By  on April 30, 2007

MIAMI — Gene Pressman would like to get his hands on Barneys New York again.

The notion may largely be wishful thinking at this point, but it proves that the former co-chief executive officer of Barneys retains a measure of the outsize ambition and imagination that helped build the retailer into the posh emporium it is today — and helped drive it into bankruptcy in 1996.

"I think Barneys is at a crossroads, like the great days of Rome. They are expanding and can do no wrong. But it's always at this kind of moment when just around the corner, there could be trouble," said Pressman as he sat poolside last week at the Four Seasons Hotel here, where he was attending the DNR Menswear CEO Summit. (WWD is a sister publication of DNR.) "They need someone to give them vision and leadership and to say what the next thing is now."

Pressman, 56, clearly believes he could again provide that kind of vision — and he wasn't shy about expressing that sentiment in a candid interview in which he discussed his 27-year tenure at Barneys, the store's rumored impending sale by Jones Apparel Group and a new book he's cowritten with Noah Kerner, a co-founder of New York marketing firm Noise, called "Chasing Cool: Standing Out in Today's Cluttered Marketplace."

Asked if he's interested in rejoining Barneys management if it is sold, he flatly stated: "The answer is yes. This is a great moment for a new transition at Barneys. Part of the problem is that every time you have new parents, you lose something in the process, and that's what's happening to them. So far, every group of parents has done a yeoman's job of protecting the general essence of Barneys, but you have to wonder how long that's going to last."

Of course, whether or not a new owner of Barneys, based in New York, would want to bring Pressman back into the fold is a question mark. The company has been posting strong sales and is on an expansion streak: Barneys will open two flagships, in San Francisco and Las Vegas, by January and four new Co-op units by 2008, adding to the seven existing full-price stores and 13 outlets.Nor is Pressman privy to any of the current wheeling and dealing surrounding Jones Apparel Group's efforts to sell Barneys for a fat profit. Most recently, a Middle Eastern private equity fund was said to be vying to acquire the luxe retailer for over $1 billion. Jones Apparel Group bought Barneys in 2004 for $397.4 million.

While some might think Pressman's glory days in retailing are behind him — his family lost ownership of Barneys after its bankruptcy and he left the company in 1998 — some financial heavyweights still view him as a potential asset. In 2004, during the previous sale of Barneys that Jones Apparel Group eventually won, Pressman was in discussions with two other serious bidders — first, fashion mogul Elie Tahari and then billionaire Nelson Peltz and his Triarc Cos. — about rejoining the company. "Nelson and I came in second to Jones," recalled Pressman of the missed opportunity. "Nelson wanted to buy it because he thought it was such an incredible brand. He had the check and I was going to come in as the creative person."

Pressman believes Barneys has an opportunity to expand its brand into new business categories, although he declined to provide specifics. "It's an extraordinary brand and there is a tremendous amount of potential there that could be mined. It could be bigger than what they are doing," he explained. "They have a following, and it includes some of the richest and most sophisticated people in the world, from art to business. I'm talking about another Barneys concept, another layer of something."

Could Pressman be talking about a venture into the hospitality world? He won't say, although that has been his area of focus since leaving Barneys and founding a consulting firm called Gene Pressman LLC. Pressman's recent clients include the James Hotel in Chicago and Gemstone Resorts.

For the past three years, Pressman has also been at work with Kerner on the book "Chasing Cool," which was published and is being released this week by Simon & Schuster's Atria Books. The idea for the book was originally hatched by Kerner, but when he interviewed Pressman as part of his research, the two decided to team up.

The book is a timely examination of today's corporate obsession with making products "cool" — giving brands that indefinable X-factor that makes them irresistible to large swaths of consumers, as Apple, Nike and Target have so successfully done.But despite the book's title, Pressman and Kerner actually abhor the word "cool."

"The book is not about cool. Yes, we talk about people who created cool ideas, but we're kind of goofing on the word. Cool is just another word for consumer acceptance, a sort of pinnacle of aspiration," explained Pressman.

"Cool is an outcome, not a strategy unto itself," added Kerner, 30, who started his professional career as a 14-year-old DJ, eventually working with Jennifer Lopez, before cofounding Noise, which has had Coca-Cola, Chevrolet, Yahoo, Proctor & Gamble and Arista Records as clients. Clearly, chasing cool too ardently is, in fact, uncool.

Key ideas from "Chasing Cool" include: Innovate rather than follow the herd; consumers don't always know what they want before you give it to them; product development, marketing and service need to be part of an integrated, holistic strategy; a company or brand should have a singular aesthetic identity, and companies that try to borrow brand equity from youth culture, especially hip-hop, need to do so carefully and authentically.

The book is enlivened by anecdotes from the authors' divergent backgrounds, as well as interviews and insights from a slew of, yes, some of the coolest business and artistic personalities around: Tom Ford, Clive Davis, Ian Schrager, Marc Jacobs, Russell Simmons, Sofia Coppola, Vera Wang, Tony Hawk and Richard Meier, among others.

