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

Strings Attached: The Great Urban Apron Experiment

I love aprons. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a waitress just so I could wear one. Waitresses seemed so cool and in control. They carried so many awkward things at once, and always with a smile. Since then I’ve had more than a couple of jobs where an apron was required, and I now know they have little to do with multi-tasking prowess, and yet I maintain my affection for the domestic accessory. I thought about writing a love letter to the humble apron, but Serah-Marie, our editor-in-pants, had a more immersive idea: “Why don’t you wear them and write about that instead?”

It seemed simple, but when I mentioned it to a friend of mine he was taken aback.

“Aprons?!” he scoffed. “You’re going to wear aprons…outside?”

“Yes. Is there something wrong with that?”

“No…I guess not. I mean, would it be weird if a butcher walked around wearing his apron outside?”

I paused. My initial confidence in this social experiment cooked up in the safe stylish world of WORN began to waiver. To put me at ease, my first sartorial choice was a sentimental one. I picked a blue-fringed floral apron I had worn as a kid in my Grandparents’ backyard. (I was pretending to be a waitress and “taking orders.”) I checked my reflection in the mirror. I liked the way my new accessory looked over my jeans and light cotton tunic. I thought: “Yes! This works.”
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Riding Pretty

If you happened to be in downtown Toronto last Saturday, you might have noticed a group of particularly dapper cyclists parading around the city. No, it wasn’t a posh courier service running the streets — rather, Toronto was participating in its very first charity Tweed Ride.

Though heavy tweed might seem less practical for active wear than sweats or spandex, Toronto’s Tweed Ride was about more than just biking pretty. The event was a fundraiser for the charity Bikes Without Borders. This do-good attitude applies at home, too — “Cycling in Toronto tends to be quite controversial” says Kristen Corbet, who helped organize the event. “It’s important to us to celebrate bikes and promote their positive impact upon a community.”

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Crushing on Michael Lista (Yes, That Michael Lista)

When Haley Wornette suggested we do a crush on poet Michael Lista, we jumped at the opportunity — a storm of clicks resonated through Parkdale as our heels landed on the ceramic floors of the WORN office. Lista’s first book of poems, Bloom, was released to widespread acclaim, and he is currently working on his second book titled The Scarborough. Lista describes both works as sharing “an interest in the Canadian character, and particularly the allergies of the Canadian imagination. I’m interested in the stories we ignore, or don’t want to remember. Canada’s a new country, but it suffers from an illness associated with the elderly: amnesia. I’m interested in how poetry’s mnemonic qualities can co-mingle with that Canadian amnesia.” Lista assumed his role as Poetry Editor at The Walrus on September 1st, which just so happened to be his birthday — and in Harris tweed blazers, or cuffed white slacks, Michael Lista brings a whole new meaning to the term Birthday Suit.

How does the way you dressed in high school compare to how you dress currently?
I’m sorry to report that I went to a Catholic high school, where I had to wear a uniform. Now that I think about it, the uniform is one of the few things that I actually genuinely enjoyed about the experience. Wearing the uniform — grey slacks, white button-down, tie, navy blazer — has made my default dress pretty dressy. Save the hottest of days, I don’t usually leave the house without a sport coat and tie. I just feel comfortable that way.

How (if at all) does fashion play into being a writer, or even your own poetry?
Poetry and fashion! There’s so much to say. Well of course it’s terribly unfashionable to be a poet. Most poets are terribly unfashionable. Ooh, I’ve got another one: a lot of poems bore — especially poems written by young poets— precisely because they’re trying too hard to be fashionable.

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