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Bergdorf Goodman: The American Dream?

The 5th Avenue storefront in New York City
The 5th Avenue storefront in New York City

A New York Icon

Luxury retailer Bergdorf Goodman has been a New York icon since 1901. It is an officially designated landmark — no one, not even its owners, can alter the building’s historic Art Deco facade.

New York’s luxury department stores have a storied history. They originated in Paris and London as public sites of leisure for the upper class elite, and were brought across the Atlantic in the late 19th century.

Like coffeehouses, department stores were the place for social observation in the so-called cafe society. Printemps and the Galeries Lafayette were where flâneurs — the observers of modern urban life so central to 19th century literary culture — went to while the time away.

If the representative figure of the belle époque department store was the flâneur, its postwar representative in the cultural imaginary is none other than Audrey Hepburn. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), now recognised by the United States Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, is perhaps the most glamorous paean to retail therapy to have ever been made.

Nothing bad could possibly happen to you at Tiffany & Co. — hence the film’s title. At one point, the film’s heroine displays a rare moment of vulnerability by admitting that she sometimes experiences sudden bouts of inexplicable fear. “Do you ever get that feeling?” she asks her male companion. “Well, when I get it, the only thing that does any good is to jump in a cab and go to Tiffany’s. Calms me down right away […] Nothing very bad could happen to you there.”

Audrey Hepburn views the window display of the Tiffany & Co. store on 5th Avenue.
Audrey Hepburn views the window display of the Tiffany & Co. store on 5th Avenue. Bergdorf Goodman is located on the same street

Life’s worries quietly fade away in the dignified calm of the Tiffany’s showroom — retail providing therapy. The coolly pronounced social commentary of the flaneur era had given way to consumerist escapism.

Decades of Dominance

The success of luxury department stores like Bergdorf’s was their ability to offer customers unique products that were exceedingly difficult to find anywhere else.

In this pre-Internet era, “buyers” flew nonstop from one fashion week to the next, and one designer showcase to another, competing fiercely to secure the latest covetable European products for exclusive distribution in their stores.

Impeccably sophisticated and uncommonly cosmopolitan, some buyers, like Elizabeth van der Goltz and Susanne Tide-Frater, became style authorities in their own right.

Formidable personal shoppers also contributed to Bergdorf’s success. Betty Halbreich, for example, “the most famous personal shopper in the world” according to The Cut, had a continuous stream of celebrity clients that included Meryl Streep, Mia Farrow, Lauren Bacall, and Glenn Close.

The final touch in Bergdorf’s aura of mystique was its executives’ ability to “discover” up-and-coming designers. More than just a department store, Bergdorf’s was also a talent incubator and experimental showcase all at once. Dawn Mello, who later became Bergdorf’s President, was among the first to support Giorgio Armani, Azzedine Alaiïa, Tom Ford, and Kate Spade.

Mello was also an early supporter of womenswear designer Donna Karan, who recently recalled the moment in the early 1980s when she first saw her label in Bergdorf’s famous shop front windows: “I felt like Audrey Helpburn window gazing in Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.

Losing the Sheen

Yet, much changed over the course of the last half-century.

In the 1990s, brands began moving away from their department store middlemen and building multi-million flagship stores, finally able to sell under their own name. The sheer opulence of these “destination architecture” stores — often designed by famed maverick Peter Marino — took the sheen off historic department stores.

Left: Louis Vuitton flagship in Osaka, Japan; Right: Burberry’s London flagship store
Left: Louis Vuitton flagship in Osaka, Japan; Right: Burberry’s London flagship store

Still, the real problems started in the 2010s with e-commerce’s meteoric rise. Online channels have been brick-and-mortar’s biggest challenge yet. When investment firm Ares Management bought Bergdorf parent company Neiman Marcus in 2013, consumers spent USD 40 billion more at department stores than they did online.

But with e-commerce companies such as YOOX Net-A-Porter, Ruelala, Gilt and Moda Operandi able to deliver doorstep luxury with none of Bergdorf’s vast overheads, e-commerce sales “vaulted above” department stores’ within a mere two years following the Neiman Marcus buyout, reports the Financial Times.

Store executives’ favourite catchphrase, “omnichannel” — which refers to the ability to sell both off- and on-line — had been regularly bandied about in newspaper interviews and board meetings, but failed to materialise in reality.

For all their cultural significance, the hard reality was that luxury department stores had been struggling for a while. Yet, when Bergdorf proprietor Neiman Marcus finally succumbed to the inevitable and filed for bankruptcy in early May, the feeling of loss was palpable.

Bergdorf is “America’s favourite shopping institution”, said the Financial Times. “Can fashion lovers afford to lose Bergdorf Goodman? Can the city?” asked Vogue. What would Fifth Avenue look like without Bergdorf indeed? What would people think?

Bergdorf’s Legacy Today

To find out, we examined hundreds of tweets posted in New York City during the month of May 2020. The top emotions identified by our emotion SLATE were “affection”, “sadness”, “nostalgia”, and — interestingly — “solitude”.

For some Twitter users, sadness over a potential Bergdorf loss served as a call to civic action and appeals to municipal authorities. “Imagine London without Harrods? This is bankrupt lunacy” said one tweet. Implied in that rhetorical question was an assertion that public officials had an obligation to preserve the city’s cultural landmarks, not only in terms of architectural facades (which already receive protection under New York law), but also business continuity.

In an attempt to invoke shame, one user suggested that New York would be a deviant non-complier of international norms if it let Bergdorf fail, claiming “I’m sure Paris & Milan wouldn’t let this happen!”

For these New Yorkers, Bergdorf’s iconic status in the Manhattan cultural imaginary qualified it as a public good, and therefore entitled it to public funding. They also claimed that any responsible urban planning decision would have to ensure a skyline that was not all finance skyscrapers: “These retailers need help. If Cuomo doesn’t step up to help, the City will be left with nothing but office bldgs.” This argument echoes the “liveable cities” discourse still circulating in policy making circles — a belief in the importance of public spaces like libraries, parks, and museums to city life.

This section of the online public, then, was of the same opinion as those journalists who had lamented Bergdorf’s failure. They were less measured in their reactions — more vocal, more emotional, and even swearing upon God that a Bergdorf closure would be unconscionable.

An Ambiguous Heritage

Yet, our examination of publicly available social data also surfaced counter-narratives that had neither been raised nor picked up on in the mainstream news media.

For all its iconicity, Bergdorf Goodman and the department stores like it have been the near-exclusive preserve of an exceedingly narrow constituency for more than a century — that is, of the very rich elite. In the words of one Twitter user, its sociological base comprised the “ladies who lunch” and “NYC socialites”. “It’s the iconic store for the very rich.”

Behold the privileged 21st century patron of the luxury department store: the Bergdorf Blonde. An eponymous satirical novel was published in 2004, making it onto the New York Times’ bestseller list. Read in this context, the notion that Bergdorf Goodman is an icon deserving of civic protection suddenly becomes a lot less persuasive.

“Perhaps the U.S. doesn’t need stores that sell $400 scarves?” one tweet asked. Could Curtis S. Chin, former US ambassador under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, have been right when he tweeted: “#anotherworld #anothertime ”?

While Bergdorf’s fate is as yet undecided, its decline provides brands with a timely reminder. Without digital transformation reforms, traditional firms — even those with the strongest of brand identities — will be left vulnerable.

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