Barneys New York’s post-mortem has been pain-inducing for many. Sentimental shoppers agonized about the news, vendors cursed the lost business and would-be investors speculated about what could have been. Amidst the financial analysis and remember-when memories, a quieter crowd — longtime and more-recent Barneys employees may wince about their future, but still show up to work each day.
“I don’t want to say this, but, ‘My ship is sinking and I’m sinking with it,’” was how one sales associate explained why she wanted to stay through the Madison Avenue store’s closing. She, like several others interviewed Monday, had started at the Upper East Side outpost when it opened. Bailing now was not even under consideration, despite the fact that those who have chosen to stay on have not been informed when the final day will be and if they will be granted any severance pay.
A pre-Christmas retail crisis is a common theme for Hallmark Channel holiday movies. While viewers can’t seem to get enough of the made-for-TV version with an estimated 2.9 million people tuning in, veteran workers at Barneys indicated that living through this fall’s debacle has been emotional for many. By their estimates, 70 to 80 percent of the Madison Avenue store’s 1,000 employees decided to pack it in after Barneys was sold to Authentic Brands Group and B. Riley Financial Inc. in November. For some, the tipping point was ABG’s decision to strike a licensing agreement with Hudson’s Bay Co., the parent of Saks Fifth Avenue, to enable Saks to integrate the Barneys brand into its operations. All of the Barneys employees requested anonymity.
Despite the continual news stories, some have not yet fully accepted the inevitable. The aforementioned salesperson said, “Every day I say, ‘It’s coming to the end.’ But I don’t want to leave. But I have a family and I have to move on.”
Describing Barneys as “an institution,” one employee said, “It’s sad because the entire Madison Avenue is going to be dead. It already is, because Barneys was the attraction. The clients, the people — everything was exclusive. The clients have said they don’t want to go shop at other places.”
A coworker initially declined to speak after choking up and explaining that trying to leads to tears. In fact, several of the staffers WWD spoke with Monday needed a moment or two to regain their composure while discussing the situation. Later changing her mind, she asked, “Is it fair to say that we feel betrayed? I feel the deal they did was not really the best for anybody. They did not try hard enough to save it.”
Testimony to the professionalism and first-rate service that Barneys was known for, several of the employees who spoke with WWD Monday did so as they carried on with their responsibilities. While there was no question that the sales team was thin for the holiday season, staffers greeted and accommodated shoppers, and walked purposefully from one task to the next. Others dutifully folded and hung up shirts on racks. Save for the fluorescent-colored sale signs that are posted throughout the store, employees conducted themselves as if it were any other day at work. One worker said, “That’s because we come from a different culture. We still have the professionalism. We see all the people around us. We love Barneys. It’s sad. We are like one family. I’m OK with moving on, but we are more like a family than a department store. All of us.”
Another salesperson recalled joining the company in 2003, despite not having any retail experience. “I was an actress and I made my living acting. Barneys hired me because they know that artists, especially performing artists, make very good salespeople. We’re friendly. We’re on time,” she said. “There are a couple of ex-dancers from ABT [American Ballet Theatre] and [New York] City Ballet here, choreographers, people who took leaves to go on shows. That has a lot to do with my enjoying it so much here.”
Twenty-six years after his first day at Barneys, a maintenance worker said he never imagined he would stay for as long as he has. That wasn’t the only thing that he never expected. “I never thought I would see Barneys close. I’m still not thinking about it. It’s too emotional,” he said.
At 60 years old, the father of three young children said he is uncertain about what he will do next, but filing for unemployment is a possibility. “I have to do something. At my age it is hard to find another job. I started here young at 33. Now I am almost 61. Maybe I can find another job, but it will be hard for me,” he said, adding the weight of the situation is difficult. “We think about this 24/7 — wherever you are.”
Asked what he liked most about working at the store, the worker said, “Barneys was Barneys. But not right now. You chose to work here. Rich people came here — movie stars. You would see them on every floor from the time that I started working here in 1998. Not any more. Now we’re waiting for judgment day.”
In the midst of all this uncertainty, two sales associates noted that their department managers have been “very supportive and very helpful.” Their superiors have also been understanding when employees need to get to job interviews. They have also reached out to managers in other stores on behalf of employees to try to help find them work, the pair said.
One of the two offered. “We’re in limbo in terms of what we’re going to get for a severance package. Some people are holding on, thinking, ‘Oh, it might be worth it to get a decent severance package.’ Some people have stayed and stayed and stayed and we still haven’t gotten any information. Then they had to make a decision.”
