By ALEX KUCZYNSKI
A PAINFULLY stylish friend recently stopped by my apartment. Her handbag had broken on the street, and she wondered if I had a shopping bag to hold the contents. Peering into the cabinet where we keep such things, I saw two choices folded on the shelf. I could send her out onto the street in her Chloé platform shoes with a shiny yellow plastic drawstring bag from Dress Barn. Or I could hand her the Platonic ideal of the chic shopping bag, the Taoist uncarved block of retail therapy: the black, boxy, matte-finish Barneys bag. I debated.
In the mind-set of New Yorkers, Barneys is ineluctably linked with the achingly fashionable, or the utterly pretentious. To its New York department store brethren, Barneys is the cool kid in the class, the one with the magically floppy head of hair, while Bloomingdale's is the head cheerleader and Lord & Taylor, the substitute teacher. To be a Barneys woman is to own expensive shoes, tailored black suits, artfully shredded jeans. A Barneys man owns leather jackets and cashmere sweaters, and if he is the right age, his hair is perfectly seasoned with equal swaths of salt and pepper. He has a tan.
If New York retail were opera, the story of Barneys would be a Verdi melodrama, complicated by greed, ambition, tragedy and heartbreak. In 1923 Barney Pressman founded Barneys men's wear emporium by hocking his wife's engagement ring to pay for the lease and fixtures, according to "The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys" by Joshua Levine (Morrow, 1999). Pressman amplified his inventory by reading the obituaries and buying the suit collections of the well-dressed, recently deceased elite.
By the 1980's, two increasingly style-minded generations later, Barneys had become a temple to fashion. The Madison Avenue store opened in 1993, with walls upholstered in goat leather and Carrara marble skimming the floors. It was a triumph of the luxe minimalism championed by the fashionable architect Peter Marino.
Two years ago, when the store was bought by Jones Apparel Group, a retail giant best known for relatively frowzy brands like Nine West and Easy Spirit, the fashion set may have feared that Barneys would go middlebrow. It hasn't. If anything, it has clung to its high-end status more fiercely than ever, creating a marketplace of designer clothes and luxury goods that captures the essence of expensive, trendy New York.
To the uninitiated the Madison Avenue store can be intimidating. It took me 10 years before I had the courage to walk in the front door and pretend I belonged. Once you dip your toe in, though, there is so much to like.
On the first floor men's ties are arrayed on a polished oak table like plump slivers of salmon; on nine I can spend a half an hour in the Barneys kids section, ogling the 7 For All Mankind toddler jeans and imagining the adult lives such children can expect; and the home department, where fantastical Buccellati silver mingles with Mrs. John L. Strong stationery. (The saleswoman told me that some customers buy the memo notepad set labeled, separately, "Pantry," "Pool House," etc., for their friends with studio apartments.)
There may be no better large selection of designer clothing under one roof in New York. Barneys devotes space on five floors to designer collections, from wispy lace pieces in rose-hued silk and cotton by Proenza Schouler to bustled ball dresses in cream silk by Giambattista Valli and flouncy black cocktail dresses by Behnaz Sarafpour.
The traditional mingles with the esoteric: Balenciaga fights for shelf space with Undercover. The cosmetics department is the best in the city, offering popular brands like Clarins and Kiehl's along with lines like Sue Devitt and Aesop.
And yet. I have two problems with Barneys. It's expensive. You'll find some nice thong sandals for the beach, but they'll be Sigerson Morrison, and cost you $335. But that's part of its very Barney-ness. Second, the service is wildly erratic.
After Jones Apparel bought Barneys, I assumed that some of the solid, middle-American Easy Spirit values might trickle down to the sales staff, but alas, from floor to floor, there is little consistency. I never know if a salesperson is going to offer me a bottled water and neck massage, or if he or she is a student of the Marquis de Sade school of salesmanship, which pretty much boils down to one tenet: You don't deserve to shop here; therefore you must shop here.
Perhaps I'm naïve to think that a large department store should present a more or less unified front in terms of customer service. I've always found the jewelry attendants friendly enough, if a bit chill and withholding in the way any of us might be watching over expensive merchandise right by the front door.
The designer floors are less populated by the casual visitor, so the salespeople know their clients, and even if they don't, the clerk-to-customer ratio is large enough that you don't wind up feeling left out.
But at Co-op, two floors with a mix of younger labels like Trovata, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Miracle Icons, the clerks are either pushy — one guy persisted in trying to sell me an $800 Sissirossi purse even after I told him I thought it looked like a large intestine — or indifferent, frequently disappearing as soon as you enter a changing room.
On a recent occasion I tried to flag the attention of four clerks standing by the register while I stood half-naked in the dressing-room twilight waiting for a salesman to fulfill his promise to check on sizes for me. It was as if they had already marked me as someone else's commission. They stood, their arms folded, chatting as if at a cocktail party. I gave up, put all my winter clothes back on and approached the cash register, dress in hand. Faces lit up, but automatically, in the grim theatrical way when the expressions are utterly artificial. Had anyone helped me? No, I said.
Summoned as if by magic spell, the mystery man appeared to ring up my sale. "Excuse me, I helped you," he offered gaily, the oleaginous charm dripping off him like suntan grease, sweeping the dress ($385) into his arms.
"Actually, no, you didn't," I said.
"I'm sorry," he said, addressing not me but the other sales clerks. "I had to take a phone call, and it went longer than I expected." I bought the dress, and he got his commission treat. It went longer than I expected? I'll have to burn sage around the thing before I ever wear it.
And yet. Stopping in the cosmetic department is almost consistently a pleasure. Unlike the first floor of Saks, which is such an off-putting marketplace of salespeople stabbing at you with lipstick that I often perform emergency yoga moves on the street before entering, the Barneys staff is not rapacious. This is partly because they often work for the individual brands, not Barneys, and if they do work for Barneys, the commission they receive is puny, one clerk told me.
After I bought a tube of Sue Devitt lipstick — this was when I was offered the water and a neck massage with scented oil — the sales clerk threw several samples into the bag, telling me I would just l-o-v-e the St. Barth's cream rinse. Later that week I got a small package in the mail with two miniature tubes hand-labeled "St. Barth's cream rinse" and a cheerful note that read in part, "Sorry I forgot to put these in!"
As for my friend with the broken handbag, I just wasn't sure if she was Barneys bag-worthy. So I gave her the one from Dress Barn. Sometimes it's good to be humble. Or at least pretend you are.
Barneys New York
660 Madison Avenue (61st Street); Manhattan; (212) 826-8900
ATMOSPHERE Varies depending on the floor, from the serene white tundra of the designer floors to the chaos of Co-op to the lunchtime social brawl that is Fred's.
SERVICE All over the map.
KEY LOOKS If you were a Martian placed in New York City with an unlimited budget, this is where you would go to look as if you were from Noo Yawk, from jeans to ball gowns.
PRICES Generally expensive. Project Alabama cotton jersey and hand-embroidered cardigan, $1,355; Jovovich-Hawk minidress with lace trim, $535; Clements Ribeiro leather fisherman sandals, $430.