Thus Ends the Revolution, in Scraps

Groundbreaking in the 1960s, trendy in the ’70s, fashionable in the ’80s, expansive in the ’90s, Barneys could never quite handle this new century
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Posted November 6, 2019

They called it the “Peacock Revolution.”

It was that period in the late 1960s when men’s fashion suddenly became more than boxy suits in gray or black with blue or white Oxford button down shirts.

Some historians maintain that the taste for this looser look, at least in the U.S., was attributed to John F. Kennedy and his wind-swept, over-the-forehead haircut. Quite a switch from Ike’s bald head tucked into a homburg hat or a golf cap. JFK never wore a hat. He didn’t always wear a suit. He exuded style.

So the unbuttoned look might have started with Kennedy, but the impetus certainly came from Britain. Remember those mop tops? (If you do, make sure your AARP membership is up to date.)

Edwardian fashion and long hair came crashing onto U.S. shores: suits with wide lapels and flared pants; bright, wide and colorful neckties; crazy-quilt patterned socks; tight hip-hugging jeans; zippered over-the-ankle leather boots or two-toned shoes with blunt toes and raised heels; turtlenecks with Nehru jackets; aviator sunglasses tucked into thick, long sideburns; and side hairlines that not only touched the ears but flowed over them.

The Beatles, the Stones, the London mod boys, Vidal Sassoon salons for men, Carnaby Street, Mary Quant miniskirts, Pucci bold colors and patterns, French frills.

Nobody’s saying Barneys New York fired the first shot in the revolution here in America. But in 1968 and ’69, in New York, the scruffy hippie style of Greenwich Village was transformed about a dozen blocks north in a small men’s shop on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 17th Street that had, for decades, featured discounts and markdowns.

Even just saying it in my head, “Seventh Avenue and 17th Street,” reminds me of how familiar that address sounded merely from the local radio and TV advertising Barneys did as it turned into a butterfly. I can still see those TV ads of men posing in Giorgio Armani and Pierre Cardin, unfamiliar European names we would soon become quite familiar with. (Male modeling seemed, at the time, awkward to me, like they didn’t know quite what to do with their arms. It seemed to come so naturally to women. But while female models perfected the still look and the stone cold eyes, Barneys’ ads put their male models in motion, striding, walking, conveying masculinity.)

And, in a shot heard ’round the world, Barneys went from discount to high fashion. The store on the out-of-the-way Chelsea street corner was expanded and completely remodeled, with moodier lighting and more ornate store fixtures, plush carpeting and comfortable settees. You had to have lots of cash on you, or a credit card with a very high balance, to shop there.

Bloomingdale’s and Saks, and the countless men’s specialty stores that then lined Fifth and Madison avenues from the Thirties through the Fifties, were slower to reimagine themselves. By the time they did, Barneys was already on top of the hill.

In 1986, always-one-step-ahead Barneys introduced perhaps its most-important British import (by way of California). Simon Doonan brought his British chic and cheekiness to help transform the Barneys brand, upgrading the displays and windows in the expanded 17th Street store.

But Barneys knew it needed an uptown presence, and in 1993 opened its palace on Madison Avenue and 61st Street. This huge and impressive store became a go-to for Saturday afternoon shopping in Manhattan, and the sprightly Doonan store windows were a must-see for all of New York and the cities’ visitors during the holidays.

One reason I dwell on all of this history is more than just that I find it fascinating, an important chapter in the history of retail branding and re-branding, and a warm personal memory. It’s also because the very nimbleness with which Barneys rode the fashion carousel for 50 years is what it lacked leading to what happened last month. The company’s latest, and almost certainly final, bankruptcy.

One headline said, “Barney’s is Sold for Scrap.” What an extraordinary and humiliating ending. But apparently one of its own making.

You don’t need me to show you how the world of retailing has changed in the last 20 years. Some retailers have been nimble digital adapters. Some have failed miserably. Historians decades from now may find it interesting that stodgy Walmart proved better at the new game than hip, cool, ever-trending Barneys.

It struggled with an online presence. The New York Times surmised that Barneys was so in thrall of its retail brand, the excitement of influencing fashion trends inside its own stores, that it never understood the influencer effect of social media.

It put its feet so deeply into the cement that it stuck to its bricks and mortar, regardless of the soaring rents it paid in New York and elsewhere.

And it never understood the changing fashion culture. It achieved some success with the garage chic of the early 2000s, when it opened its Barneys Warehouse in downtown Manhattan. But even then, garage chic – or whatever followed in the fast-turning 21st century – was accessible universally – and less expensively – through all of the social media portals that define today’s world.

It’s a little like the French Revolution of the 1790s. Barneys toppled the ruling order, then became part of it, then saw control switch from the ancien régime to Lafayette to Robespierre to Danton to Bonaparte, only to crumble on the fields of Waterloo.

Barneys never saw the tumbrils coming for it, to take it to the guillotine, until it was too late.

As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20-plus years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and Amazon.com. He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.