Behind Barneys’ Cutting-Edge Return to Its Old Neighborhood
By David Kamp for Vanity Fair
In February, the oh-so-chic department store will open a new downtown door right back where the retail legend began, in 1923. The new location promises to be a 2016 take on a vanishing New York.
‘When you think of Barney’s,” Fred Pressman once said, “you think of Seventh Avenue at 17th Street.” Pressman was the son of the store’s founder, Barney himself, who first opened for business on that Lower Manhattan corner in 1923, using cash he’d raised by pawning the engagement ring of his wife, Bertha. By the time the younger Pressman made his declaration, in the early 1980s, Barneys had long since lost its apostrophe and glammed up its image. Ivan Chermayeff’s iconic BARNEYS NEW YORK logo, familiar from the store’s awnings and handsome, heavy-stock shopping bags, signaled how far the specialty shop had come from its haimish origins as a pipe-rack men’s-wear store selling brand-name suits for less—or, to use Pressman père’s forceful garmento catchphrase, “No bunk, no junk, no imitations.”
Still, further big changes lay ahead: a Manifest Destiny expansion that saw the store take over the entire Seventh Avenue side of its Chelsea block; the construction of a multi-story women’s department, renowned for its Andrée Putman-designed spiral staircase and its many, many pairs of shoes; and, finally, a move so upmarket that it involved literally moving up. In 1993, an all-new Barneys, on Madison Avenue between 60th and 61st Streets, replaced the downtown store as the flagship. Four years later, the original store was shuttered—a necessary efficiency for the company, perhaps, but a sad moment for downtown, a little bit of the city’s soul extinguished.
Which is why, in an era that has witnessed too much New York City churn—with mom-and-pop shops and F. A. O. Schwarz alike getting the boot from landlords—it is heartening to see some of that soul reanimated. This month, a new Barneys New York will open where the old Barney’s was. The footprint isn’t quite the same—the new store, though it has major Seventh Avenue frontage and wraps around the corner of 16th Street, doesn’t extend all the way up to 17th—but a neighborhood anchor is back.
Mark Lee, the current C.E.O. of Barneys, will tell you that his company’s latest store is “a modern Barneys for a modern downtown New York,” a strategic embrace of a location that is “a hop, skip, and an Uber” from all manner of booming, demographically attractive neighborhoods: West Chelsea; the High Line area; the Meatpacking District; Greenwich Village; NoMad; Flatiron. He’ll cite the presence of companies nearby, such as Google and Twitter, whose young employees have disposable income but no memory of the old-skool shop. In other words, This Barneys is in no way an exercise in nostalgia.
But c’mon: not for nothing does a retailer return to the very block it grew up on. And Lee, with some nudging, granted in an interview in his Fifth Avenue office that it is a “rare and profound” opportunity for Barneys to return to its geographic roots—and that he himself is a prime example of a person for whom the original location has emotional resonance. In 1980, when he was a student at New York University, he regularly journeyed to Barneys, “nose pressed to the glass,” before he finally spent a wad of his student-loan money on something he coveted: a reversible purple-and-red Norma Kamali sleeping-bag coat. He offset its cost, he said, by living on “yogurt and bananas for the rest of the semester.”
The Greater New York metro area abounds with deeply personal Barney’s/Barneys vignettes. Many a former suburban boy, this writer included, remembers being driven by his father into Chelsea to procure his rite-of-passage first suit; among its other unique amenities, the old store, situated as it was in a then unfashionable, relatively untrafficked part of town, offered valet parking to its customers, an anomaly in Manhattan haberdashery.
Fred Pressman’s second-generation rethink of the store in the 70s and 80s—more upscale, whimsical, and international, with Barneys becoming the first place in America to carry the men’s line of an Italian designer named Giorgio Armani—brought a new clientele and energy: a “cognoscenti grooviness,” to use the words of Simon Doonan, who came aboard in 1986 as a mischief-minded window dresser and now serves as the company’s creative ambassador-at-large. Andy Warhol modeled clothes in Barneys print ads. Armani appeared in a 1976 TV spot for the store, silently sketching at his desk in his high-ceilinged atelier while an announcer intoned, “You see, even though Barneys may not understand his Italian, they fully understand his fashion.”
Tom Kalenderian, a Barneys lifer who started out in 1979 as a temp and is now the company’s men’s-wear chief and an executive vice president, recalls the sales floor in his early years as having “the excitement of a club like Studio 54.”
“You wouldn’t be surprised to see the same kind of electric crowd, of newcomers and old-timers,” he said. “It was just very uniquely New York.”
