Start thinking about Neiman Marcus differently.
Through its newly formed “Neiman Marcus Idea Factory,” the luxury retailer begins this week to unleash an array of concepts, products and experiences — from piercing and personalizing of fashion products by graffiti artists, to candle-making, epicure and custom-mixing beauty creams of your own — not traditionally found in bricks-and-mortar department stores. Some of it will be visible over the next two weeks; more will be noticeable in the fall and beyond, as the Idea Factory takes off.
“It’s a phased approach, starting Wednesday with a series of activations with some really cool partners. What they will be doing is a little bit unexpected,” said Ed Burstell, Neiman’s senior vice president, product innovation.
In an exclusive interview on what he’s been cooking up for Neiman’s since joining the company in January, Burstell said the first phase of the Idea Factory becomes reality this week (albeit modestly, compared to what will happen in the future) and will be staged at five Neiman’s stores over the next two weeks. Much of the phase one activity involves bringing artists to the stores and enabling visitors to engage with them and have them personalize and customize sportswear, jeans, jackets and accessories, with artwork.
But phase one is the “tip of the iceberg,” Burstell said.
For phase two, which ramps up in September, “We’re identifying concepts in epicure, food and beverage, travel, personal and family wellness, and social consciousness,” Burstell said. “We will be rolling out some really exciting initiatives around those, ultimately expanding the dialogue so we really do become more culturally relevant.”
Burstell is leading the Neiman Marcus Idea Factory, essentially an incubator for rolling out fresh ideas, experiences and exclusives, and thinking about Neiman’s as more than just a luxury store for designer goods and posh services. It’s an effort to connect with a wider base of customers and increase traffic and relevancy in a world where people are shopping and spending differently.
As Neiman’s officials said, the Idea Factory “reimagines how our customers experience our stores and discover brands that inspire them.”
Burstell characterized the Idea Factory as “a testing laboratory that falls outside a traditional approach.”
Each year, Neiman Marcus hosts over 3,000 in-store “moments” or events, such as designer appearances, parties, launches, etc. across its 42 locations. Neiman’s does have a track record of thinking out of the box, having been the first department store to push luxury online; launching in 1957 the “Fortnight,” a widely copied format for merchandise extravaganzas themed around different countries or regions of the world, and each holiday season breaking out the over-the-top fantasy Christmas catalogue.
However, up until the last few quarters, results at the Neiman Marcus Group have been disappointing, with traffic at the stores unsatisfactory amid some concerns that they became formulaic, predictable and were lacking in verve. Business at the stores has been somewhat offset by the retailer’s strong online sales, which represent about a third of the total volume.
With the Idea Factory, “We’ve adopted this whole notion of thinking differently and having different ideas,” said Burstell, who started his career as a spritzer at Macy’s and has emerged as a leading industry innovator. “We really want to broaden our narrative beyond fashion with our customer community. To be more relevant, you need to have a cultural conversation. We love the idea of pushing the limits a little bit here, seeing what kind of appetites our customer base has and what kinds of customers this attracts.
“I’d say piercing in the store is pushing it a little bit. When I was at Liberty, piercing was a huge business. But for this pop-up at Neiman’s, it will be piercing from the neck up, behind a screen.”
Brian Keith Thompson, proprietor and “chief piercing officer” of The World Famous Electric Tattoo on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, which draws a celebrity clientele, will be at Neiman’s in Beverly Hills Thursday through Saturday.
Asked if Neiman’s would consider a tattoo parlor, Burstell replied, “No — not yet.”
He joined Neiman’s after a very short stint at the Hudson’s Bay Co. in a similar role. He said he left for personal reasons. Before that, he had a successful nine-year run at Liberty of London as managing director and was instrumental in growing the business and forming innovative collaborations with the likes of Hermès, Manolo Blahnik, Nike, Uniqlo, Kenzo, Marc Jacobs and Dr. Martens.
Early in his career he worked at Neiman’s in Westchester, held merchandising and executive positions at Bloomingdale’s and Henri Bendel and returned to Neiman Marcus Group in 2004 as Bergdorf Goodman’s senior vice president, general merchandise manager, non-apparel.
He’s developed a network of contacts in fashion, art and retail, from piercing and tattoo artists to visual artists and couture designers, enabling him to bring new concepts and talent to Neiman’s.
But he’s not doing it alone. Burstell is working with Jim Gold, president and chief merchandising officer of Neiman Marcus Group, and he has a team of four in the Idea Factory. “We have a team, small but nimble. It’s scheduled to grow,” said Burstell.
A big part of the program entails visual artists “each bringing a different medium to the table,” Burstell said. “Putting together this group of world-class visual artists hasn’t been done before. The idea is that you can sit down and have a dialogue with these visual artists and come away with unique product which is just yours. It’s the ultimate in personalization and customization.”
On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, Neiman’s at the NorthPark Center in Dallas will have graffiti artists from KCA Design applying artwork to fashions brought to them by customers. There will also be hair diagnosis by Evolis, noninvasive acupuncture with ear beads by Mona Dan and a Flower Gals pop-up florist, among other activations.
At Neiman’s in Beverly Hills, from Thursday to Saturday, there will be artists engaged in product customization — Ev Bravado working with rhinestones; the Griggs Brothas, who specialize in patchwork and embroidery and have collaborated with Adidas and Nike, and Jimmy Paintz, a graffiti artist, as well as Brian Thomson’s piercing.
Neiman’s in Houston, from Thursday though Saturday, will feature Evolis hair diagnosis, a Garden State Candle workshop on Saturday, Franzie’s Flowers and the KCA Design graffiti artist customization. Mona Dan will also be in Houston offering her acupuncture services.
Several of the artists will move on to Neiman’s in Atlanta and on Michigan Avenue in Chicago from June 14 to 16, to charge up those locations as well.
Other possibilities for the future, Burstell said, include working with artist collectives, travel-related presentations, and new and existing brand partners for exclusive activations. For example, “We are having a conversation with Moncler on how their genius collaborations can come to life in our stores,” Burstell said.
“It’s really about activation. We have to test different concepts outside the traditional approach, with leading designers, influencers and really exposing creative minds. We have to position ourselves for the future and run real fast. At the same time we are going to have some fun with it. Sometimes things are too serious. Let’s let loose a bit.”
Asked if the Idea Factory was an attempt to bring more young people to the stores, Burstell replied, “We’re tapping into where the collective consciousness is. It really isn’t about age. Everyone is having a dialogue about wellness, social consciousness, or travel. This transcends age groups.
“I have a wonderful global network” of contacts, in Europe, Los Angeles and New York, Burstell said, keeping him on top of trends, pop culture and happenings.
“I am constantly curious. When you wake up one day and you are not, it’s time to pack it in.”