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Rags To Riches To Rags Again: Goodbye, Barneys

The Barneys flagship store at 660 Madison Avenue.
The Barneys flagship store at 660 Madison Avenue. Photo Credit: Creative Commons/Wikipedia (Public Domain)

It was the store that boasted Madison Avenue swagger, an international magnet for dapper men and distinguished women who dressed like characters from “Mad Men” and “Sex & the City.” And in less than two weeks, Barneys New York will be no more.

Relegated to history will be the flagship store at 660 Madison Avenue. Same for the Woodbury Common outlet on Long Island, not to mention the Fifth Avenue corporate offices and the company’s remaining stores in San Francisco and Beverly Hills.

They'll join the original Chelsea location at 101 Seventh Avenue and nearly a dozen other stores nationwide in memory only.

More than 700 employees at the nearly-century-old once-swanky retailer will lose their jobs. They reportedly will receive five weeks severance if they’ve worked for Barneys a minimum of two years – or for much, much longer.

Meanwhile, blaring signs are drawing bargain hunter to bins, racks and shelves of what’s left at the uptown flagship, which includes chairs, tables and other fixtures in addition to clothing.

Good buy, then Goodbye! ” some signs say.

Barney Pressman, a Lower East Side haberdasher known as a cut-rate clothing king, literally went from selling rags to riches after founding what was then a discount men’s clothing store at 7th Avenue and 17th Street in 1923.

His motto: “No bunk, no junk, no imitations.”

Over time, Barneys went upscale – first bringing in Giorgio Armani tailoring, then opening a women’s store -- under the stewardship of Barney's son, Rutgers University grad Fred Pressman. Then came elaborate window displays that held an appeal all their own.

Barneys became a cultural institution that hooked not only urbanites but bridge-and-tunnel professionals who trekked in from Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut.

Those borders were stretched around the globe after Naomi Campbell and other top models began doing Barneys ads. An AIDS benefit auction featuring Madonna and others boosted the profile even higher.

Even without the glitter, though, you were always certain to get a good suit.

Retail has taken a beating everywhere, it seems, and Barneys was just as vulnerable as so many others.

The company took a big swing in the 1990s with a massive renovation of the flagship, followed by international expansion.

Just as quickly came a first bankruptcy filing in 1996.

The uptown location remained chichi , even as the privately held company sold off all its interest, first to retail corporations and then to hedge funds.

The final bankruptcy filing last August sounded the death knell.

A year’s-end liquidation sowed the sprouting of final sale signs – up to 90% off -- as employees awaited the inevitable word that finally came this week.

Saks Fifth Avenue, which has been selling licensed merchandise online under the Barneys banner, is rumored to be planning Barneys boutiques. That remains to be seen.

Trends come and go, no doubt. And so, these days, do institutions.

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