A year after its closing, where do we go to shop in lieu of Barneys? An inside look at the value of a specialty store.
It’s been nearly a year since the legendary Barneys closed its doors February 22nd, and my, how things have changed since then. The face of retail, along with the rest of the world, has been forced to adapt to a pandemic, bringing with it a plague of financial hardship. With the space changing by the minute, we wonder, where do we go now to achieve that same sartorial dopamine hit we got from the landmark that was Barneys? The answer is somewhere that offers you something you can’t find anywhere else: a specialty store.
As Cathy Horyn found in her reporting on “What Makes A Store?” for the NY Times, the heyday of Barneys floated on the wings of the Pressman family (Barney Pressman founded the store in 1923 then transferred control to his son Fred Pressman and the legacy subsequently continued with grandsons and co-CEOs Robert and Gene Pressman), who owned the store until 1999—that changing of hands gave rise to a bit of an identity crisis for the store. And what defined that heyday, you may ask? It was uniqueness, in the truest sense of the word. It was about showing consumers what they should desire versus giving them what they currently believe they want by creating a distinct atmosphere and product offering.
“Even as a young person and then as I grew up, I always found myself interested in shopping at the small, independent places because I wanted to feel like I was finding something that I wouldn’t necessarily find someplace else,” explains former Barneys buyer Molly Nutter. “When I moved to New York, Barneys was really the only store I wanted to work for because I felt like that was a bigger version of that thing I already loved.”
Nutter began as an assistant buyer at Barneys in 1996, working her way up the chain of command and exiting the brand as VP in 2015. After brief stints as a consultant and in house at Céline—in the Phoebe Philo era of the accent—Nutter made a vast leap to work as the president of By George, a specialty fashion store in Austin, Texas.
Nutter’s trajectory is one that seems to parallel that of the industry. With today’s proliferation of information, consumers are disillusioned with the idea of having access to anything and everything in one single place, which the department store offers. Instead, we want direction. We want a point of view—someone we trust to journey into the fashion realm and bring back only the best of the best. Enter: the local specialty store.
“[Barneys] was never a department store,” Gene Pressman told GQ’s Rachel Tashijian in 2019. “It was a specialty store.” So now, its modern-day counterparts—By George in Austin, A’Maree’s in Newport, Machine-A in London, Dover Street Market in New York, and so many more—share so many of the traits that initially drove us to shop at Barneys in the first place.
“There has to be a reason for someone to go [to a store]. It has to be an experience, and it has to be fun,” Pressman furthers the conversation. “It has to be interesting. It has to be different.” With a year of reflection under our belts, we can more clearly see the similarities between Barneys at its best and the specialty stores of 2020.
Discovery Back by Relationships
“To me, Barneys was a place where we honored heritage and design but also cultivated the best in what was new and up-and-coming,” explains consultant and former Barneys fashion director Julie Gilhart, painting a picture of a sartorial wonderland where taste was paramount and innovation was king. “We were fearless in our pursuit of good design, so we were always leading versus following.” Nutter, who worked under Gilhart for over a decade, emphasizes that was why clients kept coming back—to discover.
The word trust kept resurfacing in almost every conversation around the subject often in reference to the relationship between buyer and brand. Yes, Barneys was so known for discovering new brands, but it also worked hard to nurture these brands, as their success was beneficial to everyone involved. “We were advocates and partners to many, and we understood that partnership is a day-by-day thing and it takes time,” explains Gilhart. “We acted as their business partner, public relations, and selling partner.”
Photo: Courtesy of Zero + Maria Cornejo
Barneys was designer Maria Cornejo’s, of Zero + Maria Cornejo, first client, alongside since-closed Parisian store Colette. The store and brand had a symbiotic relationship—they even pre-paid for their orders (something that is all but unheard of in today’s retail climate) as they knew a fledgling designer was not swimming in cash. “Especially after the last nine months, a lot of our clients are specialty stores because with them, there’s a direct conversation,” Cornejo shares, describing the relationship as “more of a collaboration,” especially in these tough times. “The thing I find very much in common with working at Barneys and [By George]—and it’s more working at Barneys during the earlier times—is that a lot of it was about the relationship,” confirms Nutter. “There was so much trust, too.”
