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Bergdorf Goodman is what it is today largely because of Ira Neimark.
This story first appeared in the August 14, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
In 1975, Neimark became chairman and chief executive officer of Bergdorf’s when the store had sagged to second-rate status and was overshadowed by Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys New York. But Neimark, with a strong team and a clear vision, was able to transform Bergdorf’s into a world-class bastion of luxury labels and prestigious designer collections. Its reputation hasn’t wavered since he retired from the store in 1992.
“When I joined Bergdorf Goodman, it was a very small business run by a family. There was an unimaginable opportunity for a store in that location, with luxury customers living up and down Fifth Avenue and up and down Park Avenue,” Neimark said.
Working with Dawn Mello, the fashion director, and Steve Elkin, the chief financial officer, he developed a strategy to get designers to sell Bergdorf’s at a time when they would only sell the competition. It involved promising them prominent in-store shops with greater square footage than other stores provided. It also involved buying the couture collections from certain designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy and Christian Dior, a move practically unheard of among fashion retailers in the U.S. But Neimark saw the tactic as a means to not only put the spotlight on Bergdorf’s but also as a way to gain access to these designers’ ready-to-wear lines that Bergdorf’s sorely lacked.
Neimark firmly believed that designers should be lavished with attention and that Bergdorf’s would bask in the afterglow. “We promoted the very devil out of every up-and-coming designer, so they became highly recognizable. We were the last guy on the block with them. Barneys had them. Saks had them. Bloomingdale’s had them, and Bendel’s had them. So we had these major fashion shows by the fountain at The Plaza hotel or the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center, for Fendi, Calvin Klein, others. We promoted designers to such a degree they felt they were more important in many cases than retailers.”
Neimark would also acknowledge that, sometimes, more money was spent promoting the designers than on buying their merchandise.
Typically, when visitors entered his office at Bergdorf’s, Neimark would first show off the view of Fifth Avenue and Central Park. It was his way of underscoring how Bergdorf’s was strategically situated in just the right part of town, where the city’s richest, and the richest from around the world, would always come. He felt strongly that Bergdorf’s belonged nowhere else, and that it’s unique aura and architecture would never translate effectively outside New York.
However, in 1988, he received a call from Rob Smith, son of the chairman of General Cinema, which owned Bergdorf’s and Neiman Marcus at the time. Smith had become aware that directly across Fifth Avenue from Bergdorf’s, FAO Schwarz was moving out to relocate to the General Motors Building. Neimark consulted Elkin, Bergdorf’s vice chairman, who suggested moving men’s wear across to the new location, enabling the much-more productive women’s business to expand, and for Bergdorf’s to create a larger and more compelling men’s offering. The move also solidified Neimark’s reputation as one of the nation’s top merchants and most decisive, but he always felt that Bergdorf’s had only one home — Manhattan — and felt that an expansion beyond New York would not be successful. Bergdorf’s only branch, in White Plains, N.Y., opened in 1972 before Neimark joined the store, and was closed and converted to a Neiman Marcus unit in 1981.
At Bergdorf’s, he was also outspoken on some issues and took a tough stand on designers who decided to open their own shops at risk of cannibalizing their business at Bergdorf’s. When that happened, Neimark on occasion would throw them out of the store. He was at the forefront of trying to rid Fifth Avenue of street peddlers, which he felt cheapened the neighborhood and interfered with traffic.
He could be paternalistic and hands-on, and a fanatic about details, a requirement for building up any luxury business. He regarded himself as a “benevolent dictator” and patrolled the store like a traffic cop, telling staff to put mannequins and markdown racks in their proper place, replace a burned-out lightbulb or pick up a fallen price tag. “You have to keep pounding away and away and away again, and eventually they get it. We can fight like families but we work as a team,” he once said.
“It’s a good idea to celebrate the 111th anniversary,” Neimark said. “The store has been in business longer than most other retailers, due to its type of merchandise and how it’s been managed and the owners. It’s unique. Whether it was the Goodman family, Carter Hawley Hale, General Cinema or Texas Pacific, Bergdorf’s always had owners that were interested in the business growing. Think of how many luxury stores used to be on Fifth Avenue. Bonwit Teller. B. Altman, that was a fabulous store. Bergdorf Goodman is still there, but most of the other retailers are gone.”
He’s a part of the celebration, not only planning to attend the party at The Plaza, but also having participated in the documentary through an interview about six months ago, mostly giving his impressions of the store when he first joined. Since leaving the business 20 years ago, he’s not exactly been a stranger. He still pops in and out of the store and likes what he sees. “There’s a wonderful restaurant on seven. They’ve got every important designer you can think of and the store looks very busy. I understand the numbers are good too. It looks like this store is going to be around for a very long time.”
In no small part, he’s motivated to visit because the two books he’s penned covering his retail career and how he transformed Bergdorf’s are sold on the seventh floor. “I’m actually there quite a bit to make sure they are on display,” he said.
His soon to be released third book, titled “A Retailer’s Lifetime of Lessons Learned,” will give him another excuse to drop by.