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Bergdorf Goodman at 111: Celebrating a Singular Anniversary

For a store steeped in fashion history, the retailer has been surprisingly remiss about celebrating its milestones — until now.

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For a store steeped in fashion history, Bergdorf Goodman has been surprisingly remiss about celebrating its milestones — until now.

This story first appeared in the August 14, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Bergdorf’s is putting the final touches on its most comprehensive celebration ever, which will be an extended affair marking the store’s 111th birthday. Who knew? The 75th passed. The 100th passed. Both without any big to-dos or birthday cakes.

While turning 111 seems like an odd moment for major celebration, Bergdorf’s executives see it as just the right ticket, and explain that the message is in the 1-1-1 of 111: Bergdorf’s being one store in one city, providing one singular luxury experience.

“This is an innovative way for the brand to celebrate over a century of style,” said Joshua Schulman, Bergdorf’s president. “It’s really serving as a catalyst for looking back and looking ahead. It’s the ultimate study of the Bergdorf Goodman brand.”

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In terms of scope and planning, 111 will outdo any of Bergdorf’s Fashion Nights Out, its glorious fashion shows atop the Pulitzer Fountain next door, or even the lavish black-tie gala at The Plaza in 1951 feting the store’s golden anniversary. The founding Goodman family attended, and it was the last time the store threw itself a real birthday party.

Schulman characterized the upcoming event as an extended mix of activities, exclusive products and pop-ups through the fall season, as well as several permanent shop openings and renovations executed in time for the Sept. 4 kickoff, not the least of which will be a Modernist Lab on the fifth floor aggregating the store’s most advanced designer collections.

A new Valentino shop recently opened as part of Bergdorf’s “fast-tracking” to get set for the anniversary. It’s Valentino’s first shop-in-shop in the U.S., and is among Bergdorf’s most elegant, constructed in Italian walnut, with terrazzo entrance portals, leather stitched fitting rooms, brass chandeliers and windows overlooking Central Park.

“We accelerated renovations and a lot of capital,” Schulman said. “There was a concerted effort to touch more of the store than historically would have been touched.”

Among other projects in the works:

• The first U.S. shop-in-shop for The Row, the collection designed by the Olsen twins.

• A new contemporary shoe department on five.

• An expanded Little BG children’s area on five with a candy shop.

• A Christian Dior beauty shop on the beauty level.

On the main floor, a pop-up shop will spotlight exclusives from designers, for a good sampling of what’s being sprinkled throughout the store, and on seven, there will be a decorative home homage to the Gilded Age.

The main floor luxury room will get a large installation of bamboo and orchids by the Belgian artist and floral designer Daniel Ost. Across Fifth Avenue, at the Bergdorf’s men’s store, there will be a new shoe library that triples the space for the category, a new advanced designer section, and a renovated Loro Piana shop.

“It’s a very holistic approach,” observed Linda Fargo, senior vice president of the fashion office and store presentation. “It’s a top-to-bottom celebration including every floor, all the elevators, every hall, all 21 windows on the three sides of the women’s store, even lavender lighting. It’s a season’s worth of celebration. We’ve also got some surprises,” including something dramatic for the Fifth Avenue facade, she said, without giving any details. “A woman needs a little mystery.”

“Our buy was lifted for this — absolutely,” stated Ginny Hershey-Lambert, Bergdorf’s executive vice president of merchandising. “Products were made for every single division and floor in the women’s and men’s stores. Considering the design and production schedules that vendors have normally, it was a lot to ask that they go into one-off kind of products for us. But many stepped up to the plate. Gucci made eight pieces; we only asked for one. There was a lot of opportunity to look back at the foundations of not only Bergdorf’s, but at each of the designers.”

