Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys

In the fall of 2010, I attended a party at the Barneys on Madison Avenue in New York City. Simon Doonan was signing flip-flops on the main floor and the Olsen twins were about to cause a riot upstairs. Tavi Gevinson posed for pictures, while Anna Wintour hid in a corner with her Blackberry. The normally sedate department store was reduced to a well-groomed circus. Not exactly the store its eponymous patriarch Barney Pressman envisioned in 1923.

In his critical history, Joshua Levine recounts the story of three generations of Pressman men and Barneys, beginning with the store’s original incarnation, a bargain basement with a huge surplus of merchandise and deals to spare. The tagline was “Calling All Men!” And did they ever—Barneys was a jumble of a place, always stocked with every size, no matter how obscure. It’s clear that Levine delights in this original incarnation, as well as Pressman’s determination and hard-luck beginning.

In addition to the facts, Levine relays anecdotes from supporters and detractors of the store. Some are charming, some sad, some shocking: like when Barney Pressman sponsored the radio broadcast coverage of the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann who was convicted of kidnapping and murdering Charles Lindbergh’s two year old son. Levine explains: “Think of a small local haberdasher you had never heard of using the murder trial of Timothy McVeigh to hawk cheap suits, and you get an idea of the exhilarating tastelessness of the whole thing.” He pairs these secondhand stories with the cold hard numbers that took Barneys from an extremely profitable and powerful family business into its eventual bankruptcy. Even with all the figures, Levine keeps a fast pace and had me turning the pages nonstop to find out how it all ends.

After serving in World War II, Barney’s son Fred took control of the store. He worked steadily to acquire higher end merchandise and broaden their customer base. Now you could get Christian Dior and affordable suits in the same place. However, it was the third generation who brought about the family’s undoing. Gene Pressman and his appetite for excess (wild nights at Studio 54, lavish clothing for himself and his wife, homes photographed for prestigious interior design magazines), paired with his brother Bob’s “creative accounting” led the entire company to ruin. The Pressmans filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in 1996, relinquishing all but two per cent of their stock (which they sold to the Jones Apparel Group in 2007). And Levine convincingly argues that this is best for the store and for its patrons.

Since the publication of this book, Barneys has gone through a wide range of CEOs and primary shareholders. I happen to be extremely interested in the cutthroat nature of designer fashion retail, so this book was perfect for me. Levine is subtle but insistent in his belief that the Pressmans failed because they stopped catering to “all men” and fell into the trap of serving a very particular customer, foregoing profits for their own brand of elitism. Photo-ops with celebrities are all well and good, but affordable merchandise that people actually want to buy? That’s priceless.

The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys: A Family Tale of Chutzpah, Glory, and Greed By Joshua Levine (William Morrow/Harper Collins, 1999)

review by Haley Mlotek
photography by Samantha Walton