A Window to the Past: Barneys in Chelsea

Recently, a client visited me from Asia – he really understands luxury brands and is an outstanding retailer. We got to talking about where he goes to look at stores and windows to see who is inspirational in the world of retailing. He told me that for many years, he always went to New York, especially to look at windows, and he always came away inspired and ready to impart great knowledge and ideas to his teams. Not anymore – he believes that the USA and European retailers now come to Asia for inspiration.

This week I had the chance to admire New York’s infamous window displays, especially on Monday when Barneys opened their new 58,000 square-foot flagship store at the corner of 7th Avenue and 16th Street, right where it all began.There are many empty shops all over NYC and famous landmarks have closed, including FAO Schwartz and the huge Toys R Us on Times Square, so why, one wonders, have they opened another store?

There is something quite nostalgic, though, about the new Barneys store as it is at the very same spot that the retailer first launched in 1923. The store closed in 1997 after a new flagship was opened on the more chic Madison Avenue in 1993. Today, that location looked a little dated, even though the windows were the same celebrating the city and people of New York commisioned by artist, Bruce Weber, who spent several months shooting people and places around the city. The feature of the old store was the spiral stair case designed by Andree Putnam – now next door in the fabulous Rubin Museum. The new store is smaller than its predecessor, and has been designed in homage to the original one – with a spiral staircase.


The store is more like a specialty store than a department store, is very bright and white, and is an edited version of Madison Avenue with specially made pieces from designers exclusively available in the store. There were many who had clearly come to view it and the staff were all very friendly, and the company has made its entrance into the 21st century by equipping all associates with iPads loaded with individual customer shopping habits. The store seems paired down and minimal, and if I compare it to Selfridges – much bigger – or to Colette and Dover Street Market– both much smaller, I did wonder where the retailing theatre was. The restaurant on the 3rd floor has not opened yet but no doubt it will be a big draw card – especially as the Google and Twitter offices are nearby.

These days, just like in London, you have to dig deeper and harder into archives, subcultures, and obscure places to find traces of the characterful New York that progress and bank branches have left behind. How novel, then, to see the city get something new from a smart retailer that decided to reconnect with its past. Lets see how the new Dover Street Market compares when it opens next month – leaving Dover Street and going to new territory in Haymarket.

The luxury sector has experienced its quickest growth in the ecommerce sector, and many brands such as Burberry and Sotheby’s have been lauded for their strong digital presence. But we must also not forget that a brand can modernise its physical presence without losing sight of a strong heritage and luxury tradition. In the words of CEO Mark Lee, the new flagship is “a modern Barneys for a modern downtown New York” – and it is certainly a brilliant update on an equally brilliant original.

Which heritage brand do you think will be next to return to its original site? Let me know at moira@thembsgroup.co.uk, and have a great weekend.