NEW YORK — This spring, the Whitney Museum of American Art will finally complete its move from its longtime home on Madison Avenue to the Meatpacking District. Doors are slated to open in May, but the labor-intensive change of venue is well underway — a busy six months for all involved.
This story first appeared in the December 8, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
In the midst of it all, Whitney cochair Brooke Garber Neidich is also focusing on expanding her fine jewelry business, Sidney Garber. Neidich recently hired Susan Nicholas, former chief executive officer of H. Stern, as president. Last month she opened a New York store, the brand’s second. The first opened in 1946 in Chicago, where Neidich’s father, Sidney Garber, established his business.
“Brooke is a woman with this incredible calendar,” Nicholas said. (Neidich was at Art Basel all last week.) “It’s my job to make her life a little bit easier and bring the vision of the brand to its greatest potential. In many ways we refer to the company as a start-up. Sidney Garber has been around for years, but we’re really transforming the model.”
Neidich formally took control of the company after her father’s death in 2008. The timing of her expansion seems curious given the Whitney’s colossal move, but she isn’t one for convention when it comes to business. Case in point: She has integrated Sidney Garber into her philanthropic interests. While she and her husband, Daniel Neidich, have long made joint philanthropy a priority, she noted the satisfaction of donating funds generated by her own business. To that end, she doesn’t take a salary. “I remember when I was young, my dad was taking half-a-million dollars a year for salary,” Neidich said. “I thought, ‘If I could get the business [to that place], I could give away half-a-million dollars every year.’ I’m not there yet, but I’m really close.”
While not yet at her target, last year she made contributions to nonprofits benefiting education, the arts and mental-health issues. (Neidich founded the Child Mind Institute with Harold Koplewicz, M.D. in 2009.) It was that resolve that ultimately convinced Neidich to open the new store. Prior to hiring Nicholas, Neidich worked with an industry consultant. “He said, ‘You’ve got a business. You need to open a store in New York,’” she said. “But he really got me by saying, ‘You’re cheating the philanthropy that you’re involved with if you don’t have a store.’ That was it — he had me.”
While Neidich declined to provide sales figures, she noted that within the first three weeks the store met its projection for the first three months. “The foot traffic is amazing,” she said.
The space at 998 Madison Avenue is nestled between The Mark Hotel and Sant Ambroeus. Retail neighbors include Missoni, Intermix, Stubbs & Wootton and Yigal Azrouël, and just a few blocks south, Barneys New York, where Sidney Garber jewels are also sold. According to Neidich, that proximity hasn’t been a problem. “[Barneys ceo] Mark Lee said that they find the back-and-forth really works,” she noted. “Barneys has a very different stock than what we have here, so your average sale here is much higher.”
Not surprisingly, the interior of the 810-square-foot space reflects Neidich’s art patronage. A piece made by Arturo Herrera dominates the entry, while the wall behind the primary jewelry counter features a series of eight Donald Judd wood-block prints. Both come from Neidich’s personal collection, as does much of the décor, including various pieces of art, furniture and lighting.
While Neidich works mostly in New York, Nicholas travels frequently between New York and Chicago. Neidich credits her with the start of something Sidney Garber hasn’t had before — a clean, modern business structure. “Now we have an inventory system,” the owner said. “We were handwriting sales checks about five minutes ago.”
Coming from a larger, considerably more corporate company, Nicholas said she finds the brand’s untraditional model — specifically the charitable aspect — an asset. “It makes me very aware of trying to run the business in a way so that we can give away as much as possible,” she said. “It’s extremely compelling, not only to customers but to employees, as well. It attracts a certain type of talent that wants to do well and work hard. It’s not about a mega-entity that’s driving for a quarterly number.”
That said, both women are focused on growth. Nicholas lists her duties as overseeing the retail locations, courting future hires and expanding wholesale. In addition to the brand stores and Barneys, the jewelry is available at The Row in Los Angeles (Neidich collaborated with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen on a line of jewelry for their fall 2013 collection), Just One Eye, also in Los Angeles, and A’maree’s in Newport Beach. At the top of her list: creating a cohesive brand identity.
The company was founded on an old-school premise of customer intimacy; Neidich’s father was less interested in creating identifiable pieces than in servicing clients. Though over the years this changed to a degree, as key pieces became signatures, particularly as Neidich became more involved, the “brand” aspect remained secondary. “A lot of what I would hear from magazine editors [is], ‘It doesn’t read brand,’” she explained. Diverse styles range from classic rolling bracelets to layered diamond rope necklaces, and prices, from $2,000 to $250,000.
“They were always on top as a jeweler, but not as a brand,” Nicholas said. “Right now, we’re sitting at a unique platform. We are right on the line of having iconic, recognizable pieces and at the same time, we operate as a customer jeweler as well. We’ll have customers come in and we’ll transform their pearls into a modern necklace with diamonds. We have that duality. That’s the platform we want to build on.” She said the new store is the first step in that process.
While Neidich retains the belief that jewelry is a manifestation of a woman’s personality and moods and thus, offering breadth is essential, she’s warming to the notion of creating a broader level of brand awareness. “If someone handed me a gigantic chunk of money, I would be into advertising without any doubt,” she said.
She and Nichols have even hired someone to manage the social-media accounts, though they’re not counting on major roi. “Has anyone ever walked up to me and said, ‘I saw [this piece] on Instagram and I loved it?’ No,” she said. “But, I do look at Instagram.”