They won’t change it-will they?
That’s been a common response of Barneys loyalists to the news that Jones Apparel Group, the middlebrow purveyor of sensible suiting and shoes, has bought their favorite iconic, eccentric luxury-goods emporium.
“It’s just that whole thing, like, ‘Whaaat? How could it be?’” said designer Alice Roi, who remains a loyal customer of Barneys even after they stopped selling her clothes after a year in 2002. “I just hope that it doesn’t change the way that they’ve positioned the store, as far as their aesthetic.”
“As long as it stays the same, I’m happy,” said Marshall Field’s scion Marina Rust, who co-hosted a Nov. 11 party on the second floor for Lanvin designer-of-the-moment Alber Elbaz. “I assume they want it to be very much the way it has been.”
Socialite Helen Lee Schifter said she hoped the Jones folk-who own Nine West, Easy Spirit, et al.-will “honor” the store. “I just feel like it’s such a special place, so if they want it they must know that,” she said.
The reaction might seem slightly patronizing, but it’s not surprising. Barneys shoppers are a fiercely loyal breed-pride in the store, after all, is part of what makes a Manhattanite a Manhattanite-and tend to treat the brand as if were one of the fragile designer ceramics sold on the newly expanded “Chelsea Passage” department: One wrong move and it will shatter to pieces.
The Barneys legend began in 1923, when a ballsy Lower East Sider named Barney Pressman pawned his wife’s $500 engagement ring to pay for the lease and fixtures on a 500-square-foot storefront on lower Seventh Avenue. Styling himself “the cut-rate king,” he sold overstock with the labels cut off and dead men’s fine suits bought from their widows, according to Joshua Levine’s book The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys (Morrow, 1999). In the 1970′s, Barney’s son Fred began spiffing up and expanding the store, adding European designers like Giorgio Armani.
In the late 1970′s, Fred’s son Gene added a women’s department.
Barneys came of age in the 1980′s as an incubator of fashion trends, led by Gene and, to a lesser extent, his brother Bob. They wanted it edgy, modern; not schlumpy and cut-rate. “It was the most interesting store; it was the only great department store that had a great flair-that to me was the real Barneys,” said artist and socialite Anh Duong, recalling her impressions of the store when she moved here from Paris in 1988.
“It was the first place I got black opaque tights, and I wore them with Dr. Martens, a black miniskirt and a black turtleneck,” said Ms. Roi, who shopped there as a middle-schooler.
“I bought my first Prada suit there,” said Kelly Killoren Bensimon, the social butterfly and author of American Style. “I bought my first Azzedine Alaia butterfly dress there, I bought Azzedine Alaia hot pants there, I bought my first thigh-high boots there …. “
In 1989, Barneys partnered with Isetan, a Japanese department-store chain, a relationship which dissolved bitterly 10 years later over disagreements about Isetan’s role.
In 1993, the company opened their Madison Avenue flagship and threw a fancy launch party. “It was a very big extravaganza,” Ms. Schifter said. Ms. Rust fondly remembers bustling next-door to the Pierre hotel through a secret passageway, where Barry White was playing during the party. The flagship project ended up costing $267 million-about $120 million over budget.
In 1996, Barneys declared bankruptcy, and ever since it has played the profligate sister to the more sensible Bloomingdale’s and the stately, dowager-esque Bergdorf Goodman-its roller-coaster, free-spending image somehow giving the business a more human face. A fashionista could deplete her credit card there on Yohji Yamamoto sweaters and Balenciaga bags, knowing that the chief executive officers were right there with her, splurging on mosaic floors and goatskin walls.
The company emerged from Chapter 11 in 1999 after shuttering stores in Cleveland, Houston and Dallas, and in 2001 the board appointed Howard Socol as president and chief executive officer. Mr. Socol, the former C.E.O. of slightly upscale department-store chain Burdines, grew the shoe department, created an expanded home for the very profitable beauty department in the basement, and expanded the younger Co-Op department.
After four years of restructuring, the company moved into the black in the fiscal year ending Feb. 1, 2003, reporting a profit of $8.5 million on about $383.4 million in sales; in the fiscal year ending Jan. 31, 2004, its profit was $7.1 million on about $409.5 million in sales.
