Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys, The: A Family Tale of Chutzpah, Glory, and Greed


It took three generations to build Barneys into the world's most fabulous clothing store — and less than a decade to tear it down. This book is at once a family saga, a cautionary business tale, and a superbly detailed, behind-the-scenes account of how a secondhand store founded on pluck and chutzpah grew into a glittering international retail empire, only to founder on greed and hubris. Patriarch Barney Pressman started small in 1923, but within two decades he was selling more suits than anyone in the world. By ...
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It took three generations to build Barneys into the world's most fabulous clothing store — and less than a decade to tear it down. This book is at once a family saga, a cautionary business tale, and a superbly detailed, behind-the-scenes account of how a secondhand store founded on pluck and chutzpah grew into a glittering international retail empire, only to founder on greed and hubris. Patriarch Barney Pressman started small in 1923, but within two decades he was selling more suits than anyone in the world. By the time his son, Fred, took over in the 1960s, Barneys was a thriving institution, and Boys Town at Barneys was the site of every New York boy's clothing rite of passage. But Fred had loftier ambitions; he was never comfortable with the crass discounter image. He staked the family fortune on European fabrics and design, wound up transforming the entire world of men's fashion, and made a killing along the way. But it was Fred's sons, Gene and Bob, who really wanted it all — not just a store but a grandiose temple of ultimate chic. Instead, through extravagance, flamboyance, greed, and an arrogant disregard for sound business principles, they raced heedlessly into one of the most spectacular business flameouts in retail history.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys

Dysfunctional families. Department-store shopping. Business management do's and don'ts. If you are interested in at least two of these three items, you will enjoy The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys. If all three subjects appeal to you, then you will tear through this book like a package of peanut brittle, as I did. The story is a torrent of characters and events. It gushes along a chronological aqueduct, from 1923—when the doors opened at Barneys on Seventh Avenue and 17th Street in New York City, a legendary spot that would eventually become the world's most fabulous clothing store—until 1997, when those same hallowed doors closed for good.

First, Levine introduces us to Barney Pressman, the founder of Barneys, who was a squat (5' 3"), scrappy scavenger prone to screaming tirades after which all was forgiven. In the shaky early days, Barney was known to stock inventory from the closets of wealthy men whose obituaries he read in the newspaper. At the same time, Pressman stood for "unusual integrity in a shifty business." "Sure, you sold the man a lot of goods," he told a smug salesman, "but you didn't sell him the store. You didn't make him feel that this was the only place he could get that clothing and that kind of service.... You made a sale but you didn't make a customer."

After the war, Barney Pressman's son Fred started working at the store. Fred was an aesthete; he "could feel the weight of the fabric in grams," one supplier remembers. Fred despised his father's devotion to the common man, and lusted for the upscale, uptown crowd instead. Fred created boutiques: the English Room, the Oak Room, Chelsea Passage, the International House. There were father-son clashes, but business boomed. By the late 1980s, Barneys New York posted annual sales of $95 million—an unheard-of $560-per-square-foot of retail space.

With a candid account of Fred's sons Gene and Bob, who had joined the operation in the mid-'70s, Levine's book traces the turbulence that eventually led to the retailer's demise. Gene's specialty was spending money; Bob's was concealing expenditures. Of the two, Gene was the scum ball, punctuating his insults with farts and training the staff to ignore uncool customers. However, Gene was a talented scum ball. Under his direction, Barneys initiated its famously irreverent store windows and launched its women's department. But millions were being spent—on the mosaic floors from Munich, the staircases from Paris, the bloated salaries, the absurd perks—and too fast. A bailout partnership with a Japanese company, Isetan, provided temporary cash—enough to open 25 to 30 Barneys stores across the country. During the three months before the Madison Avenue Barneys store opened in 1993, $75 million was spent—$10 million in workers' overtime pay alone.

Soon after, Barneys filed for bankruptcy. And in May 1998, creditors assumed a 93.5 percent stake in the company. Will we hear from the Pressmans again? It wouldn't surprise me. The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys proves that success is burned deep into their DNA. After all, shortly before his death in 1991 while well into his 90s, Barney Pressman still called the store from his retirement home in Florida for the numbers—collect.

Sarah Finnie Cabot

Sarah Finnie Cabot is the president of KSV Interactive, a new-media company in Burlington, Vermont. She was previously the programming director of iVillage.com and the editorial promotion manager of The Atlantic Monthly magazine. She is working on a book about maternal instinct. Cabot lives in Vermont with her husband and their four school-age children.

