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NPR Arts & Life

The Future And Past Of Barneys

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Barneys, the luxury department chain, could see its doors shut for good. Since filing for bankruptcy, Barneys stores have been closing throughout the country, and, in a further blow, its most iconic storefront is also in peril. The Barneys New York on Madison Avenue in Manhattan was a tourist spot and a favorite for the women in HBO's "Sex And The City."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEX AND THE CITY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) So which district do you vote in?

SARAH JESSICA PARKER: (As Carrie Bradshaw) Whichever one is near Barneys.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fashion's cool kids and artists were regularly featured in store events. It defined luxury for a generation. Vanessa Friedman is the chief fashion critic for The New York Times, and she joins me now. Welcome.

VANESSA FRIEDMAN: Nice to talk to you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Barneys is kind of woven into the fabric of New York in a way that I think few other retail outlets are. We already mentioned "Sex And The City," but there are other movies and TV shows, notably "Will & Grace," where the character, Jack, ended up getting a job at Barneys.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WILL & GRACE")

SEAN HAYES: (As Jack McFarland) Where are the cashmere V-neck sweaters? On the second floor. And how do I know? Because I got a job at Barneys.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is it about the shop that made it part of the zeitgeist in that way?

FRIEDMAN: When the Barneys on Madison Avenue opened, it was like the ultimate symbol of a certain kind of New York style at the time, which was, you know, sort of cutting-edge, sort of elitist, sort of inaccessible but also deeply glamorous and very aspirational to everyone else.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk about Barneys New York on Madison Avenue for those who may not have been there because they're afraid that they might actually have to pay the prices. It is a cultural touchstone, right? What was it like to step inside?

FRIEDMAN: It broke all the rules of retail when they first created it. Barneys was one of the first department stores to really act like a specialty boutique, to have a very specific point of view, to make it a sort of place you came to feel like you were part of the cool crowd. And they did it incredibly effectively.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what happened?

FRIEDMAN: You know, times change. Consumer tastes change. And if stores don't keep up with that, then they start becoming - they start to feel irrelevant, you know? Barneys on Madison was an extraordinary department store, but it is also a very expensive department store. It actually forced the family into bankruptcy. And, you know, in that process, it lost a lot of its character, and it lost a lot of what made it special. And that, combined with some very bad real estate deals, led us to where we are today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do the people who would shop at Barneys want now?

FRIEDMAN: Well, I think that is the magic question for any retailer, you know? What Barneys did, which very few retailers now do, is that instead of looking at what they had sold the season before and saying, OK, you know, blackjack hats were really popular, especially if they had a kind of peplum at the bottom. So we're going to get more of those. They said, what can we do that's different? They believed in leading rather than following the consumer. And it meant that you were always surprised, that you couldn't second-guess them, that you couldn't predict what you were going to get. And that made it exciting. It also made it risky.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So rest in peace, Barneys.

FRIEDMAN: I really hope not.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did you like it?

FRIEDMAN: I used to go to Barneys almost as research, you know? I would go to Barneys to see what they were buying, to see what designers they had discovered, to see how they put things together, you know? One of the really interesting things when they first opened on Madison was that they had jewelry by - I think it was Kazuko in the front, you know? At that point and still now, most retail wisdom says you put small leather goods in the front because that is the kind of entry point to most purchasing, you know? They put this kind of weird, esoteric expensive jewelry there. And it was as much a declaration of who they were as something to buy. And it was like if you get this, you're special. You're smart. You understand something. You have a different kind of aesthetic value system. And so, you know, I go to find out, like, what that value system meant. And I will miss that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was New York Times chief fashion critic Vanessa Friedman. Thank you so much.

FRIEDMAN: Nice to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.