Is Barneys New York an irreplaceable city institution?
That seemed to be the suggestion when, on Saturday afternoon, an Instagram account with the handle @SaveBarneys launched with a series of Barneys-adjacent images: clips from vintage television spots for the beleaguered department store, old print advertisements, and screenshots from the store’s mentions in shows like Friends and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Barneys New York, the messaging goes, is a Manhattan cultural landmark. As of Monday afternoon, the account has over 4,000 followers.
It didn’t take long to figure out who was behind the stunt. The account follows just one person: Sam Ben-Avraham, the Kith co-founder and owner of several major New York-based tradeshows whose name has circulated as a possible Barneys buyer since early October. By late Sunday afternoon, he had added a website, SaveBarneysNY.com, with an open letter—“In a few short days we are at risk of losing a cultural institution that has been an anchor point for the city for almost a century. Its impact on culture cannot be understated,” it begins—asking New Yorkers to sign a petition in support. “Let’s show the world that we still care by signing this petition,” he writes. “Let’s give Barneys the future it deserves.”
Authentic Brands Group, LLC (ABG) may have put in a bid of $271 million to buy Barneys last Wednesday, which includes shutting down the department store’s seven remaining retail spaces and licensing the brand name to Saks, but Ben-Avraham is not backing down on his vision to keep Barneys in business and submit his own bid, he said in a phone call Sunday night. “For me, it's like my place as inspiration for 30 years was Barneys,” he said. It “defined who I am and what I am in the fashion.”
He said that he plans to submit a bid on Tuesday, the deadline for proposals competing with ABG. “We’re entering the race,” he said. That “we” includes co-founders of two New York boutiques from the mid-90s heyday of brick-and-mortar designer specialty stores: Intermix’s Khajak Keledjian, and Scoop’s Uzi Ben Abraham (the latter is also Ben-Avraham’s brother). Other investors, Ben-Avraham said, include Theory co-founder Andrew Rosen and billionaire investor Ron Burkle, who previously invested in Barneys and Scoop as well as Sean John and Zac Posen. Ben-Avraham said he anticipates more investors coming together over the next 48 hours. When asked if he is confident he can put together a bid that competes with ABG’s, he said, “I think we can be in line with what what Authentic Brands is coming with. I don’t need to beat them, but I think I have a better proposal.”
The petition, he said, is a key component in that proposal, demonstrating that “we also have the support of the community.” The campaign is continuing to post new images almost hourly that pluck at the nostalgic, quirkily cosmopolitan appeal of Barneys in its heyday (which, admittedly, is at least two decades past). The account has even added a kind of promo spot, produced by a marketing collective called FarrynHeight, that sets some of Barneys pop cultural moments against a lounge lizard-hip hop remix of Frank Sinatra’s “New York New York.”
Ben-Avraham’s motivation, at least publicly, seems to have shifted from a desire to add a splashy-if-troubled brand to his portfolio to something higher: nothing short of saving a New York cultural landmark. To do so, he’s employing the kind of language that typically accompanies the closure of beloved New York businesses, like the Paris Theatre, Dean & Deluca, Sunshine Cinema, Carnegie Deli, and the media haunt Elaine’s. Ben-Avraham also points out that should Barneys New York close, a huge number of employees are set to lose their jobs. (Late last week, Barneys posted on their own Instagram that despite ABG’s bid, they are “actively pursuing other options that will keep Barneys stores open,” and the cosmetics team at the Madison Avenue flagship also posted a message of support for Ben-Avraham.)
When asked how his plan would change the direction that the store took under previous owner, financier Richard Perry, Ben-Avraham reiterated the now-familiar series of stumbles that led to Barneys’ August bankruptcy filing in August, and proposes a return to the store’s glory days, stipulating that he can’t really reveal more. (Both his logic as to the store’s failings, and his understanding of what Barneys once was, are uncannily similar to the picture frequently painted by Gene Pressman—the former Barneys’ co-CEO and grandson of the store’s founder Fred—including in an interview with GQ in August.) Admittedly, Barneys’ original concept is exactly the kind of retail proposition thrives in contemporary New York—and indeed, over the past decade, as Barneys become increasingly corporatized and less “curated,” stores like Totokaelo and Dover Street Market, offering a mix of established and up-and-coming designers with a hip, cerebral point of view, emerged in its absence. When asked if he feels there is enough space in New York for his vision among stores like those, Ben-Avraham was quick to compliment Dover Street in particular, but insisted that his plans would bring something unique.
A number of Instagram influencers and fashion industry figures—many of whom weren’t around for the store’s glory days—are sharing the #SaveBarneys content. Is niche viral content enough to revitalize the business? Nostalgia hasn’t really saved a New York institution yet—although peddling in romanticism, with a capitalist eye more attuned to New York’s contemporary economics, has. Major Food Group, for example, has become a city establishment by making old school ambiance into a kind of spectacle where food is secondary to the scene. (In fact, Kith collaborated with Carbone in 2017.) Could Barneys become a luxury retail extravaganza, with great clothes to boot? Tuesday’s bidding war will start to formulate the answer.
Originally Appeared on GQ