Dean & DeLuca, Barneys and the Fate of Bohemian Consumerism


Dean & DeLuca, now owned by a Thai real-estate outfit, is immersed in such steep debt that it can no longer pay vendors or employees, as my colleague Julia Moskin recently reported. The stores look like ghost malls on planet Humboldt Fog, with empty shelves and soda bottles and very little else. This has all unfolded as Barneys announced on Monday night that it is filing for bankruptcy, with plans to close 15 of its 22 stores.

In both cases, misfortune has come at the hands of overexpansion, of dramatically altered shopping practices, of New York’s annihilating real-estate market. Barneys is controlled by the former hedge-fund manager Richard Perry, but even he could not insulate himself from a rent increase on the Madison Avenue flagship that nearly doubled annual leasing costs to $30 million.

Despite these abiding economic truths, it is also true that the city that produced a retail culture focused on discovery and experimentation has become a place with Amazon boxes on the stoop of every brownstone. We have allowed our habits to become so effectively manipulated toward convenience that is hard to imagine appreciating idiosyncrasy if it returned.

The world that created Dean & DeLuca was a world in which demand was not so obviously engineered. The store arose organically to serve a nascent colony of painters and sculptors (and the artistic hopeful), who since the early 1960s had been taking over loft spaces in industrial buildings in SoHo, fighting to remain in them as the city threatened evictions.

Though it is easy in retrospect to see the store as the beginning of SoHo’s end, the incubator of a pernicious gentrification, the grocer had thrown in its lot with the rebels. One of its founding partners, Jack Ceglic, was a portraitist who designed the store to evoke a gallery or a museum using different gradations of white to showcase the tomatoes and figs and greens to greatest advantage.

An early review of the store in The New York Times described a space “lighted by a rear skylight and high-up fixtures that make a Pyrex double boiler seem practically sculptural.” In the same vein, is hard to describe the energy that pervaded Barneys during the 1990s, a few years after it had opened its store for women, in Chelsea.

Beyond the store’s great innovations, the garments themselves seemed to encode an entirely new understanding of femininity. The clothes weren’t for women supported by rich men; nor were they intended for anyone coming apart beneath the storm of her own ambitions. Everywhere you looked you saw the sort of person you had come to New York to be: uncompromised, assured, inspired, composed.


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