Author and actress Joan Juliet Buck posted the link to this story on Facebook with the comment,
“Such beautiful nostalgia in this piece that also explains why walking through NYC these days feels like visiting a morgue. Thank you Ginia Bellafante.”
Thank YOU, Joan. (Read her fantastic memoir, The Price of Illusion, before it’s a movie) She’s such a great writer and observer of life, a friend who left NYC several years ago to live upstate full-time about the same time I did, that I HAD to read the piece immediately, which lead to writing this.
The article is about the closing of two NYC institutions that expanded and flew too close to the sun, now about to fall after filing for bankruptcy; Barneys and Dean & DeLuca. I won’t paraphrase Bellafante, and if you’re not interested enough to read it, you won’t even get this far.
“When Dean & DeLuca opened on Prince Street in 1977, three years after New York Magazine declared SoHo the most exciting place to live in New York, the artist Donald Judd soon began doing his weekly grocery shopping there.
He and his wife, a dancer, lived nearby on Spring Street at a time when it was possible to hire Philip Glass or Richard Serra to do your plumbing but it was not possible, until Dean & DeLuca came along, to find arugula south of Eighth Street.
There are people who cannot understand why anyone would be nostalgic for New York in the chaotic 1970s. When I think about them, I think about the likelihood of running into a famous conceptual artist at Whole Foods.
As it happens, I have never noticed anyone familiar to me from the Whitney Biennial waiting on the long but quickly moving line, scrolling through his phone to present the necessary evidence of an Amazon Prime membership that earns him a 10 percent discount on cauliflower rice.”
“As a young journalist just beginning my career I could afford to buy things at Barneys when I happened upon a good sale, just as I could afford morels or wild salmon at Dean & DeLuca from time to time when the numbers worked in my favor. It is hard to see how anyone in a similar position could make a habit of that now.
The cost of living in the city has become untenable, obviously. But beyond that, the creative industries that for a long time had provided the client base for these kinds of stores now produce uncertainty over consistency, compensation of the kind that does not easily accommodate luxury.
At the same time, the internet has reshaped desire; influencer culture has diminished the hunger for the exceptional. Those who can afford nearly anything so often are moved not by what no one else has but what Instagram suggests everybody else wants.
Barneys first came to the attention of the masses via legacy media, the HBO series “Sex and the City,’’ a show about a writer who dressed beautifully, outlandishly, expensively guided simply by her own spirit.
During the period the show became iconic, we could still make sense of the idea, originating in the 19th-century conception of the department store, that shopping was a social experience. You went shopping with friends, you went shopping to look at people, because in the right contexts, those people were bound to seem interesting.”
You might let your mind take you places — you weren’t constantly consulting your iPhone, which wouldn’t be invented for a decade. You wrote stories in your head for the people you saw — imagining what they did, where they were going in those pants, what they would do with that kimono, those boots, that lipstick, who they loved and who loved them.”
There’s much more about both.
As a young designer and art director at Condé Nast, I worked for Vogue, House & Garden, Mademoiselle, Allure and others in the 80s and 90s, I had my Barneys card and bought my designer clothes to look the part. They were expensive, even then. I’d always shop sales too (The Barneys Sale, made famous by Will & Grace) and often bought gifts and special items in their tiny, nose-bleed expensive home section.
I once bought a unique, grass green beach towel, that I’ve never seen repeated in design, square with a pockets and flower-print cotton border, by Barneys own in-house design team. It was maybe $75, a HUGE extravagance (as was $1250 for my first Armani suit) if you made $18,000 a year on staff at Vanity Fair. But that’s why you had a Barneys charge card, to pay it off. I still have both after 30+ years so they’re both bargains if amortized, although the size 36 slim, double breasted grey pin-striped suit with 28″ waist, pleated, cuffed pants don’t exactly fit. But they HAVE come back in style. (For the record, I’m now size 38, with a 30″ waist, thank you.)
But, as Bellafante says, it wasn’t just shopping for fancy clothing. A purchase and carrying that bag was like “belonging” to the retail version of SoHo House. If you want to know more about the visual aspect of the store, read my friend and former Barneys creative director Simon Doonan‘s first book, Confessions of a Window Dresser.
I never shopped much at Dean & DeLuca because I never lived in SoHo, but suffice it to say that it makes Whole Foods look cheap. And it was like a food museum. (Just to be confusing I DID shop at a gourmet store in SoHo called Whole Foods, which I believe occupied Dean & Deluca’s first space after they moved to Broadway.) I moved to Brooklyn in 1989 and I would have my car in the city, park in SoHo (very easily) and shop there before driving over the bridge to my two floors of a brownstone with a garden for $900 a month. We later bought the whole building for so little I won’t say here.
And talk about running into a world-famous artist while getting milk… one day (in the 90s, I think) I was walking out of Whole Foods on Prince and Bette Midler was walking in, sans makeup with a scowl, and I looked at her with recognition. Just as we passed by the registers in front, she gave me a look that said volumes. With no words it said,
“No. Keep walking. I’m not her.
I’m just a lady grocery shopping. Go.”
I averted my gaze and kept moving.
I would add to Bellafante’s great piece, that in addition to nostalgia for those two dying breeds, I have some for the paper it appears in; The New York Times. I NEVER missed the Sunday Times or its weekly Times magazine. Now, I’m embarrassed to say I don’t pay my yearly online subscription. I read my 10 pieces per months outside the firewall, like many of you. Some won’t be able to read this for that very reason.
The Times may be joining Barneys and Dean & DeLuca soon, if more people don’t support it. I do pay for The Washington Post, which along with Amazon and Whole Foods, are all owned by the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, but that’s another opinion piece.
Bellafante ends by saying,
“On the recent occasions I have been to Barneys, the stories have written themselves. I move through quickly and with purpose and I see women around me who seem to be filling a void rather than satisfying an aspiration. I see only money and all its deprivations.”
(Photo, screen grab; via The New York Times)