A heavy snow was not anywhere near close enough to keep excited shoppers away from the new Barneys New York flagship that (their designation) that opened Monday on the site of its original men's store on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Sixteenth Street. Barneys' management has been very clear that they had no intention of recreating the old store, and they certainly have not. It is best to go in without looking for the Chelsea Barneys you once knew and loved, and judge the store on its own terms, but the new store does point out just how far current Barneys management has taken the store from its roots now that it has returned to the scene.
Let's begin with what's good about the store. For starters, Barney's current, extremely minimalistic interior design style looks a lot better in Chelsea that it does on Madison Avenue. While slabs of marble, steel and glass have made parts of the home base mother ship look disturbingly like the lobby of a very expensive office building that has been filled with handbags, similar elements have been employed to much better effect downtown in a much smaller space. A broader array of materials and more generous use of carpeting on the upper floors give the store the more intimate ambiance that befits a luxury establishment. The decor is also much more integrated, continuing from floor to floor as opposed to the Madison Avenue location where one floor may feel well appointed and another may have been stripped down to the point where the 'minimalism' just feels minimal (read: cheap). New display fixtures with freeform shaped bases appear throughout the store and with the central spiral staircase they both create unifying visual elements. In an uncharacteristic move for the anti-nostalgic store, the staircase deliberately recalls the Andrée Putman designed steps from the former women's store which still stands around the corner on 17th street as part of the Rubin Museum. As for the merchandise, the women's floor does a fairly good job of condensing many of the offerings from uptown on a single floor. There is some fine tuning left to be finished, and some collections had clearly not yet found their final placements on the floor, but the presentation was strong. In fact, though the Meatpacking District is several blocks away, the new Barneys looks to be some serious competition for Jeffrey, the only real high-end designer level multi-brand store currently remaining in that rapidly evolving neighborhood. Though the main floor is designated for Women's and Men's accessories, it does recreate the "sea of handbags" effect from uptown and the men's section is pushed into a smaller section toward the back —which brings us to the store's drawbacks, chief among them being the way that Barneys, once New York's greatest all-around men's store, has marginalized its longtime core business.
It's not that, the men's department is totally pushed aside. It gets all of the selling space on the third floor. Unfortunately, it has to share that floor with an as yet unfinished Fred's restaurant, so overall, there are substantially fewer square feet devoted to men than there are to women. This may have been something of a miscalculation, because as it happens, when The Shophound visited the store on Monday afternoon, all floors were busy with shoppers curious to see the new Barneys, but the men's floor was packed like it was the height of the Holiday season. Chelsea is, after all, still Chelsea. And one of the not particularly well-kept secrets of Barneys success as a store for adventurous men's fashion was that it was situated right near a couple of neighborhoods known for their predominantly male populations that tended to be more interested in fashion that the average guy (read: gay). Though Chelsea has changed since the 90s, it hasn't changed that much. What's glaringly missing from the store, however, is any hint of the traditional men's clothing that once filled the entire space that the new store occupies. Except for a very modest counter of casual shirts and sweaters on the main floor, the entire men's offering is comprised of high-end designer collections. While the Madison Avenue store still has a floor devoted to pricey European tailored clothing for men, Barneys has, in recent years, essentially walked away from broad and deep assortments of men's clothing that made it a shopping destination even before Chelsea was a bustling gay neighborhood. There is not a Brioni blazer to be found in the new store, nor is there a Kiton suit or a Zegna tie (or any ties at all as far as we could tell). The new store makes it very clear how Barneys management cares about traditional clothing as a core business which is not at all. On the other hand as a men's designer collections store, it is excellent, and the spacious shoe department —again, totally devoid of traditional, classic footwear— is much more comfortable and easier the shop than the renovated one on Madison Avenue, and the fancy sneakers were moving briskly. Another element borrowed from uptown is the lower level beauty department which also includes a small branch of the Blind Barber. Unfortunately, here is where the dramatic spiral staircase falls flat. It's landing takes up so much space in the middle of the somewhat less expansive floor that it pushes the counters to the edges, making the otherwise well merchandised department feel cramped. It also points out the fact that the renovation of the space included the removal of the escalators. While they may not be essential to a store this size, they are rarely unwelcome to customers who may occasionally tire of waiting for elevators or climbing stairs. Also missing is the well liked home section, so any hopes of seeing the Chelsea Passage department return to its namesake neighborhood will be disappointed.
Criticisms aside, the new Chelsea Barneys succeeds in filling a void that was left when its was shuttered on the same spot about a decade and a half ago. Once again Chelsea has a premier fashion shopping destination that can serve as an anchor for the surrounding blocks which, surprisingly, haven't changed a great deal. Despite the fact that Barneys has so little regard for the original store that once stood there that it completely redesigned the facade which had been pretty much untouched, the store still manages to recapture the feeling of being in a special, off-the-beaten-path establishment far removed from the bustle of midtown luxury shopping. Though it is sure to attract its share of tourists, it feels again like a unique, luxurious neighborhood emporium that could only exist in New York. That's no small feat, and it should be enough to make it thrive again —perhaps enough to expand back into the available corner building on 17th street that completed the original men's store and allow it to present a full representation of the Barneys concept.
Barneys New York Downtown 101 Seventh Avenue at 16th Street, Chelsea