Mark Lee: Barneys New York Is ‘Reenergizing’

At WWD's CEO Summit, Barneys ceo publicly discussed his vision for the retailer for the first time.

Barneys New York is “reenergizing, not reinventing,” said Mark Lee, Barneys chief executive officer, on Monday.

This story first appeared in the November 15, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“I see myself and the team as caretakers of a legendary store,” Lee said during his presentation at the summit, where for the first time he publicly discussed his vision for Barneys.

He also suggested that a big part of his strategy entails elevating the element of surprise, so that Barneys builds on its reputation for exclusives, showcasing new designers and merchandising and marketing innovation. “The overarching goal is to create surprise and speak to our customer in different ways,” Lee said. “Barneys always had a large amount of surprise and wit. The vision of the [Pressman] family was very much ahead of its time,” Lee said, referring to the founding family, which is no longer involved in the business. Barneys has a history of being “special, different and always the first” with new designers and vendors. “Barneys broke the rules.”

He emphasized that Barneys, which is known for its sharp editing and point of view, “enjoys size and scale that does not require it to be for everyone.” He said Barneys is not “heavily invested in megabrands” because the Barneys customer desires “rare and less distributed, less ubiquitous” merchandise that is also “a little cool.”

It was a presentation that finally put to rest some long-lasting speculation that Barneys might need to broaden its appeal and merchandise scope to capture greater traffic. Instead, the message was that Barneys will stick to its DNA, what makes Barneys, Barneys. Yet change and innovation is very much a part of the formula, and will be seen across much of the business, simultaneously. “I believe in working on everything at the same time,” Lee said. He described his first 14 months on the job as “quite busy and exciting,” and added, “We are just at the very beginning of unlocking the potential of what we have.”

Among the changes Lee cited were renovating the Madison Avenue flagship, redesigning barneys.com for a spring relaunch and opening a Genes@Co-op cafe inside the Madison Avenue flagship. He also cited next Monday night’s debut of Barneys’ exclusive Gaga’s Workshop holiday assortment, tapping into the imagination of Lady Gaga and her creative team with 220 unique stockkeeping units, including candy lipsticks, malted milk balls, gum balls, chocolate “poker face” chips, disco stick lollipops, hair-bow headbands and press-on nails. “The holiday windows will explode with 5,000 square feet of selling space,” Lee said.

Getting more detailed on the renovation scheme, which has been under way for months, Lee said the main floor housing women’s accessories and jewelry will break through to the men’s store by the spring to open up the floor and give it greater impact. He also said Barneys is creating a full women’s shoe department on level five. “Barneys is reclaiming its own space as a timeless modern environment. We are not cutting up our space into vendor shops. We are moving away from that. The ground floor hasn’t been touched in nearly two decades.”

He characterized the upcoming Genes@Co-op cafe as a faster, casual dining “counterpoint” to the popular Fred’s restaurant. The cafe will feature tabletops with interactive screens so customers can view The Window, which is Barneys content site on culture, design and what’s happening at the store, and eventually, customers will be able to shop right off the table screens.

Lee also said the team is working on “reshaping” the Barneys Co-op division. “It has to be more designer, more special. As we go forward, we are looking toward a smaller footprint in more sophisticated urban areas where we do well.”

Responding to a question about the performance of newer flagships, Lee said the Boston and San Francisco locations, as well as the Chicago relocation, were performing well. However, without specifying any other sites, Lee acknowledged that some are “questionable.” There has been ongoing speculation that the Dallas, Las Vegas and Scottsdale, Ariz., stores have been hurting for traffic.

Earlier in his presentation, Lee displayed a sentimental attachment to Barneys going back decades, saying Barneys is a “very personal story and has been part of my life for 30 years.” He recalled that, as a college student at New York University, “I would press my nose against the glass window and dream of buying something at the store.” Later, when he entered the working world, he became “an occasional customer” and almost took a job at the store as a women’s designer buyer. Instead, he chose other luxury brands, filling senior management positions at Saks Fifth Avenue, Jil Sander America and Giorgio Armani, as well as serving as president of Yves Saint Laurent, worldwide merchandising director for Gucci, and, ultimately, ceo of Gucci.

“Barneys represents my return to New York from Europe,” Lee said. “My personal and career history really intersects with Barneys.”