This business about American lives having no second acts couldn’t be further from the truth: Americans have an endless capacity for reinvention. That’s how it was possible for a vulgar discount house owned by Barney Pressman, a guy who specialized in closeouts and wasn’t above tracking down gently used business suits from the closets of recently widowed Park Avenue doyennes, to transform itself into Barneys, a Madison Avenue emporium with a $600,000 mosaic floor, goatskin-
covered walls, and an atmosphere so chilly that New Yorkers rejoiced when the place declared bankruptcy in 1996.
Joshua Levine’s excellent new book, The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys, chronicles with lip-smacking vigor this tale of glitz and greed. Despite the strong-arm intimidation tactics of a livid Pressman family, Levine, a senior editor at Forbes magazine, managed to interview more than 100 people willing to share the lurid details. Here are stories of the Pressman siblings scooping up free merchandise and doubling their salaries just weeks before court proceedings begin; here is laid bare the dunderheadedness of
Barney’s progeny, ridiculing big hair
in an ad for their Dallas store, insisting on store facades made of expensive
(the sun bleached it white in a few months), squandering fortunes on silver-leaf elevator doors and mother-of-pearl-inlaid shelves.
The Pressman grandchildren were sure that the rest of the country wanted to follow Manhattanites into overpriced size-two black clothes while being condescended to by a snotty sales staff, and they rapidly expanded to Chicago, Cleveland, and other exotic outposts. Levine paints an enthralling portrait of just how wrong they turned out to be.
When Barney Pressman founded the original men’s store at Seventh Avenue and 17th Street in 1923, he didn’t have contempt for shoppers. He hustled his way through the rough world of New York garmentos, specializing in business suits up to a size 58. Levine describes a sales force that was anything but imperious: in fact, the staff prided itself on not letting a fish slip off the hook. If a shopper was being particularly recalcitrant, the salesman would ring a secret bell, alerting a manager to hurry over and help close the deal.
Barney’s son Fred was embarrassed by such tactics. He had a love of refinement and
elegance— it was said that he could spend hours examining a glove or a buttonhole, or arranging a shoe display on a table. It was Fred who decided that Barneys’ merchandise should be not just cheap but interesting. He may have been a bit of a dandy— albeit a rumpled one— but he wasn’t a chiseler or a cheat.
Then came the grandsons, Bob and Gene. If Bob was the nebbishy good student, Gene was the handsome bon vivant, a Studio 54 lothario with a truly stunning sense of entitlement. The boys fell in love with the idea of selling upscale women’s wear, beginning with a small department on a single floor of the old Seventh Avenue shop and eventually expanding to a six-story department store around the corner on 17th Street, a Madison Avenue show-palace, and a fantasy of world domination.
But dreams of empire, fashionable or otherwise, require old-fashioned dough, as Levine, no stranger to the world of finance, ably demonstrates. In order to spread the gospel of Prada and Chanel to the far reaches of the universe, the boys needed a deep-pocketed partner. The one they found, Kuniyasu Kosuge, scion of the family-run Isetan department store dynasty in Tokyo, was both their counterpart and their undoing.
Unfortunately for Kosuge, Bob and Gene had radically different ideas than he did about family legacies, loyalty, and honoring deals sealed with a handshake. “We fucked the Japanese!” Bob purportedly crowed after he thought he had tricked his partner in a business negotiation. Meanwhile, wild overspending had created a mountain of debt, a problem the boys sought to solve by cooking the books and simply refusing to pay an army of creditors. Subcontractors, artisans, and designers were left to twist in the wind. By the time bankruptcy proceedings began, their wrath was such that one lawyer recalls, “It was like a lynch mob. I literally had this image from the old Frankenstein movie, when the townspeople go to burn down the castle. I have rarely witnessed such enmity.”
By the close of Levine’s book, the Pressmans’ stake has been reduced to a pitiful 1.5 percent. And now what? Well, the courts have banished the Pressman lads, the store recently emerged from bankruptcy protection, and the present owners, a group that in business parlance is referred to as a vulture fund, is shopping around for a new owner. The incoming boss, whoever he or she turns out to be, may decide it’s time to reinvent the place a third time: a former Barneys executive told Women’s Wear Daily last week that the store should save itself by adding more “career casual” clothes to its relentlessly upscale inventory. The stuff may look a little out of place next to those shimmering goatskin walls, but at least the manufacturers will stand a chance of getting paid.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 23, 1999