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Barney’s New York: An Iconic Retailer Dies

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The New York Times referred to it as “sold for scrap.” And in fact, that’s what happened. Barney’s is gone.

The Barney’s brand was sold to Authentic Brands Group, a company that specializes in licensing the names of brands that - well, that didn’t do quite so well on their own. The merchandise will be liquidated, the stores and distribution centers will be emptied and like a grand dowager down on her luck (I think I’ve used that metaphor before…sorry) she’ll sell off anything of value.

The Times talked about the end of an era, when Barney’s epitomized cool. But I’m old enough to remember when it was “Barney’s Boys Town.” Which was AFTER its first incarnation as Barney’s Clothes, a cut-rate purveyor of close-outs. That, I don’t remember!

I found an article (though I didn’t want to buy the reprint) of an ad from 1966, saying that Barney’s, then 42 years old, was the largest single men’s wear unit outlet. Living in a house full of women, I never had the occasion to shop there, but I remember the ads very well, and used to walk by the store on 17th Street in Manhattan somewhat frequently. In fact, I confess to being surprised somewhere along the way to find out it had become THE hip location. But it had, indeed.

Barney’s future will apparently be as a licensed brand that will be found in department stores like Saks. Mind you, I have a hard time understanding how a brand that wasn’t really a brand (to my knowledge, Barney’s had no real private label product – it was all someone else’s, and that brand curation was its strong suit) will be a viable store within another store with multiple brands. Who gets first dibs? Saks or Barneys? Who decides? Honestly, it seems pretty odd, but the good people over at Authentic seem to have a formula.

Nonetheless it is gone. Barney’s Clothes, Barney’s Boys Town, Barney’s uber cool….gone. As with so many dying retailers in the recent past, we have to wonder how much of its death was due to real estate prices or debt, and how much was due to just running out of cool.

In any case, it joins a somewhat mind-boggling group of brands that Authentic Brands Group (ABG) has snapped up since its formation in 2010. In fact, trolling through the timeline of distressed brands that ABG has bought up here, was like a walk down memory lane. Icons from my youth like Hart Schaffner Marx, Hickey Freeman, Juicy Couture, Jones New York, Frederick’s of Hollywood (!), Tretorn - all living under the Authentic umbrella. Walk down memory lane aside, I can’t remember the last time I saw any of those brands in a store, or online, or anywhere, really. But the model seems to work. If I google them, they’re there.

But when does this stop? Consumers bemoan seas of sameness, and yet retailers still deliver up the same. Mammoth chains, with generally uninteresting products (unless you’re an electronics geek, I guess), promising cool, while delivering… well, ask yourself… are you in the business of being cool? And if so, how are you doing?

The Merchant Prince is certainly dead. Back in the late 90’s, when I was still a CIO, I was invited to interview for a CIO job of then iconic Joan and David – a high-end, but comfortable shoe brand with headquarters in Manhattan and support services in Everett, MA. You must be of a certain age to remember this brand in that incarnation, I think. It was one of THE high-end brands. And there actually was an actual Joan and a David. Joan was the buyer, the curator of taste, and David ran the business. By the time I got there, David was a bit… forgetful… while Joan continued to roam the world looking for cool comfort. Joan was still a Merchant Princess, but her core customer was aging out. Luckily, I didn’t take the gig. and the company went into Chapter 11 in 2000. Like Barney’s today, it was bought by a brand aggregator, Maxwell Shoe Company, for very short money.

What’s my take-away? As we grow our businesses, it’s pretty important to pay attention to both sides of the business – the side that makes sure badly structured debts and leases don’t become integral to the portfolio along with the side that makes sure the products stay on-trend. Too many iconic retailers like Barney’s have fallen because the basics of actually running the business without endless expansion or ever-escalating rents were ignored. And others have forgotten to keep track of what generates consumer enthusiasm.

Ask yourself repeatedly, “Is my customer aging out?” “Am I making questionable real estate moves for the sake of keeping up the appearance of cool?”

This isn’t an apocalypse. But it’s definitely poignant. And it’s likely avoidable.

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Articles & Opinions November 5, 2019
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