Another former executive said, “His attitude was basically, ‘You guys will never be able to make it work, so why don’t you just hand over the company.’ He was a bit pompous.” By spring 2012, the deal was done. Burkle received cash plus 20 percent in equity and a board seat. (“He’s been completely pleasant,” Perry said.) Istithmar got about 8 percent equity and a board seat, so it still had something to show for its involvement. And Barneys was able to shed all but $50 million of its long-term debt.
But Richard, in full stride, said, “I think they’re beautiful.”
When Barney retired, in 1975, annual revenues were nearly $35 million, according to Joshua Levine’s history, “The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys,” and Fred had put Barneys on the high road, selling pricey Brioni suits and other wonders of Italian design. In the story of Barneys, Fred, who died in 1996, tends to be overshadowed by his sons, Gene and Bob, who became much more visible from the mid-’80s until its bankruptcy in 1996. But Fred is the one who made the name synonymous with New York savvy.
But Perry is a very involved owner, visiting the store four or five times a week. He pushed to give Freds, a popular lunch spot, a locavore twist at night to draw a bigger crowd. This past summer he organized a two-day “odyssey” to California, so that he, Lee and Vitale could learn the latest e-commerce technology. (The company’s Web site had been neglected for years, but after a revamp this past May, traffic is up 34 percent, and Lee says that Barneys.com will soon overtake the Beverly Hills store as the second-largest revenue producer after Madison Avenue.) Lee called Perry “a worthy owner-patron of Barneys,” and said: “It would be much harder if someone said, ‘We should put sneakers on the ground floor because we could sell a lot of Keds.’ That would be a problem.”
It was nearly 9 p.m. when we pulled up to Barneys (the Perrys’ 26-year-old son, David, rode with us; their other child, David’s twin, Samantha, arrived later). Several store executives, including Lee and Freedman, were waiting on the sidewalk to greet the Perrys. The purpose of the party was to kick off windows that Freedman had conceived with Dakis Joannou, a Greek art patron. Each one featured an artist’s impression of the fashion world. Juergen Teller’s giant portrait of an aging Yves Saint Laurent brutally reduced the king to a coifed has-been. Another artist, John Bock, was already upstairs at the restaurant Freds creating one-off garments from old clothes.
Without taking anything away from the atmosphere that the Pressmans created in the ’80s, the frenzy had a lot to do with demographics: namely, the rise of the yuppie. Gene would no doubt hate the tag and, on the face of it, it seems loony hanging on an Alaïa or a Prada. But New York at the time was being defined by its “arrogant, smart children,” in the words of James B. Lindheim, a marketing executive (and later the chairman of Burson-Marsteller), in a 1975 article in Harper’s. Unlike previous generations, this new class, Lindheim said, would seek to define itself by what it consumed — be it contemporary art or dead-chic black. And Barneys was their store.
Lisa laughed tensely. “Richard, I don’t think Jeff meant — ”
She said: “It was very attached to a New York culture, in the same way that Woody Allen was in film. It was kind of the sense that the customers were the enlightened New Yorkers. At the time, Bergdorf’s felt like a store for uptown doctors’ wives, and Barneys was where the cool people shopped, and the cultural elite. People in the know.”
When I asked Perry whom he trusts for information about the industry, he identified Lee, Vitale and his wife. He’s certainly loyal. Lee and Vitale, another Gucci alumna, are both well regarded, but I wondered how he could be so sure his managers were as good as he thinks they are. He said he had hired a top consultant to evaluate them. “Barneys has the highest expert score of any company he’s looked at,” Perry said in earnest. “He told me he had never seen scores like this.” But scores can’t account for instinct. Lee and Vitale missed the boat on one of the most anticipated lines of the year: Raf Simons’s debut collection for Dior. Simons, a 44-year-old Belgian, had attracted notice for his modern tailoring and colors at Jil Sander, and insiders knew he had the maturity to take over a big French house. The head of another New York store told me, “We knew this was going to be big.” Lee explained in an e-mail in late October that Barneys has tended to focus on smaller European companies, like Lanvin and Givenchy, rather than the goliaths like Dior. But when I saw the Barneys team at the Paris ready-to-wear shows in September, they were champing to get Simons’s collection. Bergdorf’s and Saks will have it instead.
A window into the soul of Barneys and the future of shopping.