Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 September 2019

Deconstructing the chequered history of all-American department store Barneys

The department store, which has recently filed for bankruptcy, started life as a cut-price warehouse

Barneys first opened in New York City in 1923. Getty Images
Barneys first opened in New York City in 1923. Getty Images

For almost a century, Barneys has stood proudly at the forefront of the US retail giants, with its Madison Avenue flagship a New York icon. But earlier this month, the luxury department store filed for bankruptcy. We look back at the retailer’s chequered history.

The Barney of Barneys was Barney Pressman, a young and ambitious businessman who pawned his wife’s engagement ring for $500 (Dh1,836) to pay the lease of his first store, which he opened on Seventh Avenue and West 17th Street in Manhattan in 1923.

But the Barney's of the 1920s, which back then did feature an apostrophe, was very different to the grand department store it is today. Its slogan, "No Bunk, No Junk, No Imitations", was plastered on a big red sign that hung at the store’s front. It opened as a menswear store with 40 brand name suits, and gathered the majority of its stock through purchasing showroom samples, retail overstocks and by visiting auction houses for manufacturers’ closeouts. Barney’s customers were offered free alterations and free car parking as further means of encouragement.

By the 1930s, Pressman was taking steps to ensure every man in New York knew about Barney’s, becoming the first Manhattan retailer to use radio and television to advertise. He also began to distribute sponsored matchboxes and posters around the city, garnering much attention for their cheeky slogans and advertising tactics. “Why buy cheap clothes at any price – when you can get the best clothes made at Barney’s for less than the maker’s cost?”, read one of the matchbox inserts, while another referred to Pressman as “the cut rate clothing king”.

This July 16, 2019 photo shows the Barneys department store in New York. The luxury retailer could be joining a growing list of retailers that have filed for bankruptcy. Barneys New York is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, the latest retailer to buckle as shoppers move online. The iconic clothier founded almost a century ago will keep the doors open at its 10-story Madison Avenue store, but it has secured $75 million in financing to pay employees and vendors as it seeks a buyer. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Barneys department store has featured in many films and TV series. AP

In the post-war years, Barney’s continued to thrive, and by the 1960s, Pressman’s eldest son Fred had come on board, and had bigger ideas for the business. Collaborating with friends Hubert de Givenchy and Pierre Cardin, he set out to give New York men a taste of European style, introducing them to the concept of men's designer clothing. This was the catalyst for a shift in approach for Barney’s, which over the next decade would shed its reputation as a cut-price outlet to a high-end, luxury haven. Fred was quoted at the time as saying that the discount route was “definitely not for them”, adding: “My father and I have always hated cheap goods ... I didn't want to sell low-end merchandise. Now, many of those who chose to are verging on bankruptcy."

With his father’s blessing, he slowly transformed Barney’s from a discount warehouse with an adjoining pub selling beef sandwiches to an upmarket stockist of fine Italian brands like Giorgio Armani, complete with a quaint café serving food to match. The cheap suits were out, but the personal touches on which Barney’s built its reputation remained, helping to set it apart from its big name rivals. It was also during the 1970s that Barney’s finally expanded into womenswear, helped by Fred’s sons Gene and Bob joining the family business. With womenswear came mass expansion and the opening of new stores across America, as well as beauty and homeware departments.

In the early 1980s, artist and advertising visionary Ivan Chermayeff was brought in to oversee a new logo design for Barney’s, which involved dropping the apostrophe. With this new image came innovative advertising campaigns, shot by emerging photographers such as Nick Knight, Herb Ritts and Steven Meisel and starring emerging supermodels Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington.

Employees put the finishing touches on the new Barney's New York retail store in New York, U.S., on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. With the return of Barneys New York to its original home in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, the chairman of the store’s landlord said he’s considering a pause in purchases of similar properties in Manhattan. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg
The retailer is set to close 15 stores. Bloomberg

Barneys has won a number of celebrity fans over the years, perhaps most famous is actress Sarah Jessica Parker as both herself and her Sex and the City character Carrie Bradshaw. "If you are a good person and you work hard, you get to go shopping at Barneys. It's the decadent reward," she once told Vanity Fair. The hit show is credited with helping Barneys out of financial woes in the 1990s, when it filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy for the first time.

But on August 6, Barneys once again filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy after months of speculation. The retailer said it would close 15 of its 22 stores, including flagship branches in Chicago, Las Vegas and Seattle, five small concept outlets and seven Barneys Warehouse discount stores.

The financial difficulties the retailer has been suffering are far from exclusive to Barneys. Some 9,000 stores across the US are predicted to close this year, with traditional department stores some of the worst hit. Around the world, department stores are losing out to online cut-price retailers and luxury goods resellers – ironically, reminiscent of the values Barneys originally set out with. Coupled with rising rents, it’s a tough financial climate for chains like Barneys.

The company has managed to secure $75m in new funds from B. Riley and Brigade, both of which have a history of snapping up distressed companies.

Updated: August 19, 2019 05:48 PM

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