By  on October 31, 2011

The gradual makeover of Barneys New York’s Madison Avenue flagship has been quietly under way for nine months. Now the bandages are starting to come off, beginning with the eighth-floor Co-op, where a new look will be unveiled Friday. It’s the first full floor in the store to bear the mark of the new design and architectural vision conceived by Barneys ceo Mark Lee, and creative director Dennis Freedman, who held the same title for 20 years in the editorial world at W magazine and was brought in-house to preside over the visual aspects of the store.

Lee and Freedman worked with architectural firm Yabu Pushelberg, which has considerable experience in the luxury, multibrand retail space, having designed Bergdorf Goodman, Lane Crawford’s Hong Kong and Beijing stores and Printemps in Paris. In terms of the design direction, the 22,000-square-foot space is pure minimalist. The industrial cracked, concrete floors and pipe rolling racks have been replaced with a gray mosaic marble floor, fixtures are made from blackened steel and frosted glass, and the walls are stark white. Pillars painted with “Boy Meets Girl at Co-op” are just about the only hint of whimsy on a floor that was once bathed in the cheeky stylings of former creative director Simon Doonan. For his part, Doonan, one of the few key players held over from the old regime, who is now a creative ambassador, said he hadn’t seen the new Co-op.

“Dennis and I felt very strongly that what we needed was a very clean, simple envelope for the product,” said Lee. “We really intended it to be something timeless because the envelope contains the greatest brands and designers in the world and it’s constantly flowing and changing.”

Freedman noted that they capitalized on whatever natural light there was to create a very open, loftlike space. “The merchandise is very accessibly displayed in a fresh and clean way and there’s very little clutter,” he said. “Yet when you’re in the space, you feel there’s a very clear, modern aesthetic that is Barneys. We have really worked very hard to maintain this level of quality and finish and you see that when you go to the Co-op floor now. It’s the same attention to quality as it is on the ground floor.” That the eighth floor was scheduled to be completed before the ground floor, which won’t be finalized until early next year, shows how much of a priority Co-op is. (Co-op is said to account for 10 to 15 percent of Barneys’ total sales). The seventh floor, which houses the rest of the women’s Co-op, will be renovated in the next 18 months.

Perhaps even more striking than the visual transformation is the union of the men’s and women’s floor — a very big deal for Barneys. Barney Pressman opened it in 1923 on 17th Street and Seventh Avenue as a men’s store, and when women’s joined the fold in the Seventies, it was kept separate, a practice that was carried uptown to the Madison store. Until now, the two spaces have been connected only through desolate hallways that can give unfamiliar shoppers the feeling that they wandered into employee-only territory. “For 18 years of going through these back corridors and stepping over boxes and going through stock rooms, I always wondered — as a customer and as a vendor — whether it would be possible to connect the two stores,” said Lee. “It was the first thing I investigated the day I arrived, and, in fact, the floor plans do line up.”

Lee moved men’s Co-op from the fifth to the eighth floor, clearing space on five for what will eventually become the men’s and women’s shoe floor. He sees the connection of the stores as logical for the modern shopping experience.

“You don’t need to leave your house to shop in today’s world,” said Lee. “So if you’re going to go out and spend time in a physical store, the experience of that — the entertainment aspect, the social aspect, shopping with your friend or significant other of the same or opposite sex — is all part of the experience. It just enhances the opportunity. [Combining the floors] makes it much easier for a man and woman to say, ‘I’m going to look here. You look there, and we’ll meet in the middle.’”

Conveniently located at the intersection of the men’s and women’s spaces is Genes@Co-op, a 30-seat restaurant and takeout counter for those who work up an appetite while shopping. Given the success of the ninth-floor restaurant Fred’s, Lee said opening a cafe in Co-op was a no-brainer. So was naming it. “I worked with Gene for years when I was at Armani and Jil Sander,” said Lee. “I’ve stayed in touch with Gene and I asked him if the name was OK, he said ‘OK.’ He’s going to have lunch here next week.”

The 1,155-square-foot cafe is in the space formerly known as the Penthouse, which was used for private events and includes a terrace that will be open during warm weather. Situated behind a glass wall that looks into the women’s area, the space has also been given the modernist treatment. It’s reminiscent of a corporate conference room with a single, rectangular communal table with a glass top under which are 30 computer screens — one for each place setting — that flow down the length of the table like a digital river. They use touch-screen technology, like an iPad, so diners can order off the menu (or beckon a server), and click through Barneys’ digital content, including the store’s blog called The Window. Other evidence of Barneys’ commitment to the digital age includes iPads positioned throughout the sales floor.

Just as there has been a revision and modernization in the physical Co-op space, there’s also been a shift in the merchandising, though it’s more subtle. Twenty-six years ago when Co-op was born, it was revolutionary in the way it offered avant-garde style at a price — one comparatively much lower than the tariffs on today’s merch. Over the years, Co-op evolved into a home for premium denim, contemporary collections, and what are sometimes called “advanced contemporary” lines that hover just below the designer price point. It also found itself among a lot of competition. Lee does not consider “contemporary” a chic or particularly accurate word when it comes to his iteration of Co-op. “The key thing was that 25 years ago, lower-priced clothes meant no style,” he said. “Today, we recognize the world has changed a lot. Co-op is less expensive than luxury designer, but it’s not inexpensive. A lot of the most exciting and talented designers working today, like Alexander Wang, are in that space. And it deserves to be treated like a designer floor. It shouldn’t be in a casual, contemporary ghetto.”

It will continue to stock its stable of Rag & Bone, 3.1 Phillip Lim, Isabel Marant, A.L.C. and Carven, but moving forward there will be a renewed focus on exclusives, including O’2nd, Kenzo and Black Fleece. For resort, Co-op will introduce 10 Crosby, Christopher Kane x J Brand, Thakoon Addition and Girl by Band of Outsiders. New men’s collections for fall include AMI by Alexandre Mattiussi (a U.S. exclusive), Alexander Wang (a wholesale exclusive) and Costume National.

“There’s a lot of noise in this Co-op genre of retailing,” said Daniella Vitale, Barneys’ chief merchant and executive vice president. “We really want to take a much more cleaned-up approach. It will be a little less casual. Whereas we used to have a lot of T-shirts, jeans and things of that nature, it will be a little more directional.” With that, Vitale headed to the women’s section to buy a T-shirt.

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