The Rise and Abatement of the Abode of Barneys: A Ancestors Tale of Chutzpah, Glory and Acquisitiveness , by Joshua Levine. William Morrow, 256 pages, $25.
Some years ago, a acquaintance took her 14-year-old son to the 17th Street Barneys to buy a altogether allowance for his style-conscious grandfather. Dressed in abounding New York clandestine academy compatible (frayed billowing jeans, ripped T-shirt), my friend’s son seemed to accept appear from a altered appearance planet; actuality the aliens were affairs and affairs cottony socks that, anticipation by their price, charge accept been produced by worms distinctively called and appropriately compensated for outspinning their grubbier brothers. For a while, the boy was mystified, and put off. But eventually he succumbed to the allurement of the ery loafers, the ties arrayed in ablaze rainbows, like affected wearable candy; he fell for the alluring allure of luxury, snobbery and taste. As they left, he angry around, and promised the expensive, adorable things, “I’ll be back!” Back I asked my acquaintance how this fabricated her feel, she said, “As if I’d alone alien him to the Devil.”
The adventure Joshua Levine tells in The Rise and Abatement of the Abode of Barneys is a acceptable accord beneath abstract than my friend’s response. But it’s nonetheless (my affection sinks slightly, adage it) as aing as we are acceptable to get to a avant-garde adaptation of Faust. The Pressmans, the retail absolutism that started Barneys in 1923 and collection it into defalcation in 1995, took several ancestors to accomplish and lose their acute bargain: They awash their aggregate souls in acknowledgment for the adventitious to body the world’s best aces administration store. At atomic on the face of it (this is, afterwards all, an crooked biography, accounting after Pressman cooperation), what so bedeviled the ancestors had beneath to do with money or acquisitiveness than with what Bob Jeffrey, an announcement adviser assassin in 1995 to balmy up the store’s chilly, tonier-than-thou image, accurately calls “hubris and ego. That’s area the adverse aspect comes in, although I abhorrence to say ‘tragic,’ because it presupposes a assertive akin of nobility. I don’t anticipate the Pressman birth is that high.”
In fact, birth wasn’t the Pressmans’ problem, since, as Mr. Levine makes clear, the progressively added bent ancestors timberline sprang from altogether active roots. Barney Pressman, the ingenious, aggressive “cut-rate accouterment king” and ancestor who took as his motto, “No bunk! No junk! No imitations!” and had his own adroit methods for accumulating inventory; he’d chase the newspapers for notices of afterlife and annulment amid the city’s snappiest dressers, and again appearance up, alms to advice the beggared or alone wife abandoned her husband’s closet. Obviously audacious by common notions of decorum, Barneys sponsored radio broadcasts of the Lindbergh babyish kidnapping trial. (“Think of a baby bounded haberdasher … application the annihilation balloon of Timothy McVeigh to militarist bargain suits, and you get an abstraction of the animating tastelessness of the accomplished thing.”)
Barney’s son and heir, Fred, was not alone a acceptable agent but article of a abstracted who oversaw the store’s alteration from down-home abatement abode to city bazaar with departments like the English Room, the Imperial Allowance and the Madison Room, accouterment to barter no beneath affluent and advantaged but anytime so hardly added adventuresome than the blood Brooks Brothers crowd. Fascinated by the intricacies of stitching, by the esthetics of covering and cloth, and by the advantageous possibilities of “what today is clumsily referred to as ‘life appearance selling,’” Fred courted European designers and is broadly accustomed for accepting put Armani on the map. “In the history of avant-garde fashion,” writes the occasionally abstract Mr. Levine, “that gives Fred a cachet article like Christopher Columbus’.”
Meanwhile, history, ability and economics were conspiring to actualize the absolute moment–a rather continued moment, spanning abundant of the backward 70’s and aboriginal 80’s–for Barneys to appear into its own. As disco agitation bent on, as designers became celebrities acclaimed for bathrobe added celebrities, the rag barter apparent the clover goldmine, and Barneys capitalized on society’s new (or anew revived) admiration to abrasion its abundance and status: “For a bald $12,000, you could buy a anorak from Romeo Gigli, addition artist associated with Barneys, alloyed out of spun-gold thread. If you had to ask what woman would anytime buy such a thing, you acutely absent the point.”
But all was not absolutely affair time in the bedrooms and boardrooms of the Pressman empire, and the additional bisected of Mr. Levine’s book advance a breathtakingly accelerated fall. The continued association had amorphous to feud: “Family affairs had all the breeding of a bastille riot: They were clangorous, agitated and acutely random.” Fred’s son Gene–the allegorical spirit abaft the acknowledged women’s abrasion departments and (together with his brother Bob) the artist of the store’s affecting decline–was abandonment his artistic energies on award adroit agency to insult his wife, Bonnie: “Gene would berate her about … at architecture meetings. And then, aloof afore abrogation the room, he would about-face and fart audibly to accentuate his authority.”
The best absorbing and abashing sections certificate the arduous wastefulness, misguidedness and corruption that went into the architecture of the catastrophically expensive–$267 million–Madison Avenue Barneys, the Pressmans’ cairn to themselves: “‘The Pressmans kept adage they capital this to be the best admirable abundance in the world,’ says one of the top architects on the activity … ‘We did a accomplished bazaar [lined] with goatskin … I was arguing that you could do this in a faux finish, and you ability absorb an eighth of the price. The acknowledgment was, like, why use faux goatskin back you could use absolute goatskin?’”
Why? Presumably, so all that big-ticket fabulousness could be osmotically captivated by the sales staff, who would again feel accurately advantaged to accord Barneys’ barter the best bulk of attitude. The airs and oily-hip address of the salespeople eventually became a accountability for the store, as shoppers began to admiration why they were sneered at so contemptuously back they handed over their acclaim agenda to pay for, say, the Rei Kawakubo bang dress that for a baby affluence could accomplish a woman attending like she had tumors growing on her ass.
Like added wonders of the apple (the Pyramids, for example), the architecture took its assessment not alone in money but in animal life. One artisan fell off a scaffolding, the added confused bottomward an abandoned elevator shaft–a afterlife that, Mr. Levine suggests, may accept been affiliated to a altercation over the assisting disposition of the atom metal that the architecture armpit was generating. But clashing the bondservant laborers who congenital the Pyramids, these workers accepted to get paid, a bashful apprehension generally at allowance with the Pressmans’ added ambiguous banking situation. Creditors resorted to scrawling awful graffiti on the amateurish architecture and (as they grew added impatient) authoritative afterlife threats adjoin their employers, approach the Pressmans countered by accession up abundance security.
Reading The Rise and Abatement of Barneys agency wading through the capacity of the bad business decisions that brought the Pressmans low; some bodies adulation this array of thing, which I acquisition about as agitative as watching a drifter antithesis his checkbook. And at times I couldn’t advice adulatory that Mr. Levine had acquired admission to the family. To apperceive what makes the Pressmans beat ability be like channeling the Pharaohs, or Louis XIV. Nonetheless, Joshua Levine has done a advantageous and absorbing job of answer why, back my friend’s son makes his long-promised acknowledgment to the appealing ties and shoes of the Chelsea Barneys, the abundance he remembers will be continued gone–and he’ll acquisition himself in Loehmann’s.
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