By the time Barney’s entered the nation’s department store boom of the early 1920s, it was already late to the game. The first multi-retailer of dry goods in the nation, AT Stewart, was founded in New York way back in 1846. Brooklyn’s Abraham & Straus joined in 1893, followed by Macy’s, Marshall Fields, Bloomingdales, Wanamaker’s, Sears, Saks and numerous other regional retailers.
Barney Pressman started his career pressing pants for 3 cents each in his diddy’s clothing store. In 1923, he hawked his wife’s engagement ring for $500 to open Barney’s Clothes, a 200 sf hole in the wall on Seventh Avenue at 17th Street. The store stocked 40 brand name suits at discounted prices with the slogan “No Bunk, No Junk, No Imitations.” Much of his merch were showroom samples, retail overstocks and auction & bankruptcy closeouts, with free alterations to customers. As business grew, in 1934, floors above street level were added to the store.
Pressman was an early marketing wiz, increasing visibility with radio ads “calling all men to Barney’s” in the 1930s, and sponsorship of radio programs featuring Irish tenors and bands playing jigs to advertise Irish woolens—which made sense, since he was located in a nabe known more for Irish pubs than clothing stores. He also had comely ladies hand out matchbooks embossed with store ads by the thousands (above).
Barney Pressman’s son, Fred, joined the biz in 1946. The company had sales of $13 million in 1965, when, with his father’s blessing, Fred edged the store toward the luxury realm. It added a five-story addition to its Seventh Avenue location, now commanding an entire city block between 16 and 17th streets.With 100,000 sf of retail space, the store had annual sales of $33 million by 1973, double that of the average men’s store. Stock included 60,000 suits, including designer labels Bill Blass, Pierre Cardin, Christian Dior, de Givenchy and Georgio Armani. Its Pub restaurant, which had served nothing but roast beef, was renamed The Cafe, and began selling soups, salads and sandwiches.
In 1986, Barney’s expanded with an additional 70,000 sf of retail space in a row of six townhouses across the street on 17th Street. The $25 million acquisition added a beauty salon & full-service restaurant, antiques & housewares, accounting for a third of $90 million in sales within a year.In 1988, Barney’s opened a 10,000 sf men’s store in the posh World Financial Center—which, in 1993, relocated to its current 230,000 sf headquarters at 660 Madison Avenue between 60th and 61st streets. It was the largest new store in NYC since the first Great Depression, 22 stories tall with 14 floors of office space atop the retailer. The building cost Barney’s $267 million.
Like most department stores, Barney’s had an eye on regional expansion: It opened in Manhasset, N.Y., Short Hills, N.J., and Newton, Mass., followed by Dallas, Chicago, Westport, Conn., Houston, Cleveland, Seattle and Costa Mesa, Calif. In 1993, it launched a posh 125,000 sf, $120 million West Coast marquis in Beverly Hills, while adding a total of 30 smaller outlets around the nation and, with a financial partner, stores in Tokyo.
Perhaps it was too much too fast. By 1994 there were indications that Barney’s finances were in disarray. (Fortunately, Barney Pressman never lived to see his company’s downfall; he died in 1991 at age 96.) Because of overspending, the family-run company filed for bankruptcy protection in January 1996. In 2004, the Pressman family sold its remaining 2% ownership to Jones Apparel Group, which in turn flipped the assets to a Dubai-based company. Its total debt at the time was $500 million, as the luxury market took a major hit in the States.
Today, Barney’s operates stores in New York City, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas, Las Vegas, Scottsdale and Beverly Hills, plus more than a dozen discount “Co-Op” stores—an ironic return to its roots. But there’s still room to grow: Five venues now dot Japan, while a London store is planned to open within the year.