Why I’m not in mourning over Barneys’ demise

—On Tuesday, the iconic fashion retailer Barneys filed for bankruptcy protection. Stephen Brown, CEO of Fuse and past chair of Fashion Cares, shares his take on its current brand woes— 

There was a time in my life when a visit to Barneys at 61st and Madison was the highlight of any visit to Manhattan. I would go straight to the top floor (there were eight floors if I remember correctly) and slowly work my way down, perusing the full spectrum of mens fashion—from business attire to casual but always stylish fare.

My friends Kim and Joanne would do the same on the women’s side, meeting with me on the two floors where the men’s and women’s departments would cross over. We’d do a quick “Yes/No” pre-purchase huddle, and continue on (Joanne was always quick to pull the purchase trigger, Kim far more considered).

These invigorating shopping experiences inevitably ended with basic nourishment and post-purchase banter at a cheap diner around the corner. I have such fond memories of Barneys, but I’m not in mourning over the news that it filed for bankruptcy protection this week.

Accepting that with age I don’t pay as much attention to my fashion choices (although it’s not like I’m buying Dockers at Costco), it’s been a long time since I’ve had a rewarding Barneys brand experience.

I still make smart clothing choices for life and business. I like good quality that’s stylish. I hate online shopping for clothes and shoes—I need a change room and mirror. And I love when a great salesperson sizes me up and brings forward ideas I hadn’t spotted or considered. GotStyle and Nordstrom’s do this very well.

So why did my love affair with Barneys wane? Quite simply attitude… of the extreme elitist variety. Granted, Barneys was never the “people’s store,” always focusing on more discerning and premium tastes. But over the past few years, it took this to the next stratosphere of elitism.

Its brands became very showy and label driven—far beyond a small polo emblem—ensuring the buyer was making a statement to the world that they were either rich or very extended. Meanwhile, staff assessed your spending capacity with a simple up-down eye glance, worse than a salesman at a BMW dealership. Customers were made to feel that we had to prove we were worthy of shopping there, versus going out of their way to ensure we enjoyed the experience.

The brand removed the thrill of a great experience and simply replaced it with elitism. Basically, Barneys turned away an engaged advocate by making me feel unwelcome.

Whatever their socio-economic status, all consumers today have more choice than ever before. Yes, brands must maintain a differentiated offering—which Barneys did for years—but they must do it in a way that makes the customer feel connected, appreciated and valued.

This is where Barneys dropped the ball. And, truthfully, I feel that Holt Renfrew has gone in the same direction (News flash: The associate behind the counter should not act mightier than the customer… the customer has the wallet).

I refuse to mourn the pending loss of Barneys. Instead I will celebrate new retailers and brands that are aligned with modern consumer wants: choice, fresh experiences, feeling valued and welcomed.

It’s not new retail, it’s smart retail—an approach that got Barneys started and made it so magical for so long.  At some point Barneys forgot the basics of smart retail, and the magic was gone. I miss Barneys for what it was, but I won’t miss what it became.