The Bonwit Teller name is readying a comeback after an eight-year hiatus.
This story first appeared in the June 9, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
A flagship will likely bow in New York by the end of next year and be followed quickly by a door in Los Angeles. Ultimately, the chain could expand to about 20 stores in the U.S., said Andrei Najjar, interim chief executive officer of Avenue Brands, who was recently hired to relaunch the brand and perhaps add others to build a portfolio.
The grand reentrance is taking the form of a luxury retail chain that will start with more than 100 years of history and focus on customer service and highly edited assortments. But Bonwit’s return will come as the retail sector undergoes yet more consolidation, with many other famous nameplates — such as Marshall Field’s — disappearing and malls focusing on core players with rollout potential.
“The new Bonwit will continue the brand’s legacy of the unique juxtaposition of timelessness and artistic progression,” said Najjar.
Avenue Brands is a subsidiary of Chicago-based River West Brands, which bought the rights to the Bonwit Teller name in 2005.
“We hope to return a much more authentically human element to the retail shopping experience,” said Najjar, who cofounded Social Atelier Brands and also held posts at Abercrombie & Fitch Co., Target Corp. and Gap Inc.
A real estate strategy is being developed with information about site selection expected in the coming months.
“Our signature points of differentiation will be extremely attentive and personalized service; innovative, exclusive and highly edited product assortments; artistic features, and a very elegant and opulent in-store experience,” said Najjar.
Founded in 1895, Bonwit Teller built its reputation by serving generations of high-end customers with looks from new designers, such as Calvin Klein, and featured the work of Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali and Richard Avedon.
Despite its star power, Bonwit Teller was impacted by market turbulence and retail consolidation in the Eighties and had four owners in less than 10 years: Allied Stores, Campeau Corp., Hooker Corp. and Pyramid Cos., which ultimately shuttered the last store in 2000.
“Bonwit Teller was an experience,” said Paul Earle, president and founder of River West Brands. “It’s a deep emotional reservoir. It’s about mothers and daughters. It’s about purple violets.”
The original chain’s shopping bags featured a logo incorporating violets that became its calling card.
“We see Bonwit Teller right now as a blank canvas with an exquisitely beautiful frame,” said Earle.
River West owns trademark rights to Salon Selectives and Underalls, among others.
“We’re highly opportunistic and look for these great cast-off brands, the Rembrandt in the attic,” said Earle.