Nell Campbell, whose echt-80s-downtown club, Nell’s, was in the same neck of the woods, on a then barren stretch of 14th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, remembers “shopping for very expensive clothes by very foreign designers to wear to my nightclub.” It was in Barneys, she said, that she encountered Cher the day after the New York Post’s “Page Six” column had run an item reporting that the star had been denied entry into Nell’s. “The doorman saw only fringed white leather in a cowgirl hat and not the person inside it,” Campbell said. “I groveled as best I could.”
Perhaps no event better captured Barneys at its cognoscenti-grooviness apogee than its “Decorated Denim” fund-raiser for AIDS research in November 1986, in which such figures as Campbell, Madonna, Iman, Andie MacDowell, and the singer Peter Allen descended Putman’s staircase while modeling one-off Levi’s jean jackets—each up for auction—that had been painted, graffitied, or otherwise messed with by such artists and designers as Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Paloma Picasso, and Jean Paul Gaultier.
The new, Steven Harris-designed downtown store, at four stories and 58,000 square feet, will not be as big as the old one, and will complement rather than replace the 260,000-square-foot Madison Avenue location. “Downtown will be unique, in the sense that it won’t necessarily be a cookie-cutter copy of what we do uptown,” said Lee, who has run the company since 2010. (The Pressman family is no longer involved in the business.) The store will launch with special capsule collections unavailable at any other Barneys, from such designers and brands as Alexander Wang and Proenza Schouler (for women) and Vêtements and Y-3 Sport (for men). The third floor’s southwest-facing corner will be the home of a smaller, sunnier, and, in all likelihood, younger-skewing version of the restaurant Fred’s at Barneys, whose uptown location is a lunchtime canteen for Loews Regency power-breakfasters and slim women in leather pants. The basement will offer a beauty shop, an apothecary, and an outpost of Blind Barber, the full-service salon-cum-men’s club whose other New York locations are in Williamsburg and the East Village.
For all the emphasis on differentiation and modernity—the street-level entrance is visually defined by a sculptural stainless-steel canopy rather than the familiar awnings of yore—the Barneys team has built into the new store’s narrative some call-backs to the old days. There is, once again, a spiral staircase (which coexists, funnily enough, with the Putman original, still in use at the Rubin Museum of Art, the tenant of the former women’s-shop space on the north end of the block). The hiring of Harris, a celebrated residential architect making his first foray into retail design, is itself a conscious evocation of how the Pressmans, in their day, engaged the services of Peter Marino, himself a strictly residential architect until Barneys came calling.
And the downtown store is planning an event for this spring that will deliberately echo “Decorated Denim”—a pageant of one-of-a-kind motorcycle jackets, decorated by such artists as Ugo Rondinone, Kim Gordon, Anicka Yi, Lisa Yuskavage, and Glenn Ligon, the sale of which (via Christie’s) will benefit two downtown institutions: White Columns, New York’s oldest nonprofit art space, founded in 1970 by the artists Jeffrey Lew and Gordon Matta-Clark, and the Center, the venerable L.G.B.T. community center three blocks to the store’s south, on West 13th Street.
The relaunched store’s inaugural window displays will be given over to portraiture by the photographer Bruce Weber, who spent several months in 2015 shooting in and around New York City’s streets—a departure from his usual bucolic canvases. Among his subjects: Cyndi Lauper; the father-son actors Bobby and Jake Cannavale; Mya Taylor, the trans actress and star of Sean Baker’s indie feature Tangerine; Ganga Stone, the founder of God’s Love We Deliver; Rocky Jones, the New York City Fire Department’s first female battalion chief; Frank Pellegrino, the proprietor of Rao’s, the nearly impenetrable Italian restaurant in East Harlem; and four of the six Angulo boys, the home-schooled Lower East Side brothers from last year’s documentary The Wolfpack.
“It’s celebrating the New York City we love,” said Dennis Freedman, the company’s creative director, who added that the windows will be a multi-media “bouillabaisse of Bruce,” featuring installations of motion-picture footage that Weber captured along the way (including Pellegrino singing inside of Rao’s) and older Weber photos of, among others, Patti Smith, Lady Gaga, and Richard Avedon.
These days, you have to dig deeper and harder, into archives, subcultures, and obscure alleyways, to find traces of the characterful New York that progress, bank branches, and bro culture have left behind. How novel, then, to see the city get a happy jolt of character rejuvenation from, of all places, a posh retailer that decided to reconnect with its past.