Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 28, 2013

Barneys bigotry

Filed under: economics,fashion — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

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Published by billionaire Mort Zuckerman, a diehard member of the Israel lobby, the New York Daily News has been evolving into a fairly hard-hitting “anti-racist” publication, to use the term that has come under close scrutiny in the recent past by people such as Adolph Reed. If you go to their website, you will see for example an item on the disgusting Trayvon Martin “costume” worn at a Florida Halloween party. Juan Gonzalez, Amy Goodman’s co-host at Democracy Now, has been writing a column at the News for years now. So, in general, this is a paper that is more liberal in some ways than the NY Times that has not had an African-American op-ed columnist since Bob Herbert left some years ago. Charles Blow does have a column that appears on Saturday but it is fairly narrowly focused on polling and demographics.

The News broke the story on a young Black man being racially profiled by Barneys, the upscale clothing store that I used to patronize in the 1980s when I worked on Wall Street.

The clothing store Barneys purports to cater to a certain class of person, one so chic and so monied as to be eager to spend $280 on a pair of jeans or $2,850 on a skimpy woman’s “bicolor jacket.”

Apparently, in Barneys’ view, this class of person did not extend to a young, black New York City male who took a flier on buying a $300 Ferragamo belt. Trayon Christian says store security had him busted by the NYPD.

Christian is a 19-year-old New York College of Technology engineering student who lives in Queens. He has a work-study job that deposits his pay directly into a Chase bank account.

After picking out the belt, he offered his Chase debit card for payment. This was a transaction of a kind that happens thousands of times a day at Barneys’ Madison Ave. flagship emporium.

Without incident, the trendy from neighborhoods like the upper East Side make their picks and flash their cards as if this is where they belong . But not Christian, who has filed suit charging that Barneys concluded, based on skin color, that his money was stolen.

Christian says that, after presenting his debit card, he complied with a request for identification, completed the purchase and walked out, only to be stopped by plainclothes NYPD cops, who said that Barneys had called, accusing him of using a fake card.

In Christian’s telling, he was handcuffed and spent two hours in the 19th Precinct stationhouse while cops verified that he was who he said he was and that the money was his to spend.

The incident has had ramifications in a city polarized around the question of racial profiling. Bill de Blasio, certain to be the next mayor, has called for the abolition of “stop and frisk”, a practice that targets Blacks and Latinos disproportionately.

It has put Jay Z, the rapper businessman, on the spot:

Jay-Z — under increasing pressure to back out of a collaboration with the luxury store Barneys New York after it was accused of racially profiling two black customers — said Saturday he’s being unfairly “demonized” for just waiting to hear all of the facts.

The rap mogul made his first statement about the controversy in a posting on his website. He has come under fire for remaining silent as news surfaced this week that two young black people said they were profiled by Barneys after they purchased expensive items from their Manhattan store.

My last big-ticket purchase at Barneys was a 700-dollar Armani suit that I bought just a few months before losing my job at Goldman Sachs in 1988. It, along with my Paul Stuart suits, went to a thrift shop about a year after I began working at Columbia University. Don’t ask me why I wasted my money on such commodities. Temporary insanity, I guess.

The story of Barneys’s transformation over the years is one that is very much connected to those taking place in New York City generally, as it has become much more of a FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) center as well as a haven first for Eurotrash and more recently for the offspring of Russian oligarchs and oil sheikhs.

The store is named after Barney Pressman, a Jew who launched it in 1923 at 7th avenue and 17th street with the $500 he got from hocking his wife’s engagement ring. He got started in what New Yorkers call the rag trade working in his father’s clothing store, pressing trousers 3 cents a pair.

Early on, Barneys catered to less than wealthy men who wanted to buy a prestigious brand like Hickey-Freeman or Oxxford that were bought wholesale at odd lots and auctions. Often the customer would ask for the Barneys label to be removed so as to leave open where the suit was purchased. At the time Saks 5th Avenue had a lot more clout than Barneys.

In the 1960s the store was transformed into a snooty boutique under the stewardship of Fred Pressman, the owner’s son. As prosperity became generalized in the long postwar expansion, New Yorkers had more money to burn. Barneys’s original location expanded to five floors and a new store was launched on 61st and Madison, both catering to women as well as men. After Fred Pressman retired, his sons Gene and Robert took over and targeted the rich and the infamous even more. If you’ve seen Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”, you’ll get a good idea of what the typical Barneys wardrobe looked like.

