Freedman is also overseeing the store’s renovation: Where Doonan once decorated the dressing rooms of the Co-Op with a multicolored arrangement of Tic Tacs, Freedman is streamlining everything with high-end finishes and mega-technology. Even his stunts are sleeker, the sort of elaborate projects that might have once appeared in the pages of W.
His very first window installation, this spring, starred Daphne Guinness. The heiress-muse got dressed for the Met’s Costume Institute ball in one of the Madison Avenue windows, vamping and mooning her way into a pale-gray ostrich-and-duck-feather gown by Alexander McQueen. Freedman has already begun to work on Christmas: Gaga’s workshop is the plan, and the Lady herself will function as an alt-world Santa Claus, enlisting God-knows-what to serve as her elves and then selling for-Barneys-only merchandise that she designs in collaboration with Nicola Formichetti in a GagaZone on the fifth floor. It’s not going to be as edgy as some of Gaga’s videos, and some of the proceeds will go to charity. “Simon explained something to me,” Lee says, “and that’s that if your fall windows are Antonioni, your Christmas windows need to be Billy Wilder.”
A brief history of the store goes like this: First, Barney Pressman hocked his wife’s engagement ring for $500 to get things off the ground. In the beginning, Barney’s (throughout its history the store has often used the apostrophe) business was discounted men’s suits, and Barney himself didn’t care much about the aesthetic environs in which he sold them. But he had a knack for advertising (“No Bunk, No Junk, No Imitations”) and hype: He once sent comely ladies out in barrels to entice customers on the street. Then Barney’s son Fred began to get involved. Fred shared his father’s knack for publicity and customer service (free parking for all those customers from Great Neck and Darien who came to shop at Barneys on 17th Street and Seventh Avenue) but also had an eye for European fashion and high design. Slowly, Fred began to transform the brand into something more glamorous: In the seventies, he introduced designers like Armani to New York. He began to carry women’s merchandise, and to offer Perrier in the canteen. Then Fred’s son Gene got involved, too, and Barneys went even higher-end, with women’s merchandise overtaking men’s and plenty of floor space devoted to the Japanese avant-garde. There was an early AIDS fundraiser, in 1986, at which Madonna worked the runway in a denim jacket. It was the ultimate merger of uptown and down, and exactly where fashion wanted to be at just that moment.
The members of Barneys’ current team are all veterans of this moment: Doonan remembers seeing Andy Warhol and Jack Nicholson shopping together for socks. Lee remembers blowing a good part of his student-loan check on a purple-and-red Norma Kamali sleeping-bag coat.
In the late eighties, Barneys began opening stores around the country, exporting New York taste to the provinces. Sometimes, as in the case of Beverly Hills, this worked. Other times, less so. Trouble in Dallas occurred, for example, when the beauty salon refused to accommodate requests for big hair.
Back in New York, the new flagship, on Madison Avenue, opened in 1993. It was the largest specialty store to open in the city since 1929. Barneys had made the final transition to luxury, though it would seek bankruptcy protection three years later.
One night in July, the ground floor of that store was partially closed off for construction, but bits of the new Barneys had begun to appear. Gone was the glittering mosaic floor, replaced by slabs of cool gray stone. The place was already a more hard-core version of itself: luxury incarnate. A maze of temporary Sheetrock led to the elevators, and whoosh! Up on the fifth floor, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen were hosting a launch party for their new handbag collection. Their label, the Row, makes clothing that is simple in shape and luxurious in quality and that, in spirit, calls to mind the work that Calvin Klein did at the height of his reign. It is very, very expensive (the handbags range from $2,350 to $39,000), and it has one of the highest sell-through rates in the store. It is, as Daniella Vitale says, “very Barneys,” in that it is “more understated than overstated. More minimal than maximal.” None of Barneys’ direct competitors carry the line.
Vitale is all polish in a miniskirt, heels, and a tuxedo jacket by the Row. Lee and Freedman are in dark, elegant suits. All of them move through the room purposefully, with confidence. Mary-Kate Olsen appears in a robin’s-egg-blue jacket-dress. “We bought that in the blouse version,” Amanda Brooks assures Lee, before he’s even asked. Lee nods. And then he notices Elizabeth Olsen, the twins’ younger sister and this year’s Sundance breakout starlet. “Fendi heels,” he says approvingly. “Fourth floor.”