NEW YORK — Barbara Warner, a sharp-eyed merchant who helped introduce New York women to a slew of designer labels, died Friday at Calvary Hospice in the Bronx. She was 65.
The cause of death was bone cancer, according to Gregory Bissonnette, creative director of H Groome, Warner’s home and gift store in Southampton, N.Y.
Although the native of Binghamton, N.Y., eventually launched her own business, she devoted most of her career to building up Manhattan’s designer scene. Calvin Klein hired Warner in 1991 to help develop his accessories business and to open freestanding stores. He also knew her skills would be an asset when the company expanded into a home collection. Warner wound up helping with ready-to-wear, too, during her seven-year stint at the firm.
“I have worked with a lot of incredible women in this business. She was right up there as a top merchant with great taste,” Klein said Monday. ”She had a great imagination about how to move merchandise and to freshen up things all the time. She was always moving things around. Everyone at my company who worked with Barbara had such enormous respect for her. She had extraordinary taste and this ability to train people.”
As for how she cultivated that level of taste, Klein said, “It’s a gift. Some people have it and some people don’t. She observed. She got better and better. And she became younger in spirit. She was always looking for new and fresh ideas.”
Affectionately known as “BW,” Warner was also an inspiration, friend and mentor to Narciso Rodriguez. “She loved celebrating creativity and design with great enthusiasm, and would remark, ‘Isn’t this just really great?’ ” he said.
In a uniform that often consisted of a white shirt, black pants and ballet flats, Warner often started her work days as soon as she woke up. Bissonnette said, “I once told her, ‘You work all the time.’ And she said, ‘If you love what you do, it’s not work.’ ”
A Skidmore College graduate with a bachelor’s degree in government, Warner first worked as a teacher before deciding to shift into a career in retail. After training to be a buyer at Bloomingdale’s, she moved on to Bonwit Teller. But it was at Barneys New York where she really made her mark, helping to define its women’s business and get shoppers excited over what were then relatively unfamiliar European designers.
After joining Barneys as a buyer in 1980, Warner rose through the ranks to senior vice president, general merchandise manager. Along the way she was instrumental in turning shoes and accessories, two underdeveloped areas, into significant businesses. By the time she exited the company in 1986, Barneys had opened a downtown store with 50,000 square feet dedicated to women’s fashion. Former Barneys chief Gene Pressman said, “Barbara was a very passionate person. She loved her work and she loved beautiful things. She also loved all the newness and discovery. I don’t remember her ego getting totally disjointed. It was a team effort. I don’t think anyone was hung on that. It was a completely different time than today. Now there’s not very much discovery.”
With her eye for fashion, home, furniture, gifts and “everything to do with style,” Warner told Klein how she got instant gratification through her work. “She said she had the opportunity to buy all the things you loved and you didn’t need to wear. Then you would see them sell and you would just buy more,” he said. “Now that’s the way buyers — real buyers — thought, who loved fashion.”
In 2001, Warner opened H Groome in Southampton, and in 2006, a second store debuted in Palm Beach, Fla. The latter has since closed, but the original location will remain open, Bissonnette said. Throughout her career, Warner wasn’t interested in being in the spotlight, Klein said. “She wasn’t looking for the credit or to be known in any way. That was Barbara,” he said.
Having known Warner for 35 years and worked with her at Bergdorf Goodman and Calvin Klein, Rick Rector said, “In a world of cookie-cutter merchants, Barbara was always unconventional. She always knew right away what was right and what was wrong, and she had no qualms about shoving it down someone’s throat. She was one great lady.”
Rector recalled how during one of their working stints together shortly after a memo informing staffers of a new only-white flowers policy was circulated, he received one of the “gaudiest, cheapest, tackiest multicolored floral displays” at his desk and knew immediately Warner was the anonymous sender. “Sure enough, there she was cackling at her desk,” he said.
Simon Doonan first got to know Warner when he joined Barneys in the mid-Eighties. “I remember her as being rigorous and tough, but also very creative,” he said. “Her point of view was very edited and intelligent. I had always had a more theatrical idea of fashion. She helped me to appreciate a more subtle quiet sense of luxury.”
Twenty-five years later her Palm Beach store had “that chic, understated sense of connoisseurship,” Doonan said. “She was a unique retail visionary who loved product. She will be missed.”
Warner is survived by her mother, Anna, of Naples, Fla., and a brother,Dorr, of Endicott, N.Y.In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons.
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