Alex K Goes Shopping: French Literature Edition At Henri Bendel
July 6, 2006
This week Alex Kuczynski returns to loony form with her visit to Fifth Avenue’s Henri Bendel in today’s Thursday Styles. She begins with a rant against shallow summer reading, as if she believes that she has been reassigned to the Book Review. Schoolmarm Kuczynski feels that we should all be reading Tolstoy on the beach, and connects her visit to Bendel’s with an obscure Émile Zola novel, part of a 20-part series. Ok, we get it! You’re not just a shallow shopping columnist. No guilty pleasures for Alex. The Shophound has no shame in admitting that we have no time for novels what with the big stack of Vanity Fairs we have to plow through, and that’s the magazine, not the Thackeray novel, not to mention all the important TV that requires our viewing. We’re only embarrassed that we haven’t yet seen “The Devil Wears Prada”, let alone read it (we’re gonna see it this afternoon, we promise).
More after the jump
Really, we can’t even walk by Henri Bendel without lamenting the retail glory of its former incarnation at 10 West 57th Street. Before Barney’s was anything, before Bergdorf’s got hip, back when SoHo was still an art district, and A&S, Gimbel’s, B. Altman and Bonwit Teller still existed, Henri Bendel was the undisputed epicenter of chic in Manhattan. Now it’s a Sharper Image, but think back to the 70’s. If red-hot Bloomingdale’s was the city’s trendy, populist favorite, then Bendel’s was its cutting edge, exclusive counterpart. Retail legend Geraldine Stutz, the sort of merchant who would sooner drink hemlock than promote a semi-annual sweater sale, took a declining carriage trade retailer and transformed it into a store that no person of style could ignore. She invented the “Street of Shops” concept on the main floor and promptly saw it copied in department stores all over the world, and launched the careers of designers like Stephen Burrows, Perry Ellis and Sonia Rykiel among many others. Bendel’s Shoe Biz was the best shoe salon in the city and The Gilded Cage, its beauty department, was a major destination. Put simply, Bendel’s was the shit. Stutz sold the store to The Limited in the late 80s and stayed on for a year or two, Upon her departure the new owners filled the store with cheaper merchandise, lost exclusive collections like Rykiel, Jean Muir and Barry Kieselstein-Cord and embarked upon a disastrous major expansion which quickly demonstrated just how ill-qualified they were to run an exclusive luxury business. The branches were all were closed except the new Fifth Avenue flagship they had moved into, which continued to exist under a big question mark for years. What would The Limited do with this lavish symbol of an embarrassing failure? Would they shutter it or sell it or turn it into a big Victoria’s Secret? Meanwhile, as The Limited turned its attention to its other divisions, a dedicated group of executives worked to regain some of the luster that had been lost. They succeeded for a while in bringing excitement to the store, until last year when it was announced that Henri Bendel would once again be expanded, this time as a cosmetics and casual wear chain, and those executives promptly left the company. What Alex and the Shophound both found this week was Bendel’s as shadow of even it’s lesser former selves. While our Alex gushes about bountiful luxury, she betrays her impression with a single sentence:
For all its artful arraying, though, I have not found anything I wanted to buy during the course of three visits over the last year.
And there lies the problem. Bendel's is a mess. The gorgeous Lalique windows on the façade are far more interesting than anything they have to sell today. While they have managed to hang on to a few top designer labels, there is no direction at all to the merchandising, and for all its architectural beauty, the store is a manager's nightmare with changing levels and disorienting, difficult to use spaces set off from a huge atrium. The entire top floor has been relinquished to Frédéric Fekkai’s salon, and beyond the burgeoning cosmetics department, which has begun to invade the second floor, there isn’t much left at Bendel’s that's not better presented at several other stores around the city. There’s certainly nothing there that would inspire Émile Zola to write a novel, unless he was writing about the slow decline of a once great emporium.
Henri Bendel 712 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan
Photogaphs by Keith Bedford from nytimes.com