The Jones deal (they are calling it a “merger,” perhaps hoping for some of the Barneys clout to rub off on them, though paying $294.3 million in cash to stockholders and assuming $106 million worth of debt sure sounds like an acquisition) was viewed with something milder than alarm, but not exactly joy.
“Maybe Jones wants to have a flagship that is really hot and edgy,” said Ina Sara Bartkus, a spiky-haired production manager who was buying a Costume National parka on the fifth floor of Barneys on 61st Street over the weekend. “If this is their goal, then maybe everything will be O.K. If they want to make this to sell Jones’, you know, like factory-fabricated grayish stuff, then it’s sad. But if they would invest that money which they make in other stores and invest into young designers and into something that we can enjoy and appreciate, then it would be excellent.”
Jones C.E.O. Peter Boneparth would not discuss his plans with The Observer, but in a recorded conference call with analysts on Nov. 11, he promised not to “Jones-ize” Barneys by placing its merchandise in Barneys stores. In that same call, Mr. Socol, the Barneys C.E.O., assured: “We intend to continue to cater to our loyal and growing customer base.” (A Barneys spokeswoman would not make Mr. Socol available for an interview.)
One reason that Jones wanted to buy Barneys might be because the middle terrain of retail it occupies has been slumping like a soft belly. Right now the action is at the fringes: Karl Lagerfeld (looking much like Max Headroom) designing an H&M collection; Isaac Mizrahi declaring he only does couture and Target. “The middle market is a difficult market today,” said Walter Loeb, publisher of the Loeb Retail Report. “You have the lower moderate and discount market which is doing well-because people are always interested in price-and then you have the luxury market. There’s sort of a void in the middle right now, because that customer is the one who has been impacted most by the economy. He’s not quite sure what’s happening to him.”
The Jones-Barneys marriage may not be as odd as it seems. Several people point out that the latter store has been hewing a bit more middlebrow of late.
“It’s not as chic as it used to be,” sniffed Ms. Duong. “More approachable, more ‘big public.’ Maybe it’s difficult to keep it really edgy and really chic.”
“I was in there recently and the ‘jean bar’ is interesting, but they just have so many moderately priced clothes,” said Ms. Bensimon. “I am hoping that with the Jones acquisition, Barneys will have more money, and they will be able to go back to their roots and support the young designers and be able to buy more collections and not be frugal and be more explorative, like they were at the beginning.”
But Diane von Furstenberg, whose dresses are sold there, argued that “It has a very distinctive personality and it’s very hip, and it has always been hip, and it has remained hip.” (Let’s not forget that she is no stranger to odd partnerships, having worked with QVC.)
One of the ways that Barneys wooed its suitors was to talk about expansion plans: to Las Vegas, Boston’s Copley Square and San Francisco (they currently have 21 stores, including flagships in Beverly Hills, Chicago and New York). One commercial real-estate broker said that about two months ago, Barneys asked him to investigate the availability of two different spaces in Soho: a 4,500-square-foot space that might house a men’s Co-Op, or an approximately 10,000-square-foot space for a unisex Co-Op, which would replace the current Wooster Street women’s-only store. But since expansion was the source of the near financial ruin that the company reached in the mid-1990′s, analysts judging Jones’ acquisition were neutral to cautious on the news. “The current rollout plan … avoids over extension as it is focused on flagship and Co-Op concepts,” Goldman Sachs retail analyst Margaret Mager wrote in her research note on Nov. 14.
Ms. Duong, for one, professed some nostalgia for the old, overextended, pre-Co-Op-ified Barneys. “To me, it has lost its identity,” she said wistfully.
But Ms. von Furstenberg said change is good. “I think the Co-Op stores are a genius idea,” she said. “They’re very clever, they’re very hip, they’re very right.”
On the fourth floor of the 61st Street store, examining some Issey Miyake garments with a female friend, hairdresser Floyd McDaniel, 49, was blasé about the news, as befits the Barneys customer. “Everything is owned by corporations anyway,” he said. “They’re not going to change anything. You didn’t know who owned Barneys before. Nothing will change. It’s just an investment.”