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From New York, With Love : As Barneys' Devoted Fans Jam New Store in Beverly Hills, Executives Say the Branch Won't California-ize

March 09, 1994|BETTY GOODWIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fashion groupies are on a high.

With all the hype of an old-fashioned movie premiere (well, no kliegs, but five Sunset Boulevard billboards count for something) and a welcoming crowd heavy with studio executives, movie stars, retailing spies and more People in Black than at an art gallery reception, Barneys New York arrived Saturday in Beverly Hills.

The well-dressed--and well-traveled--including Sony Pictures Chairman Peter Guber and actress Winona Ryder, knew what to expect of the neo-Mediterranean shopping palace on Wilshire Boulevard. After New Yorkers, Angelenos make up the second largest chunk of customers at the chain's New York City flagships. And 10% of Beverly Hills residents already possess Barneys' black credit cards, said Gene Pressman, company co-president.

But even the initiated were unprepared for gridlock on a wrought-iron staircase fit for Norma Desmond. Pressman and architect Peter Marino, after two jaunts to Spain for inspiration, agreed that stairs should wrap dramatically from the main entrance upward five floors. Overhead, a swimming-pool-sized skylight bathes 100,000 square feet of selling space in sunlight. Those daunted by StairMaster shopping--and there were many--traveled in six elevators. One sophisticate suggested doing the store the Guggenheim Museum way: Ride to the top and walk down.

For the devoted, the store's arrival couldn't come soon enough.

"I like to cruise through and see if they have antiques and look at jackets and sweaters," movie producer Joel Silver said a few days before the opening. "I heard a rumor that Barney Greengrass (a New York deli) will open here, and I'm a Greengrass fan." It is scheduled to open on the fifth floor, in May.

"Barneys is a fundamental in New York," said actress Sarah Jessica Parker, who lives there. "Before you grow more refined and learn that Bergdorf Goodman is also exquisite, Barneys speaks to the young. It's like the great reward if you're a decent person. You work hard and make money, you get to go to Barneys."

Designer Richard Tyler, whose clothing for the Anne Klein line hangs in the stores, said: "They have an incredible taste level."

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"Can we run over and see the billboards?" Gene Pressman asked Simon Doonan, the Englishman responsible for Barneys advertising and famously demented window displays, last week.

"No, no. I'm dying from carbon monoxide. They look really beyond. They look really great."

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Barneys looks and feels different than traditional department stores. "The thing about (us) is simplicity. We're not about whistles and bells," said Pressman, a tousled Robert F. Kennedy look-alike partial to Hermes cashmere houndstooth sport jackets, custom-made (Barneys label) shirts, jeans, penny loafers and white socks. "Our taste is about modern classics, but we're also avant-garde. We believe in personal style. Our best customers are very confident."

As Pressman put it rather indelicately, Barneys doesn't really belong in Beverly Hills. "I would have liked to go to Melrose, but there was no traffic. (Wilshire Boulevard) was very sterile, but now it's jumping."

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"Uncle Gene, somebody already bought eight ties in a row," reported Ned Pressman, 11, son of co-president Robert, on opening day.

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Froufrou is verboten here. Selling spaces are stylishly un-crammed and rarely broken up by boutiques, which are considered passe in Barneys' country. A menu of architectural details--"frosted dyed fiddleback English sycamore," "oil quenched steel," "faux platinum leaf," "acid etched soda limeglass" and plain old sisal carpeting--give the place a young, clean look.

Although Pressman begs to differ, the store has a reputation for selling mostly black clothing with the same uncluttered lines. Well, OK, navy, white and sand are also popular.

Alexander Julian said he and Barneys parted company two decades ago during the menswear designer's most colorful period. "Today, I'd love to sell (to) them," he said. "What they don't know is, I do black pretty well."

"We're not a purple store," offered Gene Pressman.

That suits the cutting-edge clientele just fine. Said actress Anne Archer, who shops at Barneys in New York: "My worst fear is that they change their look to what they think Californians want."

So, will Barneys California-ize?

"In terms of the taste level, it's the same buying," said Pressman. "If we don't come in here as Barneys, believe me, we'll hear about it." Some adjustments will be made for the climate; heavy coats and sweaters won't arrive in August.

The designer mix is a crucial component of Barneys' personality.

"It's very much one look," commented Margot Werts, co-owner of American Rag, a complex of hip clothing and home stores on La Brea Avenue, as she inspected on Saturday. "You would have to be thin and rich and young, but I think it will do well. We have many women like that here. I like to see a little bit more color, a little more fun."

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