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.”
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.
“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.
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.