By Benjamin Svetkey
April 02, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys

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The high-flying hucksters of Wall Street. The power-mad tycoons of Hollywood. The 1980s and early ’90s were chockful of moguls- turned-cautionary tales. But of them all, none had more potential for poetic justice and delicious comeuppance than that of the arrogant bozos in this little book. Certainly none were better dressed.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure of shopping for a $1,200 pair of pants there, Barneys was once the chicest — and most infuriatingly snobbish — department store in New York, a glittering temple of trendiness on 17th Street and Seventh Avenue. The salespeople were notoriously rude, the prices dizzyingly high, and the couture so haute not even Dennis Rodman could pull it off. But to movie stars, downtown hipsters, and hardcore fashionistas, it was Manhattan’s most sacred sartorial mecca. Until it went bankrupt.

Joshua Levine’s The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys recounts the store’s rags-to-riches-and-back-to-rags story in impressive detail: how patriarch Barney Pressman started it as a low-rent secondhand men’s shop in the 1920s; how he and his son Fred grew it into a respectable retail business in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s; how they gained fame and fortune in the ’80s and ’90s (even the store’s funky window displays became must-see attractions); and how grandkids Gene and Bob blew it, in the early ’90s, by expanding unwisely into cities like Dallas and spending $267 million building a totally unnecessary new Manhattan store in a tonier uptown neighborhood (still in business but under new ownership). Levine, an editor at Forbes, delivers all the facts and figures. We learn that Barneys at its peak sold 80,000 suits a year, that profit margins hovered around 65 percent (most department stores topped out at about 40 percent), that $250,000 worth of canapes were served at the opening of the uptown store. The reporting on Barneys’ shaky 1989 merger with Japanese retail giant Isetan is equally exhaustive, down to the last yen.

And yet…there’s something missing. While the number crunching is interesting, the book is ultimately unsatisfying. Where is the personal hubris at the heart of this sorrowful story? Much as he tries, Levine never fully animates the personalities behind the business — the sometimes devious, sometimes charming, always colorful Pressman family, who ultimately lost their fashion empire to their Japanese partners. What we are left with are surface sketches: Barney, who hocked his wife’s engagement ring to open his first store; Fred, who could measure the weight of a piece of fabric just by touching it, had great taste but was personally a frumpy dresser; Gene was a playboy who spent too lavishly; Bob, ”the fat kid,” was stuck in accounting and seemed to resent it.

The Pressman family saga would make a magnificent HBO movie — a sort of Barbarians at the Gate outfitted in Armani. But whoever ends up writing the script will have to look elsewhere for inspiration. The characters in this book are mostly empty suits. C

The Rise and Fall of the House of Barneys

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