The book is especially relevant today because of the amount of disposable income young people have, noted Kerner. "When you have a generation with so much money to spend, cool becomes an important topic of conversation. How do you appeal to young people and become relevant to them? It's a question that is asked in boardrooms all the time."

But Pressman is quick to interject that it's not just Generations Y and X that are constantly seeking the new and hip. "Older people today always want to be younger. The Baby Boom generation is always looking for youth in a bottle," he pointed out.

In fact, Pressman was intrigued by the book's concept because of Kerner's relative youth. "We come from different generations and that creates an interesting yin and yang dynamic and cross-generational energy," he explained. "I'm a snob. I basically only like young people. I have a lot of things I can learn from them."Pressman and Kerner analyze textbook examples of companies that expertly imbue a sense of cool into their products, such as Grey Goose vodka. By using a beautiful frosted bottle, pricing it twice as high as competitor Absolut, positioning it as "the world's best-tasting vodka" and bottling it in France, Grey Goose founder Sidney Frank was able to take what is essentially a commodity — odorless, tasteless vodka — and make people believe they were showing class and sophistication by purchasing his brand. Conversely, the inevitable me-too wannabes that have cropped up in the wake of Grey Goose's success have not managed to catch the imagination of vodka drinkers in the same way. Why? Because they are chasing after the same formula that Grey Goose perfected rather than fashioning their own vision of cocktail cool.

One tactic to avoid at all costs, according to "Chasing Cool," is creating buzz just for the sake of buzz. Case in point: Carl's Jr.'s infamous Paris Hilton commercial. "Carl's did buy themselves, in a very real sense, a solid five minutes of cool," write Pressman and Kerner. But "five minutes from now, how cool will that Carl's meat patty be?" Not very, they answer, because neither the product nor the experience of eating at Carl's Jr. has much to do with Paris Hilton.

A much better idea would have been to hire 10 famous chefs, like Charlie Trotter, to improve the hamburgers at Carl's Jr. and market that concept, according to Pressman and Kerner.

Pressman casts an equally judgmental eye on some of his decisions at Barneys; in the book, he has written openly for the first time about his time there.

"You know what I did wrong at Barneys? I took calculated risks — I just didn't manage them well," he writes. Pressman admits that his drive to expand Barneys into new locations around the country and to build the lavish Madison Avenue flagship may have stemmed from "an inferiority complex." (Barneys was founded by Pressman's grandfather, Barney Pressman, in 1923 as a discount men's store.)

When Japanese retail giant Isetan agreed to bankroll Barneys' expansion during the Eighties in exchange for rights to the name in Japan, the Pressmans went on a spending binge. "We were a runaway train. We'd moved from heavyweight to overweight. We overspent tremendously," writes Pressman. "Perhaps my biggest oversight was this: I should have come up for breath every once in a while to see what the hell was going on with the numbers — even though finance wasn't under my direct jurisdiction. Such is the consequence of a family-run business."So is Barneys still cool today? Asked what he thinks of the retailer's stores, Pressman was diplomatic.

"Look, it's a corporate business now," he said. "Before, it was a family-run business. They have certain priorities that may be a little different from our priorities," he observed. "It might not be as edgy. We had so many exclusives in our days. We looked so different, in many ways, from our competition. But the world has changed. It's much harder to keep exclusives now because designers want to make a lot of money."

Despite his implied preference for the Barneys of yore, Pressman is careful to compliment the retailer's current management team. "I have great respect for them. In some ways, I wish could have done certain things they've done," he said.

Looking back critically at his tenure at Barneys during the go-go Eighties and early Nineties — something he has studiously avoided in the past — Pressman is frank.

"There were definitely things I would have done differently. I would have kept my eye more closely on managing the risk, on the financial ramifications," he admitted. "That's not to say I would have strangled risk. But my focus was on the creative end of the company, which was merchandising and marketing. Maybe I should have focused more and been in harmony more with the other side, which is the balance sheet.

"We had this wonderful Japanese partner, Isetan, that was just opening up the vaults to us. We kind of got, like, drunk," added Pressman. "I'm not making excuses, but, quite frankly, if anyone else had been in that situation, they might have behaved in the same way. When you look at all those young kids with the Internet boom, they were doing the same thing. They had all this venture capital money and most of them spent it all in two seconds. It took us a little more than two seconds to spend it."

That spending, much of it on the grand Barneys flagships on Madison Avenue and in Beverly Hills and Chicago, added up quickly. At one point, the Pressman family owed Isetan over $200 million in loans it had personally guaranteed to pay for cost overruns."Obviously, we spent a fortune on Madison Avenue, and that was a cash drain, and that definitely could have been managed better," said Pressman. "When you think about it, it was so stupid because it easily could have been managed. But that thing has paid for itself many times over now. It's the biggest profit center at Barneys. And the fact that Barneys can open flagships around the country and be successful doing it, I think that's kind of the legacy that my family built."

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