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NEW YORK — Mark Lee’s vision for Barneys New York is starting to take focus.

This story first appeared in the February 7, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

At a breakfast meeting at Fred’s with several reporters Friday, Barneys’ new chief executive officer hinted at some changes to come at the luxury specialty retailer. Among the new developments:

• A black-and-white spring image campaign that was photographed backstage at fashion shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris. Cinematic images will appear in national newspapers, magazines and online, and will be displayed gallerylike throughout the store and windows.

• Renovation of the Madison Avenue flagship’s main floor and men’s Co-op department — two major projects that will be undertaken this year.

• An editorial microsite on the Barneys e-commerce Web site called “The Window” that goes live today and will highlight the latest Barneys news and products, as well as videos, slide shows and in-depth profiles of designers.

• A new Azzedine Alaïa ready-to-wear space, which will take over the women’s Prada rtw space this week. Prada rtw and handbags will be dropped from the assortment due to a leasing issue. This was a decision made before Lee took over. A Valextra handbag department will take over the Prada space on the main floor this week.

• Black-and-white awnings will replace red ones at the Manhattan flagship, mirroring the ad campaign and relating to the iconic black Barneys shopping bags.

Since joining the retailer in September, Lee has assembled a new team of executives, several of whom attended the breakfast: Daniella Vitale, chief merchant and executive vice president overseeing all women’s and; Dennis Freedman, creative director, and Charlotte Blechman, senior vice president of marketing and communications. Also in attendance was Barneys veteran Tom Kalenderian, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s and Chelsea Passage for Barneys New York. Simon Doonan, creative ambassador at large, was working at a Barneys event in California and couldn’t make it, while Amanda Brooks, the newly named fashion director, begins today.

“It’s a work in progress. Overall, I want to make Barneys the greatest specialty store in the world,” said Lee. He said the changes won’t happen overnight, and there won’t be a “ta-da” moment, but since the store is a “living, breathing thing, it’ll move step by step.”

Until now, Lee has been reluctant to reveal his hand and has kept a low profile. “I’m a worker, not so much a talker. I’d much rather do things,” said Lee.

He explained that when he arrived in September, 100 percent of the buying was done in men’s, and 85 percent of the women’s was complete, and the spring fashion cycle was beginning. He said customers won’t see the real impact of the evolving brands and how the spaces will change until fall. Since so much was already put in motion for spring, he was able to make the communication and marketing aspect a priority.

As the team viewed the spring merchandise, they were inspired by all the “great black and white” in the collections, he said. Rather than just run black-and-white imagery, they decided to shoot backstage at the shows and show the cinematic nature of the backstage experience. Some of the photographers whose work is featured in the campaign are Nan Goldin, William Klein, Roxanne Lowit, Raymond Meier, Collier Schorr, Stéphane Sednaoui and Juergen Teller. In addition, Barneys commissioned backstage images from some emerging photographers such as Anna Bauer, JH Engström and Andrea Spotorno.

Each of the photographs offers a glimpse into the celebrated fashion houses, which include Celine, Fendi, Jil Sander, L’Wren Scott, Rodarte, Proenza Schouler and The Row. Additionally, some designers, such as Ann Demeulemeester, Thakoon Panichgul and Derek Lam, are quoted describing the energy and electricity backstage at their shows.

The black-and-white theme will be carried through all Barneys channels, including Co-op. The print ads broke Sunday in the Styles section of The New York Times and will break in online media on Thursday. National print ads will also run in the March issues of such magazines as Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair and Departures. Barneys is deploying QR codes into both the traditional and interactive media to add another layer to the campaign. The QR code directs users to the content-rich experience on the Barneys Web site.

Today, Barneys will launch an editorial site linked to called The Window, “since our windows are world famous,” said Lee. It will showcase what’s going on, what’s exclusive and what’s special at Barneys, and will be updated daily. For example, it will feature interviews with Olivier Theyskens, Greg Lauren, Frédéric Malle and L’Wren Scott, as well as Carven designer Guillaume Henry.

“The overall vision is to be special and to have exclusive, semi-exclusive and rare brands,” said Lee. The microsite will offer the story behind those products and brands.

Turning to brands, Lee said some changes are afoot in the merchandise. He noted that Azzedine Alaïa will get “a new important space,” and its biggest space in the U.S., taking over Prada’s ready-to-wear area. In a move that was decided before Lee joined Barneys, “Prada ready-to-wear and handbags are no longer carried in women’s, just men’s,” he said.

He said before he got there Prada had requested leased concessions and “the entire meaning of Barneys would be lost.” Prada will still be represented in women’s shoes and men’s wear. Valextra will take over Prada’s handbag space on the main floor and will be exclusive to Barneys. Valextra had previously been an exclusive brand at Saks Fifth Avenue. “It’s understated, sophisticated and nonlogo,” said Vitale.

Asked how difficult it is to get exclusives in New York these days, Lee said, “We fight, but there’s a reality. Total exclusivity is the ultimate dream. We’re not going to be deep in brands that are sold everywhere.”

Lee said that an “important amount” of capital expenditures has been earmarked for store renovations. “There was a lot of money spent to open new stores,” he said, and now they expect to spend equal the amount spent in the last five to six years to renovate the Madison Avenue and Beverly Hills flagships. The Madison Avenue ground floor will be renovated first, and a large amount will be done by November. Accessories, leather goods and jewelry will remain on the ground floor. The Beverly Hills flagship will get a new shoe department.

Another key undertaking will be the men’s Co-op. The fifth to eighth floors will be overhauled, and there will be a connection to the women’s Co-op on the eighth floor. “The men’s and women’s will be completely redone” on the eighth floor, Lee said, adding there are 17 floors in the Madison Avenue flagship between women’s and men’s, and it’s a multiyear project. “The main floor and men’s Co-op opens up a ripple effect for what will happen in 2012 and 2013,” he said.

Lee pointed out that once the Co-op is connected, other floors will be connected, too. A greater connection between women’s and men’s will also occur on the ground floor.

As reported, Barneys plans to close several Co-ops this year — in Houston, White Plains, N.Y. and Troy, Mich. “There are no plans to close any flagships today,” he said.

Finally, discussing the appointment of nonretailers to both the creative director and fashion director posts, Lee explained, “In terms of picking product that’s right for Barneys, we all know how to do that. A big part of Amanda’s role is to serve as an editor. She will work with Dennis and Charlotte on what should be in” the ads and the catalogues. “She has great experience in product development. She’ll work on the Barneys New York product. The job is part styling, editing and trend direction. We didn’t need to add a retail fashion director.”

As for Freedman’s background as a creative director at W, also with no retail experience, Lee said, “Creativity is creativity. Great creativity is hard to find. He has an eye for artists, furniture and architecture, which is highly valuable. The overall vision will be surprising and different than anyone else.”

Freedman said he’d like to make Barneys a home for set designers, musicians, performance artists, video artists and even writers. “I want this to be a place where [fashion] designers can come and experiment. It’s our job to make this a place they want to come to,” he said.

Asked whether “Taste Luxury and Humor,” will remain the store’s tagline, Lee said taste and luxury, for sure, but as far as humor, “Wit is better. The best of Barneys was when it was witty. In terms of a laugh riot, maybe not, but wit is part of the DNA.”


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