I’ve always been a bargain shopper. When I moved to New York in 2000 I discovered H&M. At the time, fast fashion didn’t mean sweatshop labor and climate damage — it meant that I could find a brand-new sensible office dress for $14.99 and still have enough money to pay for groceries. I thought my penchant for cheap clothing was temporary, that sometime in my 30s, after a decade of working in the corporate world, a switch would flip and suddenly the clothing I saw in fashion magazines would become available to me like a birthright. It hasn’t happened yet.
I do have one great piece of personal trivia that has allowed me to dream big retail dreams, one that I pull out at parties to impress a certain kind of New Yorker. My great-great-uncle — my grandmother’s uncle — was Barney Pressman, the Lower East Side haberdasher who founded the legendary New York department store, Barneys. My great-great-uncle opened his eponymous men’s clothing store in 1923 at 7th Avenue and 17th Street in Chelsea, and over the next decades of the 20th century it would evolve into a worldwide fashion destination.
Barneys was a particular kind of rags-to-riches success story, one that I’ll call the Jewish American Dream. You start out selling schmattas (Yiddish for rags) and end up the scion of an elite family business that over three generations becomes a cultural institution that even WASPs admire enviously. That the company is now bankrupt and being liquidated by a blur of corporations and hedge funds and financial firms only makes the rise before Barneys’ downfall all the more remarkable.
Even as I watched the company flounder from afar, Barneys always stood for the kind of glamour I coveted but could never attain. In its heyday, Barneys was, according to New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman, “unabashedly elitist, proudly exclusionary — you got it or you didn’t, and if you didn’t, that was your problem, not theirs — and imbued with an arrogance that, at a certain point, began to chafe.” Who shopped at Barneys? All of the important fashionistas, including the ones on TV: the ladies of Sex and the City, the ladies of Gossip Girl, the cast of Mad Men.
That’s how I wanted to be! That relatives of mine could be such utter snobs is a triumph I could only dream of emulating. Like a Jewish Pygmalion, Barneys had lost its Yiddishisms and grown into an elegant, cultural force. Which is why watching Barneys disappear from the public eye feels like an enormous loss even though I could never, not even once, afford to shop there myself.
Early in his career, my great-great-uncle was known as the “Cut-Rate Clothing King,” which is yet another way I know that paying full retail price isn’t in my DNA. Barneys initially made its fortune by selling brand-name men’s clothing at heavily discounted prices and focusing on innovative advertising, like a “Calling All Men to Barneys” spot in the style of the Dick Tracy radio show. Legend has it that Barney pawned his wife’s wedding ring in order to open the store in Chelsea. The store’s motto at the time was a pure tribute to his Lower East Side roots: “No bunk, no junk, no imitations.”
My great-grandfather, Samuel Pressman, was Barney’s brother. When Barney opened the store on 17th Street, Samuel worked there too. Samuel’s Hebrew name was Tomkin Schmuel, so at the store everyone called him Tommy. My mother grew up going from her home in Jersey City to Chelsea to call on her grandfather whenever a man in the family needed a suit. She remembers that, as a child, the store seemed much less intimidating than uptown department stores like Saks.
“When I walked into that store,” she told me, “I had an enormous sense of pride that family started a big business in New York, with my great-uncle’s name in big bold letters above the door. I was treated like a little princess by my relatives who worked there and their associates.”
In the 1960s, Barney’s son Fred started to take the store in an entirely new, decidedly more upscale direction. Fred is credited with bringing Giorgio Armani’s tailoring to Americans in the 1970s. He also initiated the opening of a women’s store at Barneys, which his son, Gene, is credited with building into a nexus for luxury and unique fashions. The store where my mom had played with the three-way mirrors in the free alterations area was changing quickly.
By the time I started to visit the store in the 1980s, Barneys wasn’t just lavish in a Wall Street “greed is good” kind of way; it was also cool. In 1986, the same year my whole family made the trip into Manhattan to find bar mitzvah suits for my older brothers, Simon Doonan was hired as the window dresser at Barneys, beginning his career of making eccentric, over-the-top creations that made pedestrians stop and gawk.
1986 was also when upstart models Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Linda Evangelista were featured in Barneys ads, and that November the store hosted Decorated Denim, an auction in which Barneys had artists modify Levi’s denim jackets and sold them to benefit AIDS research. Models included Madonna and Iman wearing denim that had been embellished by Paloma Picasso, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Andy Warhol (Warhol had also modeled for print ads for the store in 1982). If retail stores had IQs, then Barneys was a certified genius.
