The sale of Barneys, the luxury department store that most people could never afford, was finalized in U.S. bankruptcy court on Friday, a move that will likely result in the closure of its stores and a fire sale that some retail experts predict could trigger pandemonium in the high-end fashion market.
Authentic Brands Group, a licensing company that controls Juicy Couture and Nautica and other fashion lines, won ownership of Barneys with a $271 million bid after the retailer filed for chapter 11 protection in August. Despite hopes that a competing bidder would emerge at the 11th hour to save the iconic retailer, the most interested suitor, Sam Ben-Avraham, a co-founder of the streetwear brand Kith, announced that he had dropped out.
Vanessa Friedman, the chief fashion critic for the New York Times, tweeted the news this morning:
Around noon, Barneys posted a photo on its Instagram account of its black shopping bag and a message that said "Sincerely, Barneys New York." It was later taken down and replaced with an image that reads "Barneys New York Forever."
As part of his bid attempt, Ben-Avraham had launched a campaign called Save Barneys NY. The city, he said, was "at risk of losing a cultural institution that has been an anchor point for the city for almost a century."
On Friday morning, the New York Post reported that Barneys CEO Daniella Vitale stepped down in the wake of the finalized sale.
According to both the Times and the Wall Street Journal, the company plans to hold liquidation sales of its merchandise. The WSJ cited a source who said sales could begin as early as Friday. However, as of Friday afternoon, there were no indications of sales. A Barneys employee told Gothamist that the staff doesn't know any details, but they should learn more information by Monday.
Authentic Brands is reportedly planning to license the Barneys name to Saks Fifth Avenue, which may then create Barneys departments or shops within its stores.
Barneys currently has seven stores across in the country, and an estimated 2,000 employees. It currently has two New York City locations, one in Chelsea and its Madison Avenue flagship.
"I think it's a loss to the city. It's an institution," said James Byrne, 61, a longtime shopper who was browsing at Madison Avenue store on Friday. "It's gone through all these iterations through the years."
Barneys' struggles reflect those of the broader high-end fashion industry, which has battled rising rents and seen customer traffic diminish as a result e-commerce. (Although in a surprising move that suggests a doubling-down on New York City's market, the retailer Nordstrom last week opened up a 320,000-square-foot space flagship on 57th Street and Broadway.)
Byrne observed, "While Nordstrom is a great department store, Barneys is like the hometown brand."
Arleen, 69, said she had been shopping at the store since it first opened. "I'm shocked and somewhat hysterical," she said. "It's my favorite store. It's edgy. No other store has this focus."
A decision to sell out its inventory weeks before Black Friday could have far-reaching repercussions on the luxury fashion market as a whole.
“It will affect everyone, even online; Net-a-Porter, Saks, Neiman Marcus,” Robert Burke, founder of a luxury consultancy and former fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, told the Times. “It’s potential retail mayhem. The only other time we have seen a major liquidation outside of the regular sale season was after 9/11, when no one was shopping and people panicked. It was really a disaster, because the customer never really forgets. And trying to retrain them can take years.”
Founded in 1923 as a men’s discount clothier on Seventh Avenue and 17th Street by Barney Pressman, the so-called “Cut-Rate King,” Barneys over the years evolved into an upscale emporium that sold designers like Giorgio Armani and Comme des Garçons before they were available anywhere else. “It was the place to be,” Cathy Paul, a Barneys employee in the early ’80s, told New York Magazine. “People wanted to be in there—the designers and the creative people.”
Designers loved the store, crediting it with launching their careers.
Its famed windows were considered works of sartorial art that often weaved in witty cultural commentary. In September, the store embraced its misfortunes with dark humor, unveiling a window campaign at the Madison store that included black and white signs reading, “BARNEYS TIL I DIE,” “NOT CLOSED,” and “THE EMPEROR HAS CLOTHES.”
Over the years, famous Barneys shoppers have included such celebrities as Andy Warhol, Madonna, and Sarah Jessica Parker, whose fashion-addict character on HBO television series Sex in the City was effectively an ambassador for the brand.
Parker herself was once quoted as telling Vanity Fair, "If you are a good person and you work hard, you get to go shopping at Barneys. It's the decadent reward."
The line now appears on the company's website.
On Friday, a shopper named Mikey recalled years ago having a personal shopper at Barneys assemble an outfit for her that began with a white T-shirt. She said she gasped when she saw the price. However, he then paired it with a skirt that was on sale for $99.
"I loved that it made no difference whether they were selling something very expensive or something on sale," she said. "It was really about the look. That's the whole essence of the place. It was about being creative."
A Barneys spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
UPDATE: The story has been updated with a new Instagram post by Barneys.