The Barneys alchemy. It’s in the mix of designer discoveries, sophisticated decor, the arresting staircase, a touch of wit and a sense of a place to see and be seen.
The retail theater plays again at the new Barneys New York in Chelsea, opening Monday on Seventh Avenue between 16th and 17th Streets — the very same site where the company was founded by Barney Pressman in 1923. Polished bronze door handles, a sweeping Oscar Niemeyer-inspired spiral staircase, and marble display fixtures in curious amorphous shapes and varied hues set a rich, luxe tone.
This story first appeared in the February 15, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
It’s the most modern statement yet for Barneys, created by architects Steven Harris and his partner Lucien Rees Roberts, who are best known for their residential work and who have worked on Barneys renovations in New York and Beverly Hills. But this is their first top-to-bottom store assignment for the retailer. The layout is straightforward, easy to shop, and shaped like a square doughnut with the hole filled by the atrium and staircase. In its open floor plan, the selling floors are devoid of designer shops and feel relaxed, with discrete signage and a sprinkling of those reading “XO Exclusively Ours” to flag exclusives — among them Baraboux handbags, fragrances from Douglas Little and capsule collections from Valentino, Alexander Wang, Elder Statesman and Sidney Garber.
“It’s about showing the product. There are no shops-in-shop. No vendor logos. It’s all the Barneys aesthetic,” said Mark Lee, the company’s chief executive officer. “Brands understand what Barneys is about and have accepted that it’s our differentiation. We are a specialty store — not a department store.” Shoppers come to see “the Barneys edit.”
“Customers tell me they feel they can breathe in a Barneys and that many big stores feel claustrophobic — that they’re overwhelmed by merchandise, logos, the graphics,” he continued. “We’ve created an oasis of calm, beauty, luxuriousness, to really let the product shine.”
“There’s a social aspect that we share throughout all of our stores,” commented Daniella Vitale, chief operating officer and senior executive vice president. “Barneys becomes a meeting place for everyone. People want to linger, spend a day or half a day here. Barneys Chelsea is really designed that way. It’s generous in terms of seating. We have a beautiful restaurant. We have created something really sumptuous, with almost a residential feel.”
There’s also the Blind Barber with three vintage barbershop chairs, charging $25 to $80 for haircuts, shaves and beard trims, and likely to be frequented by Lee, who gets a haircut once a week. The $80 “hangover shave” is another Barneys exclusive and in the spirit of indulgence, beer and cocktails will be served. There are also personal shopping suites, a treatment spa and a Freds restaurant/bar.
At 58,000 square feet over four selling levels, Barneys Chelsea is small and intimate compared to the 230,000-square-foot Madison Avenue flagship or to the former 120,000-square-foot Barneys on the Chelsea site, which closed in 1997, four years after the Madison Avenue store opened. Comparisons are inevitable, yet the experience is different. “It’s a modern Barneys — a Barneys for tomorrow,” Lee said. “The through line with the past and going forward is really modernity.”
“We are looking at it as a completely new opportunity to show new customers and existing ones what Barneys is all about — what we do well and what we do differently,” added Vitale. “What started with the Pressmans and continues today is that we know our customer and this store is a perfect example of that. We really tried to seek out new brands and exclusives. That is very much a part of what we do every season. It’s not always easy on the design side; however, everyone was very supportive.”
In 2015, exclusives represented more than 20 percent of Barneys total volume, though at Chelsea, it’s more like a third, according to the executives.
Exclusives set for the opening include the Douglas Little fragrance collection called Heretic and the Bergamot fragrance from Malin and Goetz. Barneys is also relaunching its own Route du Thé fragrance for men and women and, on the men’s side, will sell an all-black collection from Greg Lauren; a capsule collection from Fear of God, and items from R13. There will also be a capsule collection by Proenza Schouler in handbags and the store is introducing to New York a range of constructed jackets by Shiro Sakai, who worked with Rei Kawakubo for more than a dozen years.
Though Barneys Chelsea is about a 25 percent the size of Barneys on Madison Avenue, with less than half the selling floors, “We have the breadth of assortment,” Vitale said. “I don’t think you feel you are missing anything. We have the full range of women’s and men’s products, a full range of price points, not just high, high-end designer. That’s how our customer shops — across the board.” There is some overlap of merchandise of the big name brands that Barneys sells, including Azzedine Alaïa and Givenchy as well as Dries Van Noten, which the retailer started selling before any other store.
The downtown store has beacon technology throughout, enabling Barneys to communicate via mobile with customers precisely when they are in the store, provided they opt in. The idea is to selectively send to shoppers look books, product arrivals and content from The Window, Barneys’ editorial site, which is linked to barneys.com and the store’s mobile app, and to present a personalized shopping experience.
Barneys’ clienteling app is available on associates’ mobile devices so they’re informed about customers and their buying preferences. The store is rigged with more mobile points of sale, fewer registers, and has Apple Pay, the mobile payment and digital wallet service. Barneys also has an app for customers to learn about the store.