I have no memories of such lavishness at the store in the 1980s, although 7-year-old me is still mad that she missed Madonna. Barneys may have become a destination of clothing that functioned as art, but for the most part it had nothing to hold the interest of a little girl from suburban New Jersey. We still primarily used Barneys as a place to buy men’s suits. At the time, we had a 15-percent-off family discount. That got us just about nowhere back then, and it was fine when the family discount expired, because 15 percent off of increasingly unaffordable clothes is still unaffordable.
I want to tell you about how I remember Barneys in its early glory days, all avant-garde charm and quirky excess, but my strongest memory of going with my family as a child had nothing to do with the store: It was the grilled cheese I’d get at the diner next door, whose name has been lost to time. Later, I would read about power lunches that big shots had at Freddy’s, the restaurant named after Barney’s son, and I’m sure the salade Nicoise is great but nothing was better than that diner grilled cheese.
The store continued to grow in cultural cachet in the 1990s. Barney’s grandchildren, my very distant cousins I admire but have never met, were running the store at the time and adding their own personal touches. In a November 2019 article in Vogue, Steff Yotka writes, “More than just a place to discover Rick Owens leather jackets and Proenza Schouler bustiers, Barneys acted as a connective tissue in the New York creative scene. It was where in-the-know people went to shop … more upscale, whimsical, and international.” The store carried unique products that patrons came from all over the world to purchase, with exclusive deals with designers from Christian Louboutin and Azzedine Alaïa to Proenza Schouler, a brand I have only ever shopped when it made a special line for Target.
We had mostly stopped going to the store by the 1990s, when Barneys began to expand throughout the country and internationally. In 1993, Gene and Bob Pressman (Barney’s grandchildren) spent approximately $185 million on a new flagship store on Madison Avenue and 61st Street, and just a few years later the store in Chelsea closed. Meanwhile, the enormous expansion (new stores opened everywhere from Houston to Tokyo) weighed on the finances of the privately held company, and the family lost control of Barneys after its first bankruptcy filing in 1996. They sold their remaining interest in the company in 2004 even as the uptown location continued to thrive.
In 2007, I moved to a 500-square-foot studio apartment in Chelsea not too far from the old Barneys store. The space had become a Loehmann’s, a luxury discount store that suited my needs perfectly. I would spend hours in bad lighting picking through racks for $40 dresses the same way I imagined other, more elegant women would rummage through cardboard boxes at Barneys’ famous warehouse sale to find $800 designer sweaters discounted to $500. I would try on my findings in the shabby Loehmann’s communal dressing rooms, where women of all shapes and sizes and backgrounds competed for mirror space, and I would delight in getting a Loehmann’s receipt that would show me exactly how much money I’d saved off the retail price. By the time Barneys returned to its old Chelsea space for a short run starting in 2016, I was too busy mourning the loss of Loehmann’s to be excited about the homecoming.
As the years went on, Barneys lost some of its charm. Its ownership had changed hands several times from retail corporations to hedge funds, which watered down its identity. According to the New York Times, a 2010 renovation made Barneys look more like its rivals, “as fish tanks and mosaics were swapped out for generic marble.” Gross! In August 2019, Barneys filed for bankruptcy for the second time and was sold off for parts. The financial firm B. Riley Financial held a liquidation sale at Barneys at the end of that year, and what remains of the store is a motley collection of leftovers and EVERYTHING MUST GO signs. As recently as January 16, the New York Times reported that since November, “employees at Barneys’s flagship at Madison Avenue have been in limbo, lacking basic information about the store’s closing date, severance pay and their benefits.” The welfare of the salesforce that used to be revered for its personalization and panache is now seemingly an afterthought.
I’m in my 40s and freelancing, and that magical shopping switch never flipped for me. I buy on consignment; I won’t even look at a piece of Banana Republic clothing unless it’s at least 40 percent off. Now, during the liquidation process, the Barneys brand has been licensed to Saks, and so I took a quick look on the Barneys at Saks website to see how the family legacy would continue on: Balenciaga dad sneakers for $995, a Prada gym bag for $1,520, and a Saint Laurent varsity jacket for $2,550. Alas, my Jewish American Dream is more modest: to live in a city where workers get paid, where mom-and-pop stores stick around, and where you can feel like a million bucks even if your wardrobe comes from the Nordstrom Rack.
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