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“I must have been a born opportunist,” Ira Neimark confided over lunch at Patroon in Manhattan.
With the usual twinkle in his eye, Neimark was discussing ambition, and how his knack for networking early on and being lucky enough to be mentored by strong merchants contributed to his successful career, taking him from a page boy at Bonwit Teller to executive vice president and general merchandise manager at G. Fox and B. Altman, and ultimately chairman and chief executive officer of Bergdorf Goodman.
“I realized at 17 years old that networking was a vital part of success in business. I knew you could not be a success by isolating yourself, no matter how smart you are. I realized that Bill Holmes could open doors for me. He took me under his wing,” Neimark said, referring to the former president of Bonwit Teller.
Neimark persevered while several stores he worked for, like Altman’s, Bonwit’s and G. Fox, years later disappeared through consolidation. He made his mark propelling Bergdorf’s from a second-rate, dated fashion store, to one of the world’s most luxurious emporiums, a feat chronicled in his second book, “The Rise of Fashion and Lessons Learned at Bergdorf Goodman” (Fairchild Books), to be published Oct. 18. The book is filled with name-dropping, decades of photos of parties and fashion shows, encounters with celebrities, designers and socialites, and captures retailing at its most romantic, but features less of the daily rigor. Neimark also provides “lessons learned” from his experiences, as he did in his first book, “Crossing Fifth Avenue to Bergdorf Goodman.” However, the most important overall lesson Neimark conveys in the second book, a more detailed account of Bergdorf’s evolution, is that retailing, a profession generally perceived as more grinding than compelling, can be a wonderful opportunity. “Retail has everything — excitement, passion, merchandising, advertising, finance, and it can be highly profitable for a company and yourself,” he writes.
Here, Neimark, who turned 90 this year, discusses the good life he led stewarding Bergdorf’s from 1975 to 1992 and the pivotal designer strategy he devised.
WWD: In the book, you said leading Bergdorf’s was like living “la dolce vita.” Was it really like that?
Ira Neimark: It was very glamorous. You are involved with all these society people, but you have to rise to the occasion. I appreciated meeting people and recognizing talent, sharing their success with ours. You go to Europe three or four times a year and I flew on the Concorde. I enjoyed all the parties, particularly in Europe. However, every night after work, I left my briefcase at the door and spent as much time with my family as I could.
WWD: What was the essence of your designer strategy at Bergdorf’s?
I.N.: We grabbed the ball and promoted the very devil out of every up-and-coming designer so they became highly recognizable. The association helped elevate them as well as Bergdorf’s. We overpromoted designers since 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. It’s still important to present designer merchandise in an environment that showcases the elegance and talent. The stores that don’t lose “the magic” of the fashion business. Designer merchandise has to be presented individually. It’s not to be put on racks to be browsed. This happens in certain stores.
WWD: Which designer was the toughest to land at Bergdorf’s?
I.N.: Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. When I went to my first French couture shows for Bergdorf’s, I was tremendously impressed with YSL’s Russian costumes couture show. The idea dawned on me, if I could bring YSL’s couture, also Givenchy’s and Dior’s, to Bergdorf’s for a gala French couture fashion show, that would be big fashion news. It was. Once the fashion press picked it up, we were on our way. We used the couture as a selling point, to bring in ready-to-wear lines. However, the Rive Gauche people initially were not interested, since they sold to Saks and Bloomingdale’s. It took two more years before they realized that because of our promoting the YSL couture and all the other important lines, they should also be at Bergdorf’s. But carrying YSL’s couture helped.
WWD: Who was the most successful designer at Bergdorf’s?
I.N.: Armani. The business exploded. He had what every fashion-conscious woman wanted in the late Seventies.
WWD: Who were your favorite designers to work with?
I.N.: I enjoyed working with [Emanuel] Ungaro. He was modest, easy to do business with. I also had a most enjoyable business relationship with Calvin Klein. He was inspirational. We had virtually no Calvin Klein business when I arrived at Bergdorf’s. Within three or four years, our Calvin business equaled that of Saks and Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan. We launched Michael Kors in the early Eighties. Whenever I saw Michael, then or 30 years later, he always said to me, “Without Ira Neimark, I would not be where I am today.” How could I not admire a guy like that?
WWD: Bergdorf’s opened a branch store in White Plains, N.Y., not long before you joined the company. Yet you knew from the get-go the branch would fail. Eventually it was converted to Neiman Marcus. Could a Bergdorf’s branch work today?
I.N.: I wouldn’t recommend it. The uniqueness and specialty of Bergdorf’s can not be duplicated, in my opinion. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t work anyplace else. It just wouldn’t have the magic of 58th Street and Fifth Avenue. That’s where the gold mine is.
WWD: How does Bergdorf’s sustain its success?
I.N.: You have to be able to present the greatest assortment of fashion merchandise, have an organization that can promote it and a sales force that treats the customer in a manner she expects. A salesperson with complete [product] knowledge and taste level is a tremendous asset. Too often, customers come to stores and never get treated as if they’re entering someone’s home. Not being shown merchandise in a professional manner is one reason retailers don’t reach their true sales potential.
WWD: Is service the biggest shortfall at retail?
I.N.: Yes. The fall of service is part three in the book. Financial people targeted selling as an area to reduce expenses. Stores and malls are open seven days a week, with salespeople spread throughout the period and everything is like a supermarket. A salesperson is hard to find. Many large stores spend over $50,000 for a full-page ad in The New York Times. My recommendation is that they spend half the money on a half-page ad and invest the rest on salespeople. They spend so much on advertising but have such poor coverage on the floor they can’t sell what the ad promotes.