Since 2011, around the time that Lee and Vitale joined Barneys, the company has been developing greater digital and omnichannel skills. The customer shopping cross channels is particularly desirable. “They spend two-and-a-half times more,” Vitale said. “This whole digital piece is going to be part of the selling ceremony.”
For Barneys overall, growth will be primarily organic, springing from existing stores, renovations, advancing style and through barneys.com. The Barneys brand goes over well in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and a handful of other urban locations. Of the company’s 16 stores, the “flagships” are on Madison Avenue and now Chelsea, and in Beverly Hills, Chicago, Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Scottsdale. Barneys also operates 11 outlets. No more openings are on the agenda.
“We don’t open that many stores. We are very careful about our expansion,” Vitale said. The last location opened was on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn in 2010, which converted from a Barneys Co-Op — a format that emphasizes denim and casual styles — to a regular Barneys New York. The company has converted some other Co-ops and closed a few. Also closed three years ago was the 88,000-square-foot Barneys New York in Northpark Center in Dallas. There has also been speculation about poor performance in Las Vegas.
At a time when brick-and-mortar is losing ground to the Web and the luxury business worldwide is in a slump, Lee and Vitale, who both cut trim figures like the target customer, make a case for returning Barneys to its home turf. When WWD broke the story two years ago about the Chelsea homecoming, questions arose as to whether there was enough of a market to support two flagships in Manhattan and about the future for the Madison Avenue flagship, where rents may be rising after years of paying below market rates.
“We will be on Madison Avenue for many decades to come,” assured Lee, clearing the air. He declined to discuss Barneys’ rent obligations, but did say that wherever Barneys operates, “We won’t overpay for real estate.” That’s good for profitability. Downtown, “We stayed very conservative in making sure we will be profitable in year one,” the ceo said.
If there is a comfort zone for Barneys, it is Chelsea. “Our new store is designed and curated to be a real neighborhood store but also it will have a tourist component that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” Vitale said. “We were very careful ensuring that there would be a customer base and we didn’t want to take on a monstrous second store. We took on a store we know we can handle.
“Returning to the historic location was sort of serendipitous — a very full circle moment,” she added. “Culturally, now there is much more there,” notably the new Whitney Museum of American Art, the High Line and the boutique-ing of the Meatpacking District neighborhood. On Seventh Avenue near the new store the retail landscape hasn’t changed all that much since the retailer vacated almost 20 years ago, nor does it project high fashion, Barneys notwithstanding. Close by are Pottery Barn, Sleepy’s and Jensen-Lewis. Still, Lee believes, “Within five years the immediate neighbors will all have changed. We will be a catalyst — no doubt.”
At Barneys Madison Avenue, only 15 percent of the shoppers come from below 34th Street, underscoring the opportunity downtown. “We knew we weren’t capturing a downtown client,” Vitale said.
Lee declined to discuss revenue objectives, but did say, “We are very confident in our projection for the Chelsea store. This store is really going to serve the neighborhood and by that I mean not only Chelsea but the big neighborhood of downtown.” He sees a wide draw, primarily extending from TriBeCa to 34th Street, including Greenwich Village, Gramercy Park, Meatpacking, Flatiron, SoHo, TriBeCa, the far West Side, as well as Chelsea. While there is sentiment in returning Barneys to its home, Lee was adamant that the company diligently examined other sites in the Meatpacking District and farther downtown before choosing Chelsea. “Nobody thinks this is just an exercise in nostalgia,” he said.
In May 2012, the privately owned Barneys New York was taken over by Perry Capital, run by Richard Perry, partnering with Ron Burkle’s Yucaipa Cos., in a debt-for-equity swap that cut the luxury retailer’s borrowings down to $50 million from $540 million, enabling the company to invest back in the business, such as with renovations. The retailer had been owned by the Middle East-based Istithmar World and was not on a healthy path.
Lee and Vitale suggest the situation has greatly changed. While luxury businesses have been struggling, hurt by declining tourism and consumer spending shifting to dining out, theaters, spas and traveling, Barneys “had winds last year, but we still had a growth year and we’re confident in the results,” Lee said.
“While certainly not easy, we still feel very good about the year,” Vitale said. “We were actually pleased where we ended up. We are poised and positioned in a good way.”
Asked what’s selling best, she cited jewelry and men’s designer apparel, then noted that leather accessories are trending better and that footwear is good. “We’re getting back to a place where people are buying multiple pairs” per visit, Vitale observed.
Through its 93-year history, Barneys has been resilient, transforming from discounting to luxury retailing and surviving two ill-conceived expansions that foisted its brand of luxury on certain communities that were apathetic, as well as an ugly bankruptcy that forced the Pressmans out of their own business and led to a succession of different domestic and international owners, which wasn’t good for stability. Despite its uneven past, Barneys has maintained its cachet and clung to its distinct positioning.
Four days before the opening, Lee began a preview of the Chelsea store by indicating the 170-foot stainless steel awning along the Seventh Avenue facade and wrapping the corner of 16th Street. It’s reminiscent of those hovering over TriBeCa loading docks, and very different from the signature fabric awning that fronts the Madison Avenue flagship. “It’s a gesture of modernity,” he remarked.
