I can still remember what I wore to my interview at Barneys—all black, but still worried I might not be cool enough to fit in. It was Barneys.
It was 2008, and I sat there, wondering how my experience at Macy’s would be relevant to the e-commerce division. Turns out, I was welcomed to join their small 4-people team and be on the ground floor of an exciting new division. It was at Barneys that I learned brick-and-mortar and e-commerce should be complementary channels of business; about the challenges of inventory management and fulfillment and how different departments—men’s, women’s, kids, home—all come together to form a cohesive business.
Barneys was precisely where I wanted to be. Driven by the best minds and ideas in the industry, our conversations were about pushing the boundaries for product and visual merchandising. We stood out from the rest of the retail pack, from our window displays to exclusive collaborations with rising brands and new talent.
Sadly, what we built would not last.
I have so many fond memories of my time on Madison Avenue, and I know that it truly shaped who I am—and the CEO I am today. And my coffee table collection from Chelsea Passage!
I’ve been reminiscing on the incredible warehouse sales—scoring Louboutins for $100! Holiday parties at Fred’s with french fries and champagne. Our charity event Taco Tuesday, with the buyers from Barneys vs. the editorial team at Vogue; who could make the most tips? Team Barneys, of course. Feeling like a VIP when I flashed my Barneys business card to walk to the front of any fashion week party, gaining access for all of my friends.
Most of all, creating friendships across all departments that now have spanned over 10 years.
This is not the first shakeup for Barneys. I knew that Barneys had filed for bankruptcy in 1996, and by the time I had arrived in 2008, the Pressman family had sold Barneys to the Jones Apparel Group, who turned it around to private equity firm Istithmar. But, from where I stood, it was hard to know why or what internal issues were going on. I would hear whispers of late payments or rumors of how it was unfactorable—but Barneys was the only one competing in this space. From where we stood, there was no real competition when it came to nurturing new brands. Barneys was the stamp of approval.
The rapid expansion of the Barneys Co-Op brand nationwide in the late ’80s was a push to get these contemporary lines into more hands—and it worked. This, coupled with the Barneys outlet expansion, effectively took the brand from major markets to a household name.
Like with any business, profitability will come and go in waves. Major waves. I left at a time of significant layoffs and restructuring, and while e-commerce had become an essential part of the business, overall, Barneys had been struggling. It was time to move on: Net-a-Porter was coming up in the US, companies like MatchesFashion were getting ready to enter the market and smaller curated stores like Shop Bop and Intermix started to pick up the Barneys customer.
The new Barneys strategy seemed to chase Saks’ business, rather than moving into the direction of Dover Street or Opening Ceremony, where it had found its niche and success curating new and emerging brands. Saks also made significant investments to expand their departments with unique brands.
Somehow, Barneys missed the boat on e-commerce and user experience. It’s a shame, because they had the product, just not the resources to build something innovative. Had they invested more into their platform and continued to invest in emerging brands, we might be seeing a different story unfold today.
I read once that Barneys began with disruption; Barney Pressman pawned his wife’s engagement ring to put a down payment on a storefront on Seventh Avenue. Barneys was once an incomparable partner for new brands—radical, edgy, aware of what consumers wanted. But, that’s no longer the case in 2020.
Barneys fate is not really unique, as 2019 saw rampant bankruptcies, closures, and businesses broken into pieces. But, we’re in a new decade now, and I have to say, there’s something in the air that feels different.
There used to be a stark dichotomy between small and large retailers, but now, it seems they’re succeeding through similar principles, just at different scales. And it also seems there’s no room for much else in the middle. Customer expectations are changing fast, and that’s been a massive driver of retail mergers and acquisitions. Large, “traditional” retailers are adapting to the times and learning that they must leverage e-commerce technology, embrace experiential marketing trends and bridge digital and in-store experiences.
On the flip side, small retailers aren’t going anywhere, either. Direct-to-consumer brands are engaging their communities on social and through email, opening brick-and-mortar stores or integrating in-person touchpoints like pop-ups to close the loop. And it’s working.
When I look at the retailers who are thriving and doing it right—The Webster, Elysewalker— the difference between them and Barneys is so polarizing, and that’s what makes Barneys fate even more apparent—stuck in the middle.
As hard as it is to imagine New York City without Barneys, it’s also hard for me to imagine what Barneys could, or should, look like in 2020. When it comes to fashion’s old guard, if they can’t keep up, there’s simply no room for them. Evolving with the times is mandatory these days—look at Tiffany & Co., for example. Old guard? Definitely. But now they’re nailing it on all things experiential with their cheeky Flagship Next Door.
While I can’t predict what will come of the Authentic Brands Group acquisition, I can confidently tell you what I hope not to see. My worry with Barneys is that it becomes the new Bendel’s—a licensed brand that only carries value in the name. Rumors of Barneys opening a pop-up in Saks breaks my heart. It just feels so wrong, so shallow… so pointless.
Barneys closed out the decade remaining an icon but knowing they couldn’t outlast the times. There’s dignity in that. And now, there’s even more room for what’s to come.