Culture remembers the ’90s in broad strokes: minimalism, grunge, supermodels, MTV. For New Yorkers, a single place captured the moment in all its glamour and grit: Barneys. Specifically, its flagship on Madison Avenue, where it relocated in 1993 after seven decades downtown.

With Warhols in the windows, stilettos displayed in fish tanks, and 10 floors of the most extraordinary fashion, cosmetics, and accessories, Barneys was first and foremost a department store. But its significance was about more than clothes and commerce: Barneys was a place of discovery, community, dreams, and desire. It’s where art, fashion, and music genuinely coalesced for the first time, in ways that were remarkably organic and effortless—a far cry from today’s disingenuous marketing stunts and grueling ROIs. “We definitely weren’t given any boundaries,” recalls Doug Lloyd, Barneys’ art director at the time. “If anything, the only [rule] was to make it new and exciting. If it didn’t amuse, challenge, or thrill, it wasn’t going to happen.”

Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Michelle Hicks drinking shakes while wearing Stephen Sprouse at a reception party for the designer at Barneys Downtown New York in 1995. Photo by Dan Derrico
The façade of Barneys Madison Avenue flagship. Photo by Peter Aaron, Courtesy Peter Marino Architect
A 1990s Barneys ad. Photo by Elliot Erwitt

 

It was the ultimate fashion success story: a booming business driven by creativity, not the bottom line. “It’s sort of like this big snowball started rolling down the hill and getting bigger,” Gene Pressman, former CEO of Barneys, says. The Madison Avenue store represented an ambitious glow-up for Barneys—and for retail in general. In 1993, it was the city’s largest new store since the Great Depression. Around thirty outposts in Tokyo, Chicago, Beverly Hills, and beyond followed shortly after.

Designed by Peter Marino with hand-laid mosaic floors by Annabelle Selldorf, Barneys Madison Avenue was greeted with significant fanfare. Barry White and Taylor Dayne performed at the opening party, and overnight, it became a destination for New Yorkers, tourists, and celebrities—everyone from Diane Keaton to Iman and David Bowie, Debbie Harry, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Diana Ross, and Sarah Jessica Parker, who famously told Vanity Fair: “If you’re a nice person and you work hard, you get to go to Barneys. It’s the decadent reward.”

In just a few short months, Barneys would have turned 100. The store shuttered in February 2020 after years of financial strife—and just shy of a pandemic that would force many of its peers to close, too. Fashion has changed, shopping has changed, and the world has changed indelibly; in the TikTok era, a 230,000 square-foot department store means something different than it did in 1993.

Jon Stewart in a Barneys ad. Photo by Wayne Maser
The fifth floor of Barneys New York in 1995. Courtesy of Selldorf Architects
Helmut Newton with Kristen McMenamy at a party being held in Newton's honor in Barneys in 1995. Photo by Rose Hartman/Getty Images
Keith Haring at the St. Vincent's Hospital AIDS Benefit Fashion Show in 1986. Photo by Ron Galella via Getty Images
Simon Doonan with a nude, life-sized statue of Madonna in a Barneys Christmas window display in 1992. Photo by Kimberly Butler
Iman and Madonna at the St. Vincent's Hospital AIDS Benefit Fashion Show in 1986. Photo by Ron Galella via Getty Images
Debi Mazar at the opening of Barneys Madison Avenue flagship in 1993. Photo by Ron Galella via Getty Images
Simon Doonan with his dog Liberace, at the Barneys Warehouse Sale in 2000. Photo by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images
Interior of the Barneys Madison Avenue flagship. Photo by Peter Mauss, Courtesy of Peter Marino Architect

 

“People will talk about Barneys the way they talked about Studio 54,” says Fern Mallis, the former Executive Director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. “It’s one of those things that can’t happen again. It defined the zeitgeist.”

That explains our abiding nostalgia. Thirty years on, the ’90s are in the air again, with shades of Prada minimalism, Helmut Lang deconstruction, and Tom Ford-era-Gucci glitz on the runway and the street. And there’s a longing for a place to discover it all—a place like Barneys circa 1993.

“There will probably be another time, another generation who will realize there’s a market for that [kind of store],” says The Cut’s Fashion Critic-at-Large Cathy Horyn.

Gene and Bonnie Pressman in 1992. Photo by Historic Images Outlet
Iman and David Bowie during Unveiling of the 1991 Holiday Windows at Barneys. Photo by Ron Galella via Getty Images
DKYCG0 Sept. 7, 1993 - L6353ST.OPENING OF BARNEY'S , NEW YORK CITY.09-07-1993. STEPHEN TRUPP- 1993.MARC JACOBS(Credit Image: © Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com)
Linda Evangelista in a Barneys ad. Photo by Steven Meisel
Interior of the Barneys Madison Avenue flagship. Photo by Peter Mauss/Courtesy Peter Marino Architect
Anna Wintour during a party to unveil Barneys Holiday windows in 1992. Photo by Ron Galella via Getty Images
Model Cecilia Chancellor in a 1993 Barneys ad. Photo by Corinne Day
Christian Louboutin and Paquita Paquin at Barneys in 1991. Photo by Roxanne Lowit
Interior of the Barneys Madison Avenue flagship. Photo by Peter Mauss, Courtesy Peter Marino Architect

 

The irony is that today’s retailers have exponentially more resources at their disposal—technology, social media, influencers, algorithms—yet they can’t quite replicate the Barneys magic. Perhaps, to Mallis’s point, it isn’t possible—at least not on the same scale. Barneys was truly of another time: pre-social media, pre-iPhone, pre-fast fashion, pre-Amazon. (Warhol may have said it best: “All department stores will become museums, and all museums will become department stores.”)

It isn’t the sprawling footprint we miss most about Barneys; it’s the creativity, discovery, and integrity. In 2022, that’s more often found in independent boutiques, where there’s room to take risks, introduce new designers, and cultivate a community.

For PALMER Vol. 2, writer Emily Farra gathered memories from designers, former Barneys employees, writers, and tastemakers, plus photos from the most unforgettable ’90s parties. Get a preview here, and read the full story in PALMER Vol. 2, available now.