Real Goatskin and Lotsa Gas: The Pressman Saga Unzipped

The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys: A Family Tale of Chutzpah, Glory and Greed , by Joshua Levine. William Morrow, 256 pages, $25.

Some years ago, a friend took her 14-year-old son to the 17th Street Barneys to buy a birthday gift for his style-conscious grandfather. Dressed in full New York private school uniform (frayed baggy jeans, ripped T-shirt), my friend’s son seemed to have come from a different fashion planet; here the aliens were buying and selling silk socks that, judging by their price, must have been produced by worms specially selected and properly compensated for outspinning their grubbier brothers. For a while, the boy was mystified, and put off. But eventually he succumbed to the lure of the buttery loafers, the ties arrayed in bright rainbows, like elegant wearable candy; he fell for the seductive chemistry of luxury, snobbery and taste. As they left, he turned around, and promised the expensive, attractive things, “I’ll be back!” When I asked my friend how this made her feel, she said, “As if I’d personally introduced him to the Devil.”

The story Joshua Levine tells in The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys is a good deal less metaphysical than my friend’s response. But it’s nonetheless (my heart sinks slightly, saying it) as close as we are likely to get to a modern version of Faust. The Pressmans, the retail dynasty that started Barneys in 1923 and drove it into bankruptcy in 1995, took several generations to make and lose their fateful bargain: They sold their collective souls in return for the chance to build the world’s most fabulous department store. At least on the face of it (this is, after all, an unauthorized biography, written without Pressman cooperation), what so bedeviled the family had less to do with money or greed than with what Bob Jeffrey, an advertising consultant hired in 1995 to warm up the store’s chilly, tonier-than-thou image, correctly calls “hubris and ego. That’s where the tragic element comes in, although I hate to say ‘tragic,’ because it presupposes a certain level of nobility. I don’t think the Pressman lineage is that high.”

In fact, lineage wasn’t the Pressmans’ problem, since, as Mr. Levine makes clear, the progressively more gnarled family tree sprang from perfectly vigorous roots. Barney Pressman, the ingenious, hard-working “cut-rate clothing king” and patriarch who took as his motto, “No bunk! No junk! No imitations!” and had his own inventive methods for accumulating inventory; he’d search the newspapers for notices of death and divorce among the city’s snappiest dressers, and then show up, offering to help the bereaved or abandoned wife empty her husband’s closet. Obviously uninhibited by middle-class notions of decorum, Barneys sponsored radio broadcasts of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial. (“Think of a small local haberdasher … using the murder trial of Timothy McVeigh to hawk cheap suits, and you get an idea of the exhilarating tastelessness of the whole thing.”)

Barney’s son and heir, Fred, was not only a good businessman but something of a visionary who oversaw the store’s metamorphosis from down-home discount house to downtown emporium with departments like the English Room, the Imperial Room and the Madison Room, catering to customers no less rich and entitled but ever so slightly more daring than the purebred Brooks Brothers crowd. Fascinated by the intricacies of stitching, by the esthetics of leather and cloth, and by the lucrative possibilities of “what today is clumsily referred to as ‘life style selling,’” Fred courted European designers and is widely credited for having put Armani on the map. “In the history of modern fashion,” writes the occasionally hyperbolic Mr. Levine, “that gives Fred a status something like Christopher Columbus’.”

Meanwhile, history, culture and economics were conspiring to create the perfect moment–a rather long moment, spanning much of the late 70′s and early 80′s–for Barneys to come into its own. As disco fever caught on, as designers became celebrities famous for dressing other celebrities, the rag trade discovered the velvet goldmine, and Barneys capitalized on society’s new (or newly revived) desire to wear its wealth and status: “For a mere $12,000, you could buy a jacket from Romeo Gigli, another designer associated with Barneys, woven out of spun-gold thread. If you had to ask what woman would ever buy such a thing, you clearly missed the point.”

But all was not quite party time in the bedrooms and boardrooms of the Pressman empire, and the second half of Mr. Levine’s book tracks a breathtakingly rapid fall. The extended clan had begun to feud: “Family meetings had all the decorum of a prison riot: They were clangorous, violent and seemingly random.” Fred’s son Gene–the guiding spirit behind the successful women’s wear departments and (together with his brother Bob) the architect of the store’s dramatic decline–was squandering his creative energies on finding inventive ways to insult his wife, Bonnie: “Gene would berate her publicly … at design meetings. And then, just before leaving the room, he would turn and fart loudly to underscore his authority.”

The most entertaining and upsetting sections document the sheer wastefulness, misguidedness and mismanagement that went into the construction of the catastrophically expensive–$267 million–Madison Avenue Barneys, the Pressmans’ monument to themselves: “‘The Pressmans kept saying they wanted this to be the most beautiful store in the world,’ says one of the top architects on the project … ‘We did a whole boutique [lined] with goatskin … I was arguing that you could do this in a faux finish, and you might spend an eighth of the price. The response was, like, why use faux goatskin when you could use real goatskin?’”

Why? Presumably, so all that expensive fabulousness could be osmotically absorbed by the sales staff, who would then feel righteously entitled to give Barneys’ customers the maximum amount of attitude. The arrogance and oily-hip demeanor of the salespeople eventually became a liability for the store, as shoppers began to wonder why they were sneered at so contemptuously when they handed over their credit card to pay for, say, the Rei Kawakubo bump dress that for a small fortune could make a woman look like she had tumors growing on her ass.

Like other wonders of the world (the Pyramids, for example), the building took its toll not only in money but in human life. One worker fell off a scaffolding, the other tumbled down an empty elevator shaft–a death that, Mr. Levine suggests, may have been connected to a dispute over the profitable disposition of the scrap metal that the construction site was generating. But unlike the slave laborers who built the Pyramids, these workers expected to get paid, a modest expectation often at odds with the Pressmans’ increasingly precarious financial situation. Creditors resorted to scrawling nasty graffiti on the unfinished building and (as they grew more impatient) making death threats against their employers, tactics the Pressmans countered by beefing up store security.

Reading The Rise and Fall of Barneys means wading through the details of the bad business decisions that brought the Pressmans low; some people love this sort of thing, which I find about as exciting as watching a stranger balance his checkbook. And at times I couldn’t help wishing that Mr. Levine had gained access to the family. To know what makes the Pressmans tick might be like channeling the Pharaohs, or Louis XIV. Nonetheless, Joshua Levine has done a serviceable and entertaining job of explaining why, when my friend’s son makes his long-promised return to the pretty ties and shoes of the Chelsea Barneys, the store he remembers will be long gone–and he’ll find himself in Loehmann’s.