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Questrom Authority

Can master retailer Allen Questrom discipline Barneys, a store known best for its ultrahip excesses, while competing in the boutique world the fashion-forward emporium invented?

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When the Barneys flagship on Madison Avenue was built in the early nineties, the eighth floor was earmarked for Gene Pressman's exclusive health club -- a place where Barney Pressman's high-flying grandson could perfect his much-admired abs and the store's most elite clientele could find well-appointed refuge. But as the Pressman era at Barneys recedes into a cautionary tale, this week the vacant top floor finally goes into service in a more populist cause: as the site of an ambitious $3.5 million expansion of the Co-op, the store's seventh-floor mecca for young designers -- and equally young customers -- and the first major initiative of Barneys' new CEO, Allen Questrom.

Simon Doonan, the store's in-house stylist-provocateur and its creative director, is fiddling with one of the Co-op's dressing rooms: a sheet of Plexiglas that holds row upon row of multicolored Tic Tacs. "We want to be kitschy and hip, but nothing too forced. None of that anal-retentive hip. We want theater and humor and a little bit of trouvé."

Doonan regularly peppers his utopian fantasies with French mots as he explains the inspiration for the whimsy and drama that has made Barneys, well, Barneys. For the Co-op, the "found object" was an airbrush poster of a budgie that Doonan discovered in a Long Island souvenir shop, which prompted him to hang vintage birdcages inhabited by live parakeets along the stainless-steel stairwell connecting the seventh floor to the eighth.

His other muse for the Co-op project is the 1954 Rock Hudson film Magnificent Obsession, set in a glowing, full-Technicolor hospital. "We'll have blue walls and rubber plants and surgical lamps. It will be a chic-looking clinic. But we won't upset the customers."

Customers are, of course, top priority for Questrom, as the veteran luxury-retail executive moves to transform Barneys from bankrupt glamour palace to profit-making institution. And the Co-op, the once-quirky lab for unknown designers, has evolved into an exploding junior-miss style market, where sales are growing at twice the rate of the rest of the store's -- accounting for nearly a quarter of revenues in the women's department.

Doonan sketches a pyramid to illustrate the breakdown of the store's sales, pointing to a wide middle section where the Co-op is grabbing the lion's share of shopper dollars. "And here's the bottom line." He draws two perpendicular lines at the bottom of the triangle, and then appears perplexed by his own picture. He shrieks, "My God! I've just drawn a Noguchi lamp."

Perhaps it is best that Doonan leave the business plan to his new boss. "Allen Questrom," Doonan intones with something between reverence and relief. "There are not too many fabulous people in retail. We are lucky that we got one."

"We would be seated at the Thierry Mugler show," recalls former Neiman Marcus VP Ron Frasch, "and he would be quizzing us on how many pieces we sold in Fort Worth."

He may not know just how lucky. Allen Questrom was two years into his fourth retirement when he was approached by Barneys last spring. Tom C. Shull, an interim CEO, had spent a year dousing stores and cutting debt. In January, he'd finally pulled the troubled fashion empire out of bankruptcy. With Barneys emerging from the transition period in a healthier state, the company's two major holders, Whippoorwill Associates and Bay Harbour Management, went looking for a new leader.

"I was on the company board at the time," Questrom says with characteristic matter-of-factness, "and everyone agreed it was in the best interest for me to take over. So I decided to see if I could help them out."

In fact, it had taken a few months of nudging to persuade the much decorated CEO to reenter the fray. Questrom had been busy skiing and biking his way around the world since he completed the spectacular turnaround of the Federated Department Stores chain in 1997. He had logged 200 days on the slopes during one recent global hop, cutting the trip short only reluctantly, because his wife, Kelli, missed their two Labradors.


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