazine

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