New York is a city of institutions—the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Stock Exchange, City Hall, and even Columbia. But on the corner of 58th and Fifth Avenue, a pair of matching buildings dominates the city’s most exclusive shopping district: the flagship Bergdorf Goodman and her brother men’s store.
Like the artistic and governmental counterparts, Bergdorf Goodman is a landmark in its own right. Though no diplomatic treaties were signed there, it was where First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was fitted for her Inaugural Ball gown and where Princess Grace Kelly ordered her wedding invitations. And even though no Picassos or Renoirs hang on its walls, Bergdorf houses artwork of a different nature: great pieces by innovators like Halston, Chanel, and Christian Louboutin.
This year, Bergdorf celebrates its 111th birthday, releasing a book, a documentary, and a limited edition clothing and accessories collection. Though there is no doubt of its
historical and cultural importance, Bergdorf, like all department stores nationwide, is facing unprecedented challenges. With the emergence of e-commerce powerhouses like Gilt Groupe and Net-A-Porter, the old modes of shopping are coming into question, making consumers ask, “Do I need Fifth Avenue?”
LAST OF ITS KIND
Thirty short years ago, Fifth Avenue had a different face. Ever heard of Bonwit Teller? It doesn't exist anymore. But together with Bergdorf Goodman, Saks, and Bloomingdale’s it once formed the elite department stores of the Upper East Side.
For Bergdorf Goodman, the early ’70s were a completely different time.
As Ira Neimark, former chairman and CEO (and former adjunct professor at the Columbia Business School), noted in his book “The Rise of Fashion,” Bergdorf was in a rut, fighting against its competitors to stay relevant. “Most of the important designer fashion collections were carried in all the major New York stores, from Barneys downtown to Bloomingdale’s uptown,” he wrote. “All except Bergdorf Goodman.”
Neimark, who came to Bergdorf as CEO in the mid ’70s, changed that, attracting and seeking out fresh talent that brought Bergdorf to the top of the department store chain. Under his 16-year-long tenure, Neimark and his team discovered some of the biggest names in American fashion, introducing designers like Donna Karan and Calvin Klein, while importing foreign couturiers like Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino to an American audience.
“You wouldn’t find Bergdorf Goodman in a hokey place—because that customer wouldn’t understand it,” said Robin Sackin, chair of the fashion marketing management department at the Fashion Institute for Technology and self-described Bergdorf admirer.
The Bergdorf Goodman merchandising model is simple: “Every important designer would have his or her own important shop, designed by the designer, at a prime location in the store,” Neimark said.
It’s still the model you see today in the store. Walking around Bergdorf Goodman is akin to navigating a never-ending—but beautiful—maze. In the first of its seven floors, you’ll pass by the stark black-and-white of the Chanel boutique, next to the open, airy feel of the jewelry displays.
“One word I would used to describe it is elegance,” she added. “Bloomingdale’s is a busy store. You go to Bergdorf Goodman, and it’s calming.”
Even with the anniversary collection in the store, Bergdorf has not compromised its boutique, designer-oriented setup. There isn’t a section to sell the special designs—you have to go out and look for them.
“It’s crazy the way that it’s merchandised—so beautiful and so different,” Sackin said. “I go there to get inspiration, whether I’m teaching a class or freelancing.” In fact, Sackin said, she went to Bergdorf when she was looking for a wedding gown for ideas—only to frighten her mother with the price tags.
A HISTORY OF FASHION
The thing is, a store like Bergdorf Goodman is geared to be just as much about the experience as the actual products.
In the store, you’ll find a wedding registry, a whimsical restaurant with stellar views of Central Park, and the John Barrett Salon, the legendary hair salon that inspired
“Bergdorf Blondes.” In one of the satirical cartoons in the current anniversary window display, a woman says to her friend, “When you said you wanted to come to Bergdorf Goodman, I had no idea you intended to buy something.”
You don’t go to Bergdorf just for the clothes. You go to be a part of the lifestyle it represents.
“You go in and basically you can spend the day. You can get a massage, a facial, a pedicure—whatever—and then you get your lunch and begin to shop,” Sackin said.
“You’re not going to get that online.”
In “Scatter My Ashes At Bergdorf Goodman,” the book released for the anniversary, Author Sara Mnookin attempts to capture that side of Bergdorf, compiling the experiences and stories of celebrities, writers, and designers. Mnookin, who also serves as the fashion news editor for Men’s Vogue and media editor of Women’s Wear Daily, said she was drawn to the project because of the personable, intimate nature of Bergdorf.
“I was immediately intrigued. It just seemed like an institution that would have many stories to tell, from the fabulous customers who shop there, to all the people working behind the scenes—the sales clerks, fitters, buyers, window dressers, even the white gloved doorman,” she said. “My instinct was we would turn up great stories, no matter who we talked to, and as soon as we began the interviews, that proved true.”
