NEW YORK — Geraldine Stutz, who died on Friday at 80, was a pioneer and a risk-taker who transformed Henri Bendel into an energetic showcase for young designers and the avant-garde.
As the store’s president for 29 years, she experimented with daring window displays and retail formats, epitomized by the widely copied Street of Shops, which featured a series of boutiques with exclusive products, from food and fashion to decorative home, hats and cosmetics. Labels and lines were bought from around the world to form a bazaar of eclectic high-fashion, high-quality merchandise. Some of the in-store shops mimicked actual freestanding stores. She maintained through all of the experimentation a sense that the store was still focused on a chic, sophisticated customer interested in the latest styles.
Stutz was often outspoken and opinionated. Interviewed by WWD in December 2003, she characterized Bendel’s first floor before it became the Street of Shops as “a long bowling alley where customers were very lost in what seemed like an enormous amphitheater with very high ceilings and a 100-foot-long corridor. It was a difficult space to light and to merchandise. We decided to transform the space into individual niche shops to show off small things such as jewelry, hats, stockings and cosmetics. The idea worked wonderfully and focused attention on individual categories from a range of vendors.”
In the mid-Eighties renovation, Stutz even installed a curved grand staircase linking two selling floors of the store on West 57th Street in Manhattan. It became another statement for Bendel’s and an architectural model for other retailers. Her intention was to integrate the third and fourth floors so customers would think of the two levels as a single unit bringing the daywear together.
Family members were traveling Monday and could not be reached to say whether a memorial service was planned.
Stutz was enormously popular during her reign at Bendel’s. Her reputation as a fashion pace-setter, and the reputation of the store itself, far exceeded the size of the business, which was in the $20 million to $30 million range at its peak.
For years, many in the industry, including Stutz, believed that the Bendel’s model could be replicated at many locations. She was part of a group that bought Bendel’s from the fashion conglomerate Genesco in 1980, and sold it to Limited Brands in 1985. The Limited moved the store to Fifth Avenue, opened a few branches and expanded the volume roughly fourfold but never has been able to recapture the spirit and sense of discovery Bendel’s had when it was on 57th Street.
After the sale of Bendel’s, Stutz worked as a book publisher for Random House and as a turnaround specialist for Gump’s in San Francisco.
She joined Bendel’s in the early Sixties after serving as fashion director and later chief executive officer at I. Miller. Bendel’s and I. Miller were owned by Genesco.
Stutz told WWD that they was born of a battle to survive. “Our pencils weren’t nearly as big as our competitors, so we had to seek out designers and merchandise that were new, unique and exclusive. We discovered many fresh and talented designers and offered them their own space for the exclusive merchandise.
“We had in-store shops for young designers who later on would become very famous,” including Jean-Paul Gaultier, Sonia Rykiel and Jean Muir.
Stutz could be mysterious about Bendel’s. In the months preceding the sale to Limited Brands, she said she had an expansion plan she couldn’t divulge, though she hinted it involved “pieces of the store,” as WWD reported.
In a book called “Designing to Sell: A Complete Guide to Store Planning and Design,” Stutz said Bendel’s expansion never materialized to the degree expected: “We concluded that the U.S. was overstored in Bendel’s markets,’’ she said. “Stores such as Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue and Marshall Field’s were already there and doing a good job. We also concluded that these stores all very much looked alike. One after another — beige travertine marble, mobiles, chandeliers and criss-crossing escalators floating in the middle of the store — they seem to present the same message.
“It was too costly to expand Bendel’s New York store…and too costly not to expand our business. Our decision was not to expand the store physically, but to go into the catalogue mail-order business. This seemed to be a solid, long-range approach to expansion.”
She also picked up on aspects of retailing that many other retailers took for granted. On lighting, for example, she said in the retail guide book: “This is the most important decorative tool in the store. It is as important an element in the store as it is in the theater. The quality of lighting can make or break the merchandise.”
And on her store of the future: “An expanse of space — open, not enclosed, divided only by lighting and portable screens.…It should give more service, more advice and more of a shopping experience. It should focus on policies and operations so that the message gets to the target customer. For years, men and women customers have been asking, if not pleading, ‘put it together for me.’ Creative retailers of the future will come closer to fulfilling this request and be more profitable.”