Benjamin Svetkey
...[N]one had more potential for poetic justice and delicious comeuppance than that of the arrogant bozos in this little book. Certainly none were better dressed....Levine...delivers all the facts and figures....[W]ould make a magnificent HBO movie — a sort of Barbarians at the Gate outfitted in Armani.
Entertainment Weekly
Francine Prose
Reading The Rise and Fall of Barneys means wading through the details of the bad business decisions that brought the Pressmans low; some people love this sort of thing, which I find about as exciting as watching a stranger balance his checkbook.
New York Observer
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The once glittering image of Barneys takes a further drubbing in this dishy, highly entertaining history of the Pressman family store that got too big for its very expensive britches. Levine, a senior editor at Forbes, meticulously lays out the financial goods on the famed clothing store, which began in 1923 as a Chelsea storefront selling secondhand men's suits and, before filing for bankruptcy in 1996, set the standard for upscale retailing. The nuts-and-bolts business details are interesting in themselves: patriarch Barney Pressman started the business with $500 he got from hocking an engagement ring, and the empire ended with his grandson Bob's byzantine accounting manipulations masking $550 million in debt. On the human level, Levine makes clear how the flamboyant, warring personalities in the family (boisterous, stuttering Barney; cool and savvy son, Fred; and the wild boys of the third generation, brothers Gene and Bob) figured in the store's 70-year arc from rags up to the height of fashion and finally back down to financial tatters. The end of this archetypal story of family, money and betrayal was played out as a dynastic high drama that some have called the "Yiddish Theater Euripides." Levine lavishes his most loving attention on Barney Pressman, a blustery and wily self-promoter who reveled in billing himself as "the cut-rate clothing king." He shows no mercy toward Gene and Bob, who not only lost the family store but also, according to Levine, were more concerned with putting money into their pockets than into their business. With a sure command of both numbers and narrative, Levine fits his prose to his subject matter in fine, high style.
Library Journal
Forbes editor Levine chronicles the fortunes of Barneys, a firm built on the hard work of two generations and destroyed by the third. (Barneys filed for Chapter 11 in 1996 and emerged from bankruptcy just this February, having been bought by two companies, Whipoorwill Associates and Bay Harbor Management.) Barney Pressman began by selling used clothing and opened a store in Manhattan's Chelsea area in 1923. Barneys became noted for its ability to fit anyone. Barney's son, Fred, proved to have a talent for the business as well. Wives and children were all involved, and just about every new venture turned to gold. The third generation, Bob and Gene, expanded Barneys to other cities and built a second New York City store they felt would rival any in the world. No expense was spared in any of these ventures, which was perhaps the problem. Levine does a fine job of chronicling the business's rise and paints an informative picture of the industry over three generations. Recommended for public and university libraries and company libraries in the retail area. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/98.]--Littleton M. Maxwell, Business Information Ctr., Univ. of Richmond, VA
Benjamin Svetkey
...[N]one had more potential for poetic justice and delicious comeuppance than that of the arrogant bozos in this little book. Certainly none were better dressed....Levine...delivers all the facts and figures....[W]ould make a magnificent HBO movie — a sort of Barbarians at the Gate outfitted in Armani.
Entertainment Weekly
Jennifer Steinhauer
The book is at its best when it captures some of [the] excess....Confirm all your deeply held suspicions about the markup on the clothes and the disdain the help has often shown for its customers....So there are fewer Barneys stores now than there were a few years ago....This is not the stuff of tragedy. It's really just business.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
To New Yorkers, this is a local story, focused on one of the largest retail clothing stores in Manhattan. To most of the rest of the country, however, Barneys may be an unfamiliar name and the draw for this title may come mostly as a morality tale of abused family fortunes. Three generations of the Pressman family star in this business chronology. Barney Pressman, the founder, began peddling secondhand suits in 1923 in a 500-square-foot storefront, the startup money raised by pawning his wife's wedding ring. Hard work and a talent for sales propelled his modest venture into a thriving retail enterprise by the time Barney's son Fred joined the business in 1947, fresh out of Harvard law school. Fred Pressman learned the basics of menswear manufacturing and retailing while on the job, but diverged from his father's path to establish novel methods of marketing and merchandising. Barneys became a mecca for quality, selection, and price, usually trumping all other menswear outlets in the city. On Fred's heels came the third generation, two sons raised in an upper-income environment and lured into the family business by the sharing of its wealth and power. In the 1980s and early 1990s, they took over the business and pushed it to an even higher level of sophistication. But in a very few years, all of this history came unglued as their talents were outrun by their rush to expand and their inability to manage their own affairs. Barneys was forced into bankruptcy in 1996, "done in by debt and disorder." No complex business studies are needed to make sense of this disaster; the deeds of the grandsons speak for themselves. The author, a senior editor at Forbes, did not have the cooperation ofthe Pressman family, perhaps limiting his scope but not diminishing the impact of the mess they left behind.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780688155025
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/28/1999
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.67 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Read an Excerpt