“The thing I find very much in common with working at Barneys and here—and it’s more working at Barneys during the earlier times—is that a lot of it was about the relationship.”
A Strong Edit
With over two decades of buying experience, Nutter understands the dilemma in her position: If consumers can find nearly anything online, you have to give them a reason to come in and buy from your store. To do so, you have to select not only the best of the collection, but create an edit that appeals to your particular audience. “Hopefully, that’s what we’re doing when we place our buys—to be trusted for our edit or our point of view and knowing who our customer is,” reiterates Nutter, referencing her buying decisions for By George, which she fine-tuned at Barneys.
Cornejo believes that not only is a strong edit beneficial to the stores themselves, but she appreciates that each store interprets her collection differently as they work each designer they carry into their uniquely crafted aesthetic. “I think it’s really exciting when you go into a store, whether it’s Blake or By George, and you see what they take away from the collection and how they put it together,” explains Cornejo.
“Hopefully, that’s what we’re doing when we place our buys—to be trusted for our edit or our point of view and knowing who our customer is.”
The peak of Barneys came pre-data. Now everyone is so good at analyzing consumer behavior and addressing what they want, but as Pressman alluded to, the job of Barneys was to show people what they didn’t yet know they wanted—the absolute best selection from the absolute best designers. The same intuition lies in specialty stores everywhere. “It’s not data in a system where we’re sort of just dissecting numbers and trying to come up with some common denominator so we have an analytical buy,” says Nutter. “It’s not like that.”
These specialty stores, as was the case with Barneys, have almost taken on the role we used to attribute to magazine editors, translating high-fashion runway collections into digestible tidbits their customer can understand. “It’s almost like editorial [coverage],” Cornejo describes the experience of entering the aforementioned retail havens. “It’s brand recognition to be in these stores and to be adjacent to these other incredible brands.”
“I think it’s really exciting when you go into a store, whether it’s Blake or By George, and you see what they take away from the collection and how they put it together.”
“Stores like London-based Machine-A and Dover Street Market are highly curated, so you can trust”—there’s that word again—“them in their point of view,” explains Gilhart. “I think the local one-off stores found globally look very interesting again.”
A Sense of Community
Alongside the superior fashion, the beauty of Barneys was that it was so New York. The product reflected the culture of the city, capturing New Yorkers’ hunger for creativity and individuality. The same can be said of most specialty stores with respect to their unique locations. “The most important thing a brand, or in this case, a store, can have is community,” reveals Gilhart. “It’s up to the retailers to curate and create an interesting place to come to be with one’s community.” In order to do that, you must first become acquainted with your customer.
Photo: Courtesy of By George
At Barneys, buyers worked on the shop floor regularly. “We spent time merchandising product, restocking the floor, hosting trunk shows, training the staff, and simply talking with clients,” says Nutter, who now spends ample amounts of time with customers at By George. This observation and understanding, she believes, is not only imperative, but “impossible to do from behind a computer screen!” From this knowledge comes the ability to edit when it’s time to head to the buyer’s market in New York, Paris, or wherever and thereby create that tangible, recognizable brand.
“You might be able to find the same piece of clothing on many platforms, but why one chooses to buy from a specific place is because of the connection they feel with the people that are a part of that physical space and the curation of it."
Once you build yourself into the ecosystem and cultural dialogue of your location, you become a destination, as was the case with Barneys. “I still very much enjoy when I travel going to see the other small specialty stores,” says Nutter. “Every store is different. Capitol in Charlotte is not going to look like Amarie’s in Newport. They’re all so magical and special.”
“You might be able to find the same piece of clothing on many platforms, but why one chooses to buy from a specific place is because of the connection they feel with the people that are a part of that physical space and the curation of it,” Machine-A founder Stavros Karelis told Coveteur in a previous interview. “People want to be part of a tribe,” further explains Cornejo. “They want to be part of something they believe in.”
Top Photo: Courtesy of By George
Want more stories like this?
How to Shop Like Machine-A Founder Stavros Karelis
How Your Favorite Fashion Boutiques Are Adapting to the Current Retail Climate
The Journey of a Trend—Here’s Every Factor That Moves Them to the Mainstream