The bankruptcy filing is surely due in part to the rise of online shopping, but Pressman pointed out that people still go to the theatre, and they still go to concerts. They might love going to restaurants more than ever before. Retail is no different, he said: “There has to be a reason for someone to go. It has to be an experience, and it has to be fun. It has to be interesting. It has to be different.”
Instead, he said, the problem with Barneys was simpler, and sadder: “They stopped being interesting.”
Anyways: my dad, who was preppy in taste and modest in wardrobe budget, decided he wanted a blue blazer. The salesman put on a droll show, asking him to try on the $3,000 Armani blazers, just to see how they looked and felt, even though he knew my dad wouldn’t get one. Eventually the salesman showed him something more within his price range—double-breasted, gold buttons. They were having so much fun that my dad’s best friend, along for the trip, decided to get one too. It was $600, but the salesman winked and said, “Let me sharpen my pencil,” and gave him a small discount. And then the salesman treated them all to lunch at the cafe downstairs.
Horyn also spoke with Gene Pressman, whose father, Fred, transformed the discount menswear store into that small beacon of savvy luxury in the ’70s. It was that legacy that Gene built on through the ’80s and ’90s with his brother Bob. Gene was understandably sensitive about discussing the store, but he told Horyn, “If I had a store again, I wouldn’t have windows. My windows would be looking into the store. Because I’m done with hip windows. There’s nothing else you can do. I would be thinking about the energy from within, about creating environments, seeing hot people.”
My parents aren’t members of the “groovy cognoscenti,” as Barneys creative-ambassador-at-large Simon Doonan described the original store’s customers to Vanity Fair in 2016. But when they visited Barneys, they felt like they were. If other stores made you feel rich (or not), Barneys made you feel like a New Yorker: wise and hip. And the man who created that feeling—at least at the time of my parents’ visit–was Gene Pressman.
Either Barneys can’t afford to take these risks, or young brands can’t afford to take them. It’s likely a mix of both: “Vendors and designers had become increasingly anxious as Barneys’ troubles began to be reported,” the New York Times reported today. Gene said he used to have “loss leaders,” brands they never expected to make money. Alaia worked totally on his own schedule, untethered to retail business realities: “He would ship two months later than everybody else, and he didn’t care. [His clothes] weren’t distributed all over the place, so if you want them that badly, you get them when you get them.”
“Even though it created trends, it was not trendy,” Pressman said of the store in its heyday. “We have a misnomer about the word ‘trendy.’ We think it’s ‘cool.’ But trendy is not built to last.” Barneys’s cool factor, he said, was that it was “continually changing and creating new elements of surprise.”
“Barneys was a great form of entertainment,” he said. “That’s how I always viewed it: that you’re creating theatre.”
The Barneys that Pressman describes—and which was mythologized by Vanity Fair and Horyn—was understandably lost as the store changed owners and expanded. This is the second time Barneys has filed for bankruptcy, after a deal with Japanese investors, which saw the store expand rapidly across the country as well as in Japan, went sour in 1996, when Gene and Bob were still running the company.
Gene Pressman, who ran the department store in the ’80s and ’90s, talks about what the store meant in its heyday.