What You Can Expect From The New Downtown Barneys

December 20, 2013 • Fashion

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As much of Richard Perry’s work at Barneys thus far has involved shoring up the luxury department store’s balance sheet, the question of what the brand would look like remains an open one. Some, myself included, might say it looks like their recently redesigned Upper West Side store.

Now, Barneys has announced it will look…like the old Barneys. Yesterday, a sprawling article in WWD announced that the store is reopening in its original Chelsea flagship, probably in 2017 (which means 2018 or even 2019, particularly because Loehmann’s has a lease on the building until 2017, unless the bankruptcy filing they claimed on Sunday forces them to close the store early).

Barneys CEO Mark Lee told WWD, “We think there’s a void in the market. There are smaller boutiques and some monobrands and the internet. Nobody has come along since we left to completely capture and create a real destination.”

Then comes a wave of Barneys heavy-hitters waxing nostalgic: “That sweeping staircase is so memorable, and the restaurant downstairs–there were always so many great people hanging out there…. It was very much an intense style hub,” Simon Doonan said. Armani: “The news of Barneys reopening in its original location took me back to the beginning of my career, when my brand landed in the United States for the first time, finding an important partner in Barneys.” Dries Van Noten: “It was the first in the world to buy my collection, and we’ve enjoyed a close and symbiotic relationship;” Van Noten called the return “mythic” and “a spiritual homecoming.” DVF to the Times: “This will bring them good luck because they’re going back to their DNA.”Manolo Blahnik CEO George Malkemus to the Times: “Manolo and I are over the moon. For me it stood for New York long before SoHo and the meatpacking district. It was the sexiest place to shop.”

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In WWD, Lee and his cohorts insist the move isn’t motivated by nostalgia, saying they’re opening “a long way from 1997,” when the Chelsea flagship closed, and that “the store really is being built and strategized as a modern investment for a modern downtown.” And Perry told the Times that he liked the nostalgic aspect but it really is about money.

Except that moving into the exact same building is about like getting dumped and showing up at a party with that woman’s doppelganger. Does downtown need a luxury department store? My first thought was, by all means, yes! The closest thing they have is a Bloomingdale’s in SoHo, which I’ve always thought was just there to please the tourists. Without a department store, the downtown retail scene is defined by expressive SoHo monobrand stores and splashy it-boutiques like Jeffrey, Maryam Nassir Zadeh, Owen, and Carson Street. You pop into Kirna Zabete for your Alaia, then head to Nicholas Kirkwood for shoes. The whole of downtown Manhattan functions as your department store.

Then it occurred to me that this is because that’s the defining downtown retail experience. Just because you don’t have something, doesn’t mean you need it. (Boy, is that a zinger of a koan for the retail-addicted.) And perhaps there isn’t a luxury department store downtown because we don’t need a luxury department store downtown.

The irony of all this is that the store is still going to do great. Not necessarily because, as Lee notes, the store’s research shows that their downtown customers aren’t adequately served by their Brooklyn store (which was redesigned a la UWS) or the Madison Avenue flagship. But because of this sly admission towards the end of the Times’s article: “Mr. Perry…has heard the complaints that the current Barneys is boring looking and has become indistinguishable from other department stores.” The catch is that there are, as we’ve already noted, no other department stores downtown! So that solves their quandary without having to change much.

There’s no way the Chelsea store is going to become the kind of go-go ’80s Algonquin Round Table it once was,, with Leonardo DiCaprio waffling over smoking slippers while waving hello to Philip Seymour Hoffman in the men’s section and Jennifer Lawrence splitting a lobster salad at Fred’s with Marina Abramovic. Celebrities now rely mostly on stylists, plus they prefer to be seen at places that make them look cool, cultured–like weird or fancy restaurants, or basketball games, or art galleries. If anything, the “retail store as creative hub” is a mantle Dover Street Market is more than poised to pick up. Sure, Jay Z did a big holiday collaboration with Barneys, but Jay Z couldn’t be further from cutting edge. Old Barneys, at least according to its own mythology, was much more interested in saying, “This will be the man,” than, “We are The Man.”

So the store’s top brass is being upfront when it insists this isn’t nostalgic, because in that case their next move would have been innovative, provocative. Barneys is now a Man in the Gray Flannel Suit; it no longer matters that the suit is Thom Browne.
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