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 1923when 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 storeuntil 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 millionan 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 spenton the mosaic floors from Munich, the staircases from Paris, the bloated salaries, the absurd perksand too fast. A bailout partnership with a Japanese company, Isetan, provided temporary cashenough 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 numberscollect.
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.