Authentic Brands could not be reached for comment regarding severance plans as off press time.
Daniel Levy, president of Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., which owns the Barneys flagship on Madison Avenue in New York and in Beverly Hills, said it had reached a deal with ABG to keep the Madison Avenue flagship open with a smaller footprint for a year while they “explore longer-term solutions.”
As for whether Barneys demise could have been avoided, he said, “But we aren’t sitting in the boardrooms. There were a lot of things that could have been done differently like not having our dot-com business being what it should have been. Maybe expanding into other areas that we shouldn’t have been expanding into versus concentrating on what was doing well,” the salesperson said. “Finances looked like a very bad thing. For the last couple of years, we had some really bad buys bringing vendors in that we normally wouldn’t bring in. After everything hit the fan, we didn’t have the budget to buy bulk into the brands that we normally buy — like a Rag & Bone, an ATM or a J Brand, which is a cash cow for our denim business. We have 15 or 20 denim brands and J. Brand does over 50 percent of the volume. We’re not buying it to represent more than 50 percent of the inventory because we’re not paying J. Brand accordingly on a seasonal basis.”
His coworker added, “There’s still no word. We don’t know what we’re getting or when we’re closing.”
While many chalk up brick-and-mortar’s downfall to e-tailers like Amazon and the rise of subscription services, some Barneys employees were hopeful that they may find work in other stores. One salesman said, “Honestly, once you’ve worked at Barneys, regardless of your age — you can go anywhere. It’s just a question of after being here for 25 or 30 years, is it time for a break? Some people may have anxiety about starting over. I feel bad for everybody, who works here. But everybody can pretty much transition to a Neiman’s or a Saks.”
Some of Barneys’ more seasoned employees said they were struggling about the prospect of reinventing themselves. One salesman offered, “I know our fitters, tailors and alterations people are having a really hard time. That is a very small business and a dying business. A lot of those people have been here for a long time.”
A coworker said, “I started here when I was 27 and now I’m 53. I’ve spent my whole life here. You know you never take the time to reminisce and look back. When you really look back, you think, ‘Wow, the years that I’ve been through. It’s sad. I know on the last day we’re all going to cry. Well, not everybody. I have memories of opening the store so I will have cry memories of closing the store.”
That said, a mid-life new beginning is not what she planned for. “People like me don’t know what we’re going to do. I’m starting from scratch in my Fifties. I haven’t even thought about it yet,” she said. “I just loved it here. I was kind of born here. Where do you go after Barneys? This is kind of like the Harvard of retail. Where do you go after Harvard?”
Another sales associate said of the closing, “We’ve got an idea — mid-January.” Matter-of-fact about the situation, he said, “It’s unfortunate what happened. Twenty-five years here, but maybe it’s time to move on. It’s OK. Really.”
Loyal clients have been stopping in to see him. “Sure. A lot of them have come in. I had one lady who started crying. I told her that if she didn’t stop, I was going to start crying,” he said. “Barneys is a classic that has been here for years. I did great here. I have two daughters that I put through college. Barneys is a family. It was. When the Pressman had it, it was good, too.”
After joining Barneys 25 years ago, he knew right away that he would stay. “This was my family. I loved the store. It was a classic store. This is where I wanted to be. I had worked at Howard’s. I worked at Ripley’s. I’m going back years ago. When I came here, I thought, ‘This is home.’”
Barneys’ current state is not the same. “I’m a little disappointed. But like I said, ‘It’s time to move on. It’s time to move on.’”
A 20-year veteran was cognizant of the store’s finality. “You probably won’t see this again,” he said plainly.
Another employee, who started with Barneys in 1993, said she planned to stay through until the final day. Afterward, she would take some time off before mapping out her next course of action.
Several sales associates said that many of their clients have stopped by to offer their support, condolences and good wishes. They have also been asked to let their clients know if they take another retail job. “Opening this store was really amazing. I came in here with all the happiness in the world — and now I’m leaving. I thought I was going to retire here. Not having had an interview in 26 years, the butterflies are building up. Now I have to start back at square one,” one salesperson said.
Along with longevity, the retailer’s celebrity factor has been a highlight for some workers. “I’ve helped Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen. They know me by name.”
Another employee said, “After Richard Perry took over and Daniella Vitale came in and redecorated the store, they tore down the fish tanks in the jewelry department. We sort of knew that it was the beginning of the end in 2010. But I liked the people and I liked what I did.”