Byline: Michael Marlowe
LOS ANGELES — Did the department store mergers kill Barbara Barbara?
The question haunts Jeffrey White, chief executive officer of Barbara Barbara Inc., the contemporary dress resource here that shut down last month.
White launched the firm 18 years ago with Barbara A. Barbara, a local designer, and the company became known for its form-fitting, flattering contemporary dresses that were neither too classic nor too trendy.
The collection became a bestseller in the late Eighties in the better-price dress department at Abraham & Straus. An executive at Macy’s California said in 1989 that the line was particularly hot because it provided consistent feminine designs at reasonable prices.
But during the department store merger mania that soon followed, Barbara Barbara began to feel the squeeze. The firm’s labels were closed out of stores that White said had been good accounts, particularly Federated Department Stores, which dropped the label from its chainwide matrix. Annual volume hit the skids, dropping from $30 million in 1990 to just $7 million last year.
“I once had 200 or 250 stores, but with all the mergers we were down to about 15,” said White, whose office is in downtown Los Angeles. “It’s harder to just get a person up to the showroom today than it was to get an order 15 years ago.”
The chaos that followed the department store mergers shut Barbara Barbara out of the market, White argued. There were fewer accounts to call on, and the department stores that still were left cut their vendor lists — from hundreds to less than two dozen in certain classifications. Manufacturers scrambled to remain on stores’ preferred lists.
“You had to sell your souls to get on the matrix,” White said, referring to the centralized and predetermined buying operations of large department store chains such as May Co. and Federated Department Stores.
“You just got squeezed,” he said. “One day retailers are going to wake up and ask, ‘Where have all the manufacturers gone?”‘
White saw his sales potential diminish. If he called a buyer with a particularly hot style, the buyer would give the dress to a resource on the matrix to produce. The market became dominated by large resources selling large department stores. There was no room for smaller companies with more creativity, he said.
Barbara Barbara’s last shipments were from the holiday collection, which were shipped in early December.
As for White, he will spend this week wrapping up business in the firm’s Essex Street offices. Then he is off to an uncertain future, but one that will be outside the garment industry. A likely scenario: packing up and heading to Monterey, Calif., to open a sports bar — where, he said, he can make an honest living.
“When someone comes in and orders a vodka tonic, he doesn’t ask for 20 percent off up front or ask for a way to return it later,” White said.