The book proves a meta-history of the city, firmly planting the store alongside the cultural and political movers and shakers of the past century through anecdote.
Mnookin has her favorites. She said that Michael Kors (another Bergdorf protégé) told her about having a conversation with Nena Goodman, wife of former owner Andrew Goodman, when they lived in an apartment above the store. According to Mnookin, Kors said she was “strolling through the store in her loungewear, smoking a cigarette, while she asked if he made any caftans.”
Even Mnookin has her own memories of the store, but is careful to add, “My BG stories are not unique, but they are nonetheless precious to me.”
It was at Bergdorf where she bought the outfit she wore to meet Anna Wintour, the formidable editor of American Vogue.
“There is something wonderfully old-fashioned about Bergdorf. It really is the last of its kind,” Mnookin said. “Shopping there feels like taking part in tradition.”
THE NEW GUARD
But Mnookin also recognized one undeniable fact of the fashion industry in the 21st century. “Department stores used to be the only gateway to high fashion in this country. Now … consumers can go right to the source,” she said.
At no company is this more exemplified than the Gilt Groupe. While stores like Bergdorf are only recently beginning to become major players in the e-commerce game, Gilt is arguably one of the digital all-stars.
Founded in the spring 2007, Gilt was the brainchild of a team of former technology, e-commerce and marketing executives. As almost anyone in this country could tell you, 2007 was not the greatest time to get into the luxury business industry. But the Gilt team did something that no one had done before: They brought together high-profile, luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Hermès under the same roof online—and they did it with a 60 percent markdown.
Running under a “flash sale” model, Gilt sells designer pieces online at discounts for limited periods of time. While Bergdorf taps into the leisure of shopping, Gilt indulges the sport of shopping.
“They enjoy the thrill,” Carolan said. “It [the sale] is the lunch break frenzy, and people are so excited to see what the discount is.”
Doesn’t sound much like Bergdorf, does it? But as Gilt expands its offerings beyond womenswear, selling everything from children’s clothes, to home décor, to food and even vacation deals, it is in a sense the department store of our generation. As Gilt spokesperson Megan Carolan put it, “We’re looking at our customer and looking at their life and seeing what they need and want … We’ve done the homework. It’s all there for you.”
Like Bergdorf, Gilt takes care with its appearance—but instead of window dressing, it’s web design.
In their book, “By Invitation Only,” founders Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson described their site as the “anti-Amazon,” saying, “The site’s visuals … were everything we’d hoped for: elegant, sophisticated, discreet, inviting, magazine-like. We’d never seen anything like it—which was the point.”
Gilt prides itself on its “curation”—it has a full editorial staff who, like editors on a fashion magazine, shoot and describe the clothes to give their customers an escape from the daily grind.
“We wanted her to be inspired by a look she saw onscreen, see herself wearing the look to an event, and get swept up by a desire to purchase it,” Maybank and Wilkis Wilson wrote.
While it may not be a celebrity encounter, Gilt does more than the average site to reach the customer on a personal level. A newer feature, Gilt Live, allows shoppers to see a real-time feed of what other customers are purchasing, as if you were at a department store.
“We’re definitely present in this new fashion conversation,” Carolan said. “We’re very particular not just that they like what they see on the site, but that they’re going to love when they get it at home.”
FINDING MIDDLE GROUND
Is it possible that even with 111 years of history and continued commercial viability, Bergdorf is falling behind?
Possibly. But it is also possible that the notion of it becoming antiquated misinterprets Bergdorf’s identity.
Mnookin found herself falling into that very trap. “I realized I had come into this project with a somewhat static and outdated idea of who the Bergdorf customer was,” she said. “Even the mature, Chanel jacket-wearing shopper who’s a lifelong Upper East Sider: When you get to know her, she turns out to be a helicopter pilot and entrepreneur. The store just attracts vibrant women, of any age.”
In his book, Neimark references a quote from New York Times tech columnist David Pogue: “Television was supposed to kill radio. DVDs were supposed to kill going to the theater. None of that ever happened. They coexist. Things just splinter.”
Gilt, Bergdorf, and their counterparts are reforming their niche in the fashion sphere and seeing how they can adapt together.
“It’s going to be a constant of the stores looking at online, and online looking at stores,” Sackin said.
Maybe the savvy consumer should just accept both. If you find yourself in a lazy funk, maybe it’s the weekend to sit on your computer and indulge your fashion cravings on Gilt. But if you’re out and about and find yourself on the Upper East, head to Bergdorf—if only for the windows.
Bergdorf Goodman is located between 58th and 59th street at Fifth Avenue. Their exclusive, limited edition anniversary collection and “Scatter My Ashes” are on sale now at Bergdorf Goodman. Visit Gilt.com to sign up and check out the sales.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included I. Magnin as a Fifth Avenue department store. Though I. Magnin was run by the previous president of Saks Fifth Avenue, the American chain never expanded to the East coast. Spectator regrets the error.