This morning, in Poughkeepsie’s United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, Judge Cecelia Morris officially approved the sale of Barneys New York to Authentic Brands Group, or ABG, which specializes in licensing deals for brands and celebrities both dead (Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe) and living (Shaquille O’Neal). ABG plans to close most, and perhaps all, of Barneys’ seven remaining stores in cities including New York, Beverly Hills, and San Francisco, and will license the Barneys name to Saks Fifth Avenue, which may open Barneys as a kind of shop-in-shop. In a press release, ABG said the Madison Avenue store will transition into a “pop-up retail experience” that will remain open for one more year. ABG also intends to open a new freestanding store.
Some 2,300 employees could lose their jobs, and New York will lose an iconic store it barely knew it had.
Shortly after the 10 A.M. hearing, @SaveBarneys, a nostalgia-fueled campaign led by trade show impresario and Kith investor Sam Ben-Avraham, which hoped to keep five of the stores open and restore the specialty store to something of its former glory, posted a message that it would not submit the competing bid it was hoping to pull together Friday morning:
A spokesperson directed GQ to this post when reached for comment. Within an hour, the account changed its name to “@thespiritofbarney” [sic].
Barneys hadn’t been Barneys for a long time, as GQ reported when the store filed for bankruptcy in early August. Ben-Avraham knew this, too. In an interview with GQ from October, he recounted the now-familiar story of 15 years of over-expansion and the loss of the company’s distinctive point-of-view. The fashion and retail niche breathlessly following the Barneys saga on social media mushroomed when Ben-Avraham launched @SaveBarneys and harnessed influencers and industry bold-face names in support. His project raised a question that’s increasingly common in present-day New York: can you be nostalgic for something you never really experienced?
Former Barneys New York co-ceo and creative director Gene Pressman—grandson of the eponymous Barney, whose family sold their remaining 2 percent of the company in 2004—said in a phone interview this morning that he had bid farewell to the ghost of Barneys long ago. “I feel badly for the employees,” he said. “Not for me, not for my family. I feel badly for the city, because I know that the city had a love affair with Barneys, because Barneys was a New York story, for almost a hundred years.” Barney, he pointed out, was “a poor boy from the Lower East Side,” who in 1923 started a discount store in Chelsea, which wasn’t the gritty and then glitzy gallery and luxury condominium hotspot it became during the ’80s and ’90s, when Fred Pressman, Barney’s son, decided to transform the store into a temple of eccentric taste and undiscovered European fashion. It was the first store to carry Armani in the United States, and Gene carried on the legacy, discovering designers like Azzedine Alaïa and Dries Van Noten. Working with architect Peter Marino, Gene filled the store with wood paneling and fish tanks, and enlisted the late Glenn O’Brien as the creative director in the early ’90s. The Pressman family created a retail experience that had all the drama, exclusivity, and style of going to a nightclub, where you found the next great dress instead of the next hot love affair. And it had all the fallibility that comes with that—the store filed for bankruptcy in 1996. “It was truly a New York store, built by a New York family,” Gene said. “I can’t speak for them, but I would think New Yorkers would be pretty sad for this day. And in a bigger picture, it’s sad for fashion retail.”
When asked whether Ben-Avraham reached out during his campaign, Pressman had no comment. He said he was unmoved by @SaveBarneys. “If he was serious about putting in a bid, he would have put in $280 [million].” ABG bid slightly over $270 million. Ben-Avraham bid $260 million, hoping that the support of the store’s employees and petition would make up the difference. “I don’t need to beat [ABG], but I think I have a better proposal,” Ben-Avraham told GQ in October.
Pressman added, “Barneys has always been this shiny object, that for whatever reason, people think that if they bought it, they could co-opt it and it’ll automatically make them cool. And it didn’t.” (Pressman has an obsession with cool: in 2007, he wrote the book Chasing Cool, which outlines how corporations try to build cool products instead of building relevance that leads to the ephemeral concept.)
In contemporary New York, the @SaveBarneys campaign seemed to underscore a fairytale nostalgia, the kind that combines color palettes, ideas, and moods from previous generations and is now shorthand for cool. Many of the people mourning Barneys’ demise online are actually attending a funeral for something that died long ago—most of the images on the Instagram page were over 20 years old—but because of the nostalgia porn prevalent in everything from music to TV to fashion to Instagram in general, it’s easier than ever to find yourself missing something you never had, or maybe never even existed at all. Even ABG’s deal traffics in Barneys’ lost cool: as the press release states, “the initial focus will be on high-fashion collaborations, branded namesake products, and expanding international retail in both brick and mortar and eCommerce.”
But the decline of Barneys is also the latest story—and not the only one this week—about a capitalist who pushes the soul of an organization to the brink in pursuit of profit. (Financier Richard Perry was the most recent owner of Barneys, acquiring a controlling stake in 2012 that salvaged it from a possible bankruptcy filing under Dubai-based equity fund Istithmar World, which purchased the store from Jones Apparel Group in 2007.) Over the past decade, Barneys has changed hands four times, undergoing an almost relentless expansion and a loss of its specialty store identity as it sought to recoup its debt along the way. By the time Perry came on the scene, it was decidedly a department store, with a ground floor that then-New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn called “a sea of bags.”
It’s especially bad poetry that this happened the same week that the website Deadspin’s editorial staff staged a mass exodus after its new management handed down a wooden decree to “stick to sports,” and Dean & Deluca auctioned off the equipment and perishables from its shuttered Soho flagship. Barneys seems to be another chapter in the story of investors pushing exhaustively for revenue, even if it means the losing the identity that made a business a success in the first place.
To complain that capitalism brought down a luxury store may seem ridiculous. But with the overwhelming pro-sustainability message during the most recent slate of fashion weeks, and a quixotic statement that designers want us to want us less, the world of shopping has been tasked with addressing this delicate reality: how do you acknowledge that people want things, and designers and retailers want to sell them, without wanting too much?
As Pressman put it, “If I was one of the bidders, I would never make a promise to bring back Barneys to the way it was. I wouldn’t want to—I’d want to move into the future. The way it was was great, but it couldn’t survive.”
Originally Appeared on GQ