Bergdorf’s buyers went into the market a year ago last fall, filling designers in on the 111 plan, and by last February, the designers had come up with sketches and prototypes.  More than 100 designers came through with special products, including many that have sold the store for decades and were discovered or catapulted to the forefront of the fashion scene by Bergdorf’s, like Michael Kors. He was spotted in 1981 by then-fashion director Dawn Mello, who went on to become president, when he designed under a different label for another store, and created his first collection under his own name for Bergdorf’s. For the 111 celebration, Kors updated that very first collection for Bergdorf’s.

Giorgio Armani did a remake of the gray pinstripe pleated suit that Richard Gere wore in the movie “American Gigolo.” Loewe dug into its archives and found a small piece from 1901, which became the inspiration for a clutch with gold hardware and trim. Relative newcomer Jason Wu created a full-skirted cocktail dress in vivid candylike colors that recalls his first dresses, which made their debut at Bergdorf’s for spring 2009.

As for giving any direction to the designers, “We wanted to leave it open,” Fargo said, though the suggestion was made that they should consider their feelings and perceptions of the store.

Certain designers were inspired by the Bergdorf building itself, including Francis Kurkdjian, who created a fragrance in a bottle shaped to suggest the building and with packaging that resembles the facade. Similarly, Akris produced a silk scarf and dress with a print of the store. Some were even inspired by Bergdorf’s famous chandeliers.

Aside from all the exclusives, archival photos of fashion shows, designers and celebrity shoppers and dignitaries, and fields of lavender suggesting the store’s signature colors, will fill the halls and escalator banks.

In addition, the store’s iconic black and white shopping bags and packaging were redesigned for the occasion. There’s also a commemorative book, “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf Goodman” by Sara James Mnookin (Harper Design), a title lifted from the caption under an old New Yorker cartoon. Then there’s a documentary about the store with the same title featuring designers, shoppers and employees. And of course, there will be a big private party at The Plaza.

It’s all intended to bring to life the rich history of Bergdorf Goodman, which was founded in 1901 when Edwin Goodman bought a stake in Herman Bergdorf’s Manhattan atelier on Fifth Avenue and 19th Street. The business moved four times before landing on Fifth Avenue and 58th Street, where Goodman built the elegant nine-story Beaux Art emporium which opened in 1928. He moved his family into the store’s 17-room penthouse, which made it easy for the Goodmans to keep an eye on the store, its workers and customers. The penthouse was elegant and unique, with a drawing room, a huge kitchen with a butler’s pantry, a fireplace, the antique snuff box collection of Andrew’s wife Nena, and its own elevator from the store. Legend has it that a few customers took the wrong elevator and mistakenly made it into the penthouse, to the surprise of the Goodmans. More often, there were celebrities and dignitaries visiting including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Benny Goodman. After Goodman died, Nena moved out and the penthouse was eventually converted to a John Barrett salon.

And the store has often been used for movies, including “That Touch of Mink” in 1962, where Doris Day goes on a shopping spree. Barbra Streisand won over America in 1964 with her CBS special “My Name is Barbra,” including the famous scene of her trying on furs in the Bergdorf Goodman fur department. In the 1981 film “Arthur,” Dudley Moore shops for sweaters at Bergdorf’s when he spots Liza Minnelli shoplifting.

The hands-on approach of the Goodmans trickled down to subsequent managers. Whether it was Ira Neimark, Burt Tansky or Jim Gold, all former Bergdorf Goodman chiefs, there was always an attitude that running Bergdorf’s was a plum job, filled with glamour. And it has long attracted the rich and famous. Princess Grace Kelly selected her wedding invitations at the store; Jacqueline Kennedy collaborated with Diana Vreeland and Bergdorf’s fashion director Ethel Frankau to design her dress for President Kennedy’s inaugural balls, and in 1965, Streisand sang and danced her way across the main floor of the store in “My Name is Barbra.”

Gold succeeded Ron Frasch and  served as president and chief executive officer of Bergdorf Goodman from 2004 to 2010, during both heady and challenging times for the luxury business.