The structure shields the windows, which have been redesigned to be taller and touch down to the street. There are two feature windows on the avenue and three other ones providing views into the store. “We wanted very much to have light come in and have a relationship with the cityscape outside,” Lee said. Now the windows show elements of the spring campaign titled “Our Town,” shot by Bruce Weber. It’s an ode to New York City with portraits and short films with notable New Yorkers such as Bobby Cannavale, Cyndi Lauper, Lady Gaga, Yoko Ono, Patti Smith and nightlife icon Ladyfag.
Entering the store, the large spiral staircase set inside a glass atrium, the mirrored polished stainless steel clad columns evoking John McCracken’s sculptures and the extensive use of marble immediately catch the eye. The ground level houses women’s and men’s leather goods and accessories and fine jewelry. Black nero marble, placed between the exterior and interior, marks the entry and becomes a display wall for jewelry. Throughout the floor are biomorphic-shaped display tables made from granite and marble. Leather goods include Christian Louboutin, Givenchy, Saint Laurent, The Row, Anya Hindmarch, Azzedine Alaïa, Fendi, Loewe, Proenza Schuler, Delvaux, Moreau and Altuzarra.
Moving to fine jewelry, directly to the right, Lee reiterated the exclusive appeal, with capsule collections just for the downtown store from Irene Neuwirth, Feathered Soul, Sidney Garber and Tate. “We generally don’t share our jewelry designers with any major stores,” Lee said. Barneys is also launching Raphaele Canot, a London jewelry designer, this season.
The below-ground foundation floor features cosmetics, skincare, fragrances and men’s grooming, in a similar aesthetic to Barneys in Beverly Hills and on Madison Avenue, with sculptural white textured walls designed with an abstract motif, white terrazzo flooring and custom-made cosmetic stools with polished stainless steel frames and cognac leather seats. Brands include 111skin, 3lab, Tatcha, Mila Moursi, Natura Bissé, Sisley, La Mer, Bellatorra, Clé de peau, Chanel, Givenchy, By Terry, Surratt and Chantecaille Hourglass. “The floor is light, bright, simple, really devoid of brand installations,” Lee pointed out.
The second floor, with floor-to-ceiling marble and sculptural brass display tables, features women’s ready-to-wear and shoes. Key designers include Alaïa, Saint Laurent, Gabriela Hearst, Ulla Johnson, Narciso Rodriguez, Lisa Perry, Tim Coppens, Helmut Lang, Isabel Marant, Givenchy, Dries Van Noten, Derek Lam, Balmain, Maud Heline, Acne, Re/Done, R13, Valentino, Balenciaga, Altuzarra, Paco Rabanne and Nili Lotan.
The third floor has men’s sportswear, furnishings and footwear, set amid darker marbles and much natural light, and Freds. Among the key men’s labels are Saint Laurent, Van Noten, Acne Studios, Valentino, Yohji Yamamoto, Hood by Air, Maison Margiela, Rick Owens, Thom Browne, Balenciaga, Fendi, Moncler, Fear of God, Kanye West and Simon Miller.
Freds, adorned with a wall of jacaranda rosewood harvested from a Niemeyer house in São Paulo, will be open for lunch, cocktails and dinner and have Italian fare by executive chef Mark Strausman, emphasizing drinks and small plates. There’s a 30-foot onyx marble bar; lounge seating, and a formal dining area where there is a 36-foot mural by Los Angeles painter Conor Thompson. The staff is dressed in uniforms designed by Tony Melillo of ATM Anthony Thomas Melillo.
Harris, the architect, characterized the Chelsea space as “continuous, and defined by planes which gives it a kind of transparency. When you come into the store, you can see the vast majority of space. It’s not a bunch of rooms. It’s kind of an open plan.” The furniture and displays are relatively low, furthering the sight lines, he said. The beauty floor has polished stainless steel apothecary cabinets inspired by the work of Damien Hirst and the ground floor has display tables with polished brass bases inspired by Czech Cubism of the Thirties.
There’s a glass enclosure around the atrium embedded with fine lines that Harris said recalls the pencil drawings of Agnes Martin or Sol Lewitt’s wall drawings. “As you look across the space, there’s a slight veil that gives a bit of mystery and a bit of surface,” he said.
In designing the store, the mission was multi-fold. “Our idea was to create something extraordinarily luxurious and we also wanted it to be tranquil,” Harris explained. “We wanted you to know where you were all of the time and we wanted to place the importance on the merchandise, very much like a gallery, but not stripped or just painted plaster. All of the materials are quite luscious. We wanted the store to be very calm and tranquil, neutral, not fidgety but with a varied palette. Everything is not shouting for attention.”
The dramatic staircase would be an exception. “It’s the only oblique reference to the former Barneys,” which featured an Andrée Putman-designed staircase that still stands in the section of the former Barneys that is now part of the Rubin Museum of Art.
“The staircase is the focal point in the entire place,” Harris said. “You always know where you are relative to the staircase. It’s our hope that people will actually use these stairs a lot. You can see everything from it. It becomes a big vantage. Everybody can see you. You can see everybody else. But there is also an elevator so if you want, you can slip out and not be seen.”