The escalators were screaming that night in 1993 when the Pressmans unveiled their spectacular new store at 660 Madison Avenue. For three years, the Pressman family, which owned Barneys New York, had spent $267 million to make this the most beautiful store in the world. Now the international haut monde had come to gawk at what someone else's money had bought: real goatskin and platinum leaf on the walls (silver leaf tarnishes); mother-of-pearl shelves and silk dressing-room curtains; exotic woods like bleached bubinga for the perfume counter, English sycamore for hosiery; and in the center of the main floor, an intricate mosaic of Carrara marble that was hand-assembled chip by chip. This floor alone cost $600,000 — about $100 a square foot. That's roughly what a modest store might pay for a thorough, floor-to-ceiling overhaul.

But as guests like Edgar Bronfman, Julia Child, Calvin Klein, and a potpourri of drag queens took in all this splendor, they couldn't help hearing the weird shrieks and agonized moans that kept intruding on the festivities. It was the twenty-three brand-new escalators, which were loudly proclaiming, Dorian Gray-like, the rot just underneath the facade. (Newly installed escalators must be run for about two weeks to stretch out their belts and work out the kinks. Barneys never had the chance to do this, because the breathless pace of construction continued until just seconds before the guests walked through the door. The Pressmans had already postponed the opening date as the helter-skelter construction fell further and further behind schedule.)

The opening simply could not be pushed past September 8, and so the Pressmans threw money at the problem ina headlong dash to finish in time: In the final three months before the opening, Barneys spent $75 million on construction, a record for the construction company, Lehrer McGovern Bovis, that will likely stand for a long, long time. Of that, $10 million alone went for overtime labor as three shifts worked round the clock. Two workmen died on the project under mysterious circumstances — one fell down an empty elevator shaft. And even then, a long list of unfinished tasks were simply camouflaged as artfully as possible so the party could proceed.

But there was nothing to be done about the hysterical escalators. As the guests traveled from floor to floor, nibbling $250,000 worth of canapes, the escalators kept up a wordless commentary on Barneys' dire financial condition — a condition that resulted, in some small part, from the Pressmans' insistence on using real goatskin instead of faux goatskin. A repairman at the party scurried from escalator to escalator, trying vainly to suppress the noise.

What would Barney Pressman, who had died two years before at the age of ninety-six, have thought? "At the end of the day, he'd call in for the numbers," opined Barney's youngest granddaughter, Nancy. He would not have been pleased.

It is good for a man to know who he is, and Barney Pressman certainly knew who he was: He was a clothing man — maybe the clothing man of his day. The store he founded grew to the point where it sold more clothing than any other store in the world. Clothing, in the clothing business, means, simply, men's sport jackets, suits, and overcoats. Shirts, sweaters, socks, these aren't considered clothing — the clothing men pronounced the word all woolly and thick with reverence at the back of the throat, giving it a tone of reverence. "Oh, Shapiro — he's a good clothing man," you would hear one of them say of his colleague, and you would know that no superlatives were needed.

Barneys at its peak sold close to 80,000 suits a year — a number that swelled the pride of all the clothing men who ever worked there. What cattle are to the Masai, suits were to the clothing men. There was a TV commercial for Barneys in the early '60s that featured a cleaning lady dusting the empty Barneys store. Suddenly, she starts counting the suits — 15,423, 15,424. She's approaching 30,000 and still counting when the commercial ends. Nothing more needed to be said:To stock that many suits was simply unheard of.

This is the story of the clothing business that Barney built and his grandsons lost.

His family was as much a part of Barney Pressman's dream as was the store. Family and business went hand in hand, as they did for so many of the first-generation entrepreneurs who sprang up in the early part of the century. In Europe, the same vision has made for some very sturdy dynasties. Whatever demons might haunt the sons and grandsons of oversized patriarchs, the dynasties themselves often live a life apart. They do not corrode simply by existing.

In America, this is rarely true. Peace of mind and self-respect often prove harder to come by within the narrow walls of the family business, and so the sons dare too much, and their sons dare still more — if they even have the heart to continue to run, and not sell, the business, that is. "Although Martin Dressier was a shopkeeper's son," wrote Steven Millhauser a few years ago in his story of a Jewish hotelier much like Barney Pressman, "he too dreamed his dream, and at last he was lucky enough to do what few people even dare to imagine: He satisfied his heart's desire. But this is a perilous privilege, which the gods watch jealously, waiting for the flaw, the little flaw, that brings everything to ruin in the end."

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