After serving as senior vice president and general merchandise manager of cosmetics and men’s wear at Neiman Marcus, Gold took the reins of Bergdorf’s when the store was in an aggressive renovation mode. He oversaw some key projects, including the creation of a designer jewelry showroom on the main floor and the upgrading of the third floor for advanced collections. “When you are dealing with stores of this scale, it might seem as if you are in a constant state of renovation. In fact, we are,” said Gold, during an interview while he was at Bergdorf’s. “There is always another project around the corner. To keep the store current and special, it’s important to reinvest in the physical plant. We are forging ahead.”

In another major maneuver, Gold oversaw the rebranding of the store’s contemporary business to “5F,” signaling how Bergdorf’s would be focusing harder on the category with stepped-up merchandising and marketing. “Bergdorf Goodman can be, for those clients who aren’t familiar with the store, very intimidating,” Gold said at the time. “This was an effort to make us more accessible, to open up people’s eyes to the breadth of what we do.”

During Gold’s tenure at Bergdorf’s, the store surpassed $500 million in sales for the first time, which he attributed to “aggressive product and service strategies along with an intensive capital investment.” But it also stalled out after the economy crashed in 2008, along with much of the retail industry. The Neiman Marcus Group was hit hard, losing about 20 percent of its volume, but Gold worked hard to kept Bergdorf’s on track. Because of his successes, he was tapped as president of specialty retail at the Neiman Marcus Group in 2010. He reports to Karen Katz, president and ceo of NMG. In that position, he has continued to oversee Bergdorf’s as well as the Neiman Marcus stores. It wasn’t until three months ago that NMG named someone to directly oversee Bergdorf’s, tapping Schulman, who reports to Gold.

For Schulman, “it’s a wonderful coincidence” that he joined Bergdorf Goodman just three months ago, when the anniversary planning was already well in motion. He said it’s helped him to start formulating a new strategic plan for Bergdorf’s by making him more aware of the business and its vendors. He’s hardly a stranger to it, though, having been on the vendor side before, formerly serving as Jimmy Choo’s ceo and, earlier, executive vice president at the Gucci Group.

One of the challenges likely to be addressed in the plan is how to elevate Bergdorf’s already high rate of productivity when there’s no room to expand its square footage. With 150,000 square feet in the women’s store, and 40,000 square feet in the men’s store, Bergdorf’s generates about $600 million in annual sales, comparable to the revenues generated by the Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s New York flagships, which have far greater square footage and generally less expensive merchandise. The Bergdorf’s team has been aggressive in social media, omnichannel programs, enhancing in-store designer presentations and special events at the store. Schulman likened Bergdorf’s to a Rubik’s Cube — the box doesn’t change in size but its parts must be manipulated. “We’re always looking for the best utilization of space,” he said.

The 111 celebration, by underscoring Bergdorf being just one location, begs the question of whether the company could open another. Prior to the recession, the company reconsidered branches and eyed Las Vegas. In 1972, Bergdorf’s did open a branch in White Plains, N.Y., which was not successful and was converted to a Neiman Marcus store, which is successful. “There’s no plan today for any expansion beyond New York City,” Schulman said. “The celebration is really focused on Bergdorf Goodman and how it exists today.”

There’s added pressure to grow Bergdorf’s given that the store’s parent company, the Neiman Marcus Group, is believed to interested in going public in the near future. NMG in 2005 was purchased by Texas Pacific Group and Warburg Pincus for more than $5 billion, and the owners want some payback. “This is an interesting time for Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, which are so steeped in heritage and, at the same time, there’s really been an effort to think about the future,” Schulman said.

While 111 may be a throwback to when flagships threw big events more regularly, Schulman seems eager to restore that level of festivity. “Retailers need to do innovative things. The customer is very sophisticated. There is a deliberate need to do a lot to excite her,” he said. With the advent of the Internet, said Schulman, “Giving people a reason to come into the store is more important than ever.”

 

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