The first thing Lee wanted to do was change the store’s awnings. For years, they had been cherry red, a nice contrast to the limestone of the store’s façade. (An idea Fred lifted from Paris’s Hotel Plaza Athénée.) But “when I close my eyes and think Barneys, the first thing I picture is that black bag,” Lee says. He means the shopping bag, with its elegant, well-spaced font. Black awnings went up in February. The image they presented to the passing throngs was maybe a little less friendly than the red; certainly the effect was sleeker. They meant business, those awnings. Fashion business.
But Lee’s primary mission was installing a new team.
Barneys has always organized its executives in a manner similar to that of the masthead of a fashion magazine, as a collection of characters whose judgments you’d trust. Part of the Barneys magic was that these people never seemed terribly concerned with the selling of things; the bottom line was almost beside the point. “Genereally loved the idea of creating a Bauhaus,” says Doonan. “He wanted to have lots of people working for him who were creative in their field; he was really excited by this idea of a group of creative people, the dramatis personae of this production called Barneys. Except that he sometimes got confused and called us his Bathhouse. But it didn’t matter. We knew what he meant.”
Lee kept a number of key people, like Doonan, who became creative-ambassador-at-large, and Tom Kalenderian, who has been with Barneys for 32 years and now oversees men’s and home. He also left many of the store’s business executives in place. But some of its most visible characters were out.
One was Julie Gilhart, who had been the women’s fashion director for eighteen years. Gilhart was known for unearthing young talent—she famously discovered Proenza Schouler—and, more recently, for her interest in ecofashion. Exiting Barneys, Gilhart left town and promptly burned 25 years’ worth of her diaries in a Hawaiian honomopopo ceremony on a Mexican beach.
Next to go was head merchant Judy Collinson, who was known for wearing ankle socks, cardigans, and cat’s-eye glasses and generally looking a great deal like a librarian from a Maira Kalman print: quirky but sensible. Collinson had always maintained a dignified silence, scribbling away in the front row at fashion shows and staying out of the press.
Lee made his choices quickly: He went immediately to Daniella Vitale, the former president of Gucci America, to take over the position of head merchant for women’s fashion. Vitale has long legs and long hair and a manner that is simultaneously relaxed and intense. “Mark and I have known each other for twenty years, and we have always been very aligned,” Vitale says one summer afternoon. She occupies a corner office at Barneys corporate HQ and is wearing, today, an immaculately pressed white cotton shirtdress, bare legs, and sandals with a high wooden wedge for a heel. “Barneys has to stand for something; it has to feel different,” she says. “This is shopping as a cultural event.”
Vitale accepted the job in late November—prime Barneys selling season—and began spending her weekends in the store watching people shop. “I kept seeing the same people in the store over several hours. They’d come in for lunch at Fred’s, and then I’d see them in shoes, and then wandering around in men’s. People were coming to the store as a destination. Couples were coming together, and families. They were coming in to have an experience.” As the holiday season gave way to January, Vitale noticed that the clientele became more international: tourists who seemed to treat the store as a landmark worth seeing, like MoMA.
For all the time she spent inside the store, Vitale’s top priority quickly became sorting out the Barneys website. Her goal was to get the online merchandise to match that of the Madison Avenue store. Earlier iterations of the website had been strong on accessories (shoes, jewelry, and bags) but weaker when it came to ready-to-wear. Vitale persuaded vendors like Marni, Balenciaga, and Ralph Lauren to sell online (she’s still working on Alaïa) and saw an 80 percent increase in web sales. “There’s always been this idea that online is not a luxury experience, but this summer we sold a $25,000 piece of jewelry online.” Vitale smiles. “That,” she says, “is a luxury experience.”
But Vitale was also thinking about those customers wandering the floors of Barneys for hours. She added a component called “The Window” to the site. It’s a blog, a space where you can learn that Barneys head of marketing and communications Charlotte Blechman brings Astier de Villatte candles (available in the ninth-floor Chelsea Passage) as house gifts, and that the store’s new creative director, Dennis Freedman, wants to teach his dog to back-flip off the diving board before summer’s out. It’s retailer as tastemaker, as incredibly chic friend lending advice on how to live.