Over the past several weeks, headlines have warned of the imminent collapse of one of New York’s most storied retail institutions, Barneys: that the shopping mecca was facing bankruptcy, was up for sale, and would soon close—at least, as we know it. It has since been purchased by Authentic Brands for $271.4 million. The sales have started. The department store will supposedly live on as pop-ups in other department stores. I think of its future like a worn-out Russian matryoshka doll, still clinging to a romantic vision of old-school luxury.
Amid the onslaught of information about court rulings and the store’s impending doomsday, my Instagram feed was filled with nostalgic posts from the account @SaveBarneys. The images were stellar: one advertisement, presumably from the mid-’90s, showed a model crouched in a fetal position with a killer black pump. (Prada, I imagine.) “Believe in Barneys” was scrawled in the background. Another featured a still of Sex and the City actress Sarah Jessica Parker as an early-’00s, hoops-wearing, Dior-saddle-bag-carrying Carrie Bradshaw peering lustfully into the Barneys window. (Post-sale, that Instagram account now lives under the handle of @TheSpiritOfBarneys.) I also read personal stories from Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler and Narcisco Rodriguez about what it felt like to have their collections picked up by the fashion emporium for the first time. The designers were emotional. Being in Barneys meant they had made it and, from that point, their careers would take off.
With the barrage of these articles, the Instagrams, the hashtags, I started to realize that Barneys really was the place to be. (Or at least it had been, at some point in time.) But a confession! I had never really been to Barneys. I once went to a private area of Barneys to interview a store-stocked designer. That day, I had gotten lost after plugging “Barneys” into Google Maps, and ended up outside of the company’s stark corporate building somewhere in Midtown. But I had never browsed through its nine floors and never loitered around the makeup counters for free samples. I don’t have one of those black Barneys bags with its white, impeccably designed font. The paper looked sturdy and sheeny. It was reusable, something a person could use to transport a gift in. It seemed special.
Realizing that this was the end for the store, like making peace with an estranged relative on their deathbed, I decided to make a last-minute, pre-mortem tour of Barneys. I couldn’t not go at least once. Going to Barneys was just a thing that people did when they got to New York, like order a pastrami sandwich at Harry and Sally’s horny table at Katz’s Deli, or schlep to the Statue of Liberty on a ferry. I invited a seasoned shopper friend to come with me before the sale was finally announced. It was raining horrifically, but I braved the ankle-high water in Brooklyn to Manhattan’s Madison Avenue. When my friend and I entered, the mood was eerie. Perhaps it was the torrential downpour that deterred everyone from shopping, but it felt like it was only the two of us in the store. It was even—dare I say it—post-apocalyptic: The crowds of shoppers that once filled these nine floors had been whittled down to just my friend and I.
Looking back, I hadn’t avoided the place because I was anti-Barneys. The truth is that I steered clear of all the major New York City department stores. To me, Bergdorfs, Saks, Neiman Marcus, and the rest exist in my mind as one globbed-together shopping entity. I never had an interest in spending an exorbitant amount of money on clothes, and I don’t get a kick out of sticker shock. Why would I want to look at stuff I couldn’t own? Maybe it’s all aspirational, about dreaming that, one day, I eventually could own it—but I’m a realist. I have a gargantuan student loan that eats away at my shopping budget (not to mention my soul). Then again, maybe Barneys was never about the shopping but rather the scene. Maybe it was just for slick Gwyneth Paltrow types (her A Perfect Murder era, obviously) poking through the racks of buttery black coats. Maybe Gwyneth herself went!
Further exploration of the store showed a few signs of life. (No elegant Paltrow types, though.) On the second floor, there was a Hasidic mother and daughter quietly trying on jackets. On another floor, one woman was getting something personally tailored. She felt like a regular—her hair perfectly coiffed despite the rain and in some understated uptown look that consisted of nameless jeans, sneakers, a windbreaker, and a mammoth golfing umbrella. The other floor had a handsome, tall, but blandly dressed man jabbering on the phone, probably a father who worked on Wall Street, browsing the shoes. “It’s a place where rich dads go,” my friend said.
It wasn’t completely dreary, however. The ample space allowed us to freely browse, and we were happy just to gawk at the new collections. Riccardo Tisci’s Burberry logomania! The delicious hues of Sies Marjan. We were seeing up close and in person what we had only glimpsed on the runway. I tried on one thing, a gray robe coat from The Row. It was soft, like it had been sheared from the goat mere seconds ago. The price was five times my rent.
Toward the end of our adult field trip, I was wondering what I was trying to discover at Barneys. Physically? Emotionally? I wanted the feeling of having some sort of New York experience, like getting flashed or barfing out the window of a cab. But I hadn’t felt anything: I was at a gigantic department store that was really clean and really empty. I was in the back seat of the Death Star, but for cashmere cardigans.
When we finally reached the top floor, people were digging into $38 salads at the famed restaurant Fred’s, and I finally felt a flicker of excitement. Maybe it was because I could actually afford to buy something from this floor—even if that thing was a backgammon board, or a Georg Jensen creamer—but I felt more at home. Maybe I’d be like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but instead of engraving a Cracker Jack ring at Tiffany’s, I’d walk out of Barneys with a snakeskin coaster. (Just one!) The $45 thingamajig would be my souvenir to make up for years of not shopping there.
I’d like to say that I walked out with the coaster. A receipt of some sort. Nonetheless, I left empty-handed, and did not feel remorseful about not getting it. Though, for the first (and inevitably last) time in my life, I had just spent the day at Barneys. Still, I really wish I had gotten a bag. Those were pretty iconic. Luxurious, even.
Originally Appeared on Vogue