Farewell, Barneys

By Revekah Echols

How a fashion institution lost its relevance

The constant in January is that it is always the most mercurial month of the year. With a turning of the proverbial page, things do seem to change, just like that.

Early this year, Barneys New York, the preeminent vanguard of artful, eccentric, luxurious fashion, will officially close after being perched for almost 100 years on Madison Avenue. After filing bankruptcy late last summer, the store has been up for grabs by venture capitalists, other department store conglomerates and investment groups wanting to capitalize on its good name and global reputation.

As with life, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what happened. There were complications with the lease, rumored errors in management, less-than-expected revenue and extensive debts. Barneys had already been bailed out of bankruptcy once several years ago, but with the tide of consumers preferring more scalable and flexible brick-and-mortar platforms like boutiques and pop-up shops, the circumstances and timing seemed to seal its demise. So very soon, the store that brought designers like Comme Des Garcons and Giorgio Armani stateside, delighted the world with its artistic, humorous window displays, and changed the perception of fashion from aloof and esoteric to wry and curious, will shut its doors permanently.

Perhaps it is yet another cautionary tale that the old way isn’t relevant anymore. The word on the street is that retail should be catered more toward the $44 billion spending habits of Generation Z, who like streetwear, parallel online and offline experiences, and an immersive branding experience. People are now parsed into the most granular of segments, whether by zip code, buying patterns, Google search engine queries, even how many social media accounts they keep and how often they engage with them. It is certainly a more scientific, exact approach, but is that where 2020 and beyond will take us?

Mismanagement and bad strategy did indeed put Barneys under, but that is not the end — or in this case, beginning — of the story. As one reads between the lines, it becomes clear that the first domino fell long before the profit and loss statements revealed trouble. Barneys ultimately lost because it no longer had a clear point of view. Its absolute dedication to originality, clarity of purpose and inventive edit of designers became lost in the shuffle of competition, technology, dollars and demanding investors. When Barneys went its own way, it was indeed at its best, and when it ceased to forge its own path, it was swept in the fast-moving, unforgiving tide.

Just like Barneys, we seem to be pushed in ways that suggest our instincts, the known quantities, the traditions in life aren’t valid or relevant anymore because there’s some superior, more analytical way to approach things. But no matter how specific and data driven society becomes, it is clear that people are still people. We still respond to originality, to quality, to creativity in the same way. When these things are present, it does not take case studies, government funded research or spreadsheets for us to know. So if ever there was a formula, it is that maybe life is an old dog and it doesn’t need new tricks. The desire for beauty and creativity are deeply embedded within us, and that always has been, and always will be, enough.

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