On August 29, 1993, the NY Times Sunday Magazine had a 5000 word article on the store’s ambitions. Like cocaine, Studio 54, and Madonna, it was an icon of the period as reporter Steve Lohr indicated:

Much of retailing, it is said, boils down to understanding life styles and spotting trends. Over the years, Gene Pressman has certainly done plenty of field research. He is by nature a participant, trying what was hip and trendy ever since Woodstock in 1969. “I got so wasted,” he recalled fondly. “And wasn’t the music great?” Later, he sampled Manhattan night life, knew the Andy Warhol crowd, took in the scene of Studio 54 and the like.

He lives in Bugsy Siegel’s former house, a Tudor mansion in Westchester County, overlooking Long Island Sound, which he redid to accommodate a 14,000-bottle wine cellar and a garage with vintage cars. Guests, also clearly a carefully edited selection, get tours past the ’62 Aston Martin in the garage and the expensive wines in the cellar. Gene is married these days with two children. He drives fast, but the rest of his fast-lane life may simply be a fond memory.

Though he’s wealthy and surrounds himself with expensive toys, he clings to his version of 60’s counterculture values. He pulls his white shirt away from his neck to show that it is monogrammed, but on the inside. “How about that for reverse snobbery?” he says.

In order to build their empire in New York as well as stores in other countries enjoying a booming economy, the Pressman’s partnered with Isetan, a Japanese department store also catering to the rich.

Like the Japanese economy, Barneys expanded too fast and too much on a mountain of debt, thus leading to bankruptcy in 1996. In 1999 a book by Joshua Levine titled “The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys: A Family Tale of Chutzpah, Glory and Greed “ was published by William Morrow. If the title evokes Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”, this review in the New York Observer will explain why:

Some years ago, a friend took her 14-year-old son to the 17th Street Barneys to buy a birthday gift for his style-conscious grandfather. Dressed in full New York private school uniform (frayed baggy jeans, ripped T-shirt), my friend’s son seemed to have come from a different fashion planet; here the aliens were buying and selling silk socks that, judging by their price, must have been produced by worms specially selected and properly compensated for outspinning their grubbier brothers. For a while, the boy was mystified, and put off. But eventually he succumbed to the lure of the buttery loafers, the ties arrayed in bright rainbows, like elegant wearable candy; he fell for the seductive chemistry of luxury, snobbery and taste. As they left, he turned around, and promised the expensive, attractive things, “I’ll be back!” When I asked my friend how this made her feel, she said, “As if I’d personally introduced him to the Devil.”

The most entertaining and upsetting sections document the sheer wastefulness, misguidedness and mismanagement that went into the construction of the catastrophically expensive–$267 million–Madison Avenue Barneys, the Pressmans’ monument to themselves: “‘The Pressmans kept saying they wanted this to be the most beautiful store in the world,’ says one of the top architects on the project … ‘We did a whole boutique [lined] with goatskin … I was arguing that you could do this in a faux finish, and you might spend an eighth of the price. The response was, like, why use faux goatskin when you could use real goatskin?’”

Why? Presumably, so all that expensive fabulousness could be osmotically absorbed by the sales staff, who would then feel righteously entitled to give Barneys’ customers the maximum amount of attitude. The arrogance and oily-hip demeanor of the salespeople eventually became a liability for the store, as shoppers began to wonder why they were sneered at so contemptuously when they handed over their credit card to pay for, say, the Rei Kawakubo bump dress that for a small fortune could make a woman look like she had tumors growing on her ass.

Like other wonders of the world (the Pyramids, for example), the building took its toll not only in money but in human life. One worker fell off a scaffolding, the other tumbled down an empty elevator shaft–a death that, Mr. Levine suggests, may have been connected to a dispute over the profitable disposition of the scrap metal that the construction site was generating. But unlike the slave laborers who built the Pyramids, these workers expected to get paid, a modest expectation often at odds with the Pressmans’ increasingly precarious financial situation. Creditors resorted to scrawling nasty graffiti on the unfinished building and (as they grew more impatient) making death threats against their employers, tactics the Pressmans countered by beefing up store security.

Reading The Rise and Fall of Barneys means wading through the details of the bad business decisions that brought the Pressmans low; some people love this sort of thing, which I find about as exciting as watching a stranger balance his checkbook. And at times I couldn’t help wishing that Mr. Levine had gained access to the family. To know what makes the Pressmans tick might be like channeling the Pharaohs, or Louis XIV. Nonetheless, Joshua Levine has done a serviceable and entertaining job of explaining why, when my friend’s son makes his long-promised return to the pretty ties and shoes of the Chelsea Barneys, the store he remembers will be long gone–and he’ll find himself in Loehmann’s.

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