“The digital and the physical experience need to be integrated,” Vitale says, and so a series of iPads are being installed in the store (launching on the first and eighth floors) so that salespeople and customers can use them as part of what Vitale calls the “selling ceremony.” Say you’re interested in Céline. A Barneys salesperson might well appear with an iPad loaded up with an interview with the designer, Phoebe Philo, or a street-style picture of Barneys’ new fashion director, Amanda Brooks, in a Céline dress, or just a comprehensive inventory of all the Céline clothing, shoes, and bags Barneys has to offer at that moment.
Vitale has also been tasked with lining up exclusive product for the store: L’Wren Scott handbags, for example, or women’s suiting by the designer Alexandre Plokhov, who used to design the menswear line Cloak. Barneys will become, this fall, the only store in America to carry Walter Steiger shoes (other than Walter Steiger). It will also offer an exclusive menswear collaboration with agnès b.
Hanging on the wall in Vitale’s office is a blowup of an old Barneys ad, a painting by the French artist Jean-Philippe Delhomme. In the painting, a woman models a dress for her friend. The tagline, written by Glenn O’Brien, GQ’s style-advice columnist, reads: “Nina knew David would eventually weaken.” Outside Vitale’s office is another iconic moment in Barneys advertising: Linda Evangelista modeling a hat. Next to her is future boyfriend Kyle MacLachlan wearing a lobster on his head. Part of the Barneys ethos has always been this ability to laugh at the whole thing, to allow the customer in on the joke—or at least to acknowledge that its customer is no rube. In a way, the store glamorized shopping by quasi-ironizing it. In the mid-nineties, the store’s tagline under Doonan became “taste, luxury, humor.”
“Barneys has to stand for something. It has to feel different. This is shopping as a cultural event.”
Now, however, the store will be a little less whimsical. Times, after all, have changed. “We’re still going to have humor,” Vitale says, “we’re just going to have it in a very refined way.”
Lee’s next hire was Freedman, who was the creative director at W magazine for almost twenty years, where he was devoted to the intersection of high fashion and high art, and always happy to push at the edges of things: It is Freedman who once published a photograph of Tom Ford sanding another man’s bottom. At Barneys, Freedman’s office sits one floor above Vitale’s, but where hers is all clean windows and views, Freedman’s is cavelike. He’s painted the walls a dark gray and taken efforts to dim any natural light. “I hate light,” he says cheerfully. “Hate it.” Freedman is tanned from weekends on Long Island. In the low light his teeth look almost electrically bright.
He explains that he had never really considered working in retail, but then he had an important conversation with a friend. “I was talking to [gallerist] Andrea Rosen about it, and she told me that Felix Gonzalez-Torres once said, ‘Barneys is my bodega,’ and those words just really resonated with me. This great and powerful artist said ‘Barneys is my bodega.’ What could be more inspiring than that? For me, that’s my tagline.”
Freedman goes on: “[Gonzalez-Torres] loved Barneys. He couldn’t say that about any other store. And that gives me a sense of responsibility.
“Look,” he says, “I understand that I am not doing personal work. This is commercial. But I enjoy the process of limitations. Every window is not about clothes, it’s about a way to show creativity. We’re creating an identity that is part of a whole lifestyle. I’m more interested in wit than I am in humor. Irony isn’t as important as a certain kind of honesty.” Freedman produces a stack of catalogues—his first for the store. For the women’s mailer, he asked Carine Roitfeld, the former editor of French Vogue, to create a catalogue featuring the store’s highest-end clothing. Roitfeld cast a list of 28 fashionable people, including Naomi Campbell. She also cast herself, her daughter Julia, her son Vladimir, and Giovanna Battaglia, the Italian stylist who goes out with Vladimir. The photographs are by Mario Sorrenti, and below each is a caption: “I once saw Vanessa [Traina] at a dinner in Paris with her mother Danielle Steel. She was wearing Balenciaga, and I thought, Who is that girl?” And so on.
For the men’s designer catalogue, he sent photographer Juergen Teller to traipse around East London with Andrej Pejic, a male model (see here) who has also quite convincingly modeled women’s clothes. Freedman did a second, more traditional mailer for menswear with less fashion-forward clothing on less fashion-forward men—a collection of ruggedly handsome bartenders.