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Searching for the Next Barneys

American luxury retail has changed, but customers are still hungry for the special feeling only an exceptional multi-brand store can offer. Can a crop of upstarts and a few savvy incumbents succeed where others have failed?
The Webster opened its first international location in Toronto in 2021.
The Webster opened its first international location in Toronto in 2021. (Adrian Ozimek)

When High Sport founder Alissa Zachary began planning the rollout of her stretch-knitwear line, she targeted independent stores with a loyal customer base: A’maree’s in Newport Beach, Calf., Just One Eye in Los Angeles and Nuages in Aspen.

Even before the collection hit the floor in November 2021, shopkeepers were squirrelling away pairs of Zachary’s $890 kick-flare trousers — which come in basic black but also a grape, cherry, lemon and other saturated, fruity colours — for their top clients.

Six weeks later, all three retailers had placed multiple re-orders and expanded their assortments. There are waitlists. The pant is now a certifiable hero product.

“Boutique retail is the absolute best way to reach our customer at our price point,” said Zachary, an experienced merchandiser who put in time at The Row and Khaite. “Many of these boutiques existed for decades, and there’s a certain level of trust. Retailers create an edit for their clients. They contextualise.”

A look from High Sport's Spring/Summer 2022 collection.

Physical stores, when merchandised with idiosyncrasy and passion, can delight customers in a way that’s hard to pull off online. But when it comes to exciting brick-and-mortar options, there’s a “void” in the market, said retail consultant Robert Burke. Now, a crop of upstarts and a few savvy incumbents are betting that the hunger for a great place to shop in person, across brands, is back, and they’re using a mix of old-school customer service and new selling models to once again bring pleasure to shopping.

‘I Miss Barneys’

No store left a bigger, darker hole in the American luxury landscape than Barneys New York, which closed its doors in February 2020 after bankruptcy and a gut-wrenching liquidation. Many of Barneys’ wounds were self-inflicted. For a decade, fashion insiders had complained about its decline — they said it lost its magic after fashion director Julie Gilhart was fired in the early 2010s and hedge fund manager Richard Perry gained control, attempting to corporatise what was really a local store with global influence. Perry’s executives buffed out the quirk and lined its cold marble floors with shelves of designer handbags, investing hundreds of millions of dollars into physical retail while letting its once-burgeoning digital presence fall behind competitors.

Bad business moves were only made worse by what was happening to the luxury industry at large: blue-chip brands were prioritising their own retail, while e-commerce natives like MatchesFashion and Net-a-Porter filched away sales. Social media, especially Instagram, may have made the biggest impact as discovery of new brands and trends happened almost exclusively on these platforms.

Despite all this, Barneys’ closure was met with utter sadness, a classic “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” situation.

And it wasn’t just Barneys that died. Downtown Manhattan fixture Opening Ceremony announced it would close its retail doors in January 2020, right before the pandemic took hold and after it was acquired by Farfetch-owned New Guards Group, which now produces its namesake label. Soon enough, more fan favourites closed, including Atlanta institution Jeffrey, Brooklyn mainstay Bird, Richmond’s Need Supply and Seattle’s Totokaelo. Forty Five Ten, which debuted a splashy, multi-store project in New York’s Hudson Yards mall in May 2019, shuttered all of its locations outside of its Dallas home. Milan’s 10 Corso Como, which opened in Manhattan’s touristy South Street Seaport in 2018, said goodbye to the city in May 2020.

Some shopkeepers cited the pandemic, but others noted an increasingly competitive market, where independent retailers were up against heavily funded multi-brand stores that were willing to spend massive amounts of money on customer acquisition, either by targeting customers online or marking down products far earlier in the sales cycle than smaller outfits could afford.

‘Moments of Discovery’

Still, what multi-brand stores can offer remains special. A salesperson can recommend things based on tastes and appearance, rather than computer-generated data points, and there’s also an opportunity to try on several items at once without buying thousands of dollars worth of items online, only to return them. If a customer is hunting for a dress for a wedding or a suit, it’s often more fun to stop at one multi-brand retailer than to visit 10 different standalone boutiques. Traditional department stores fulfil some of these needs, but typically lack personality.

“I miss Barneys even though I was absolutely one of those people griping about why it wasn’t cool and not interesting — but it still kind of was,” said Eugene Rabkin, partner and director at Atlanta’s Antidote, a multi-brand store he opened in September 2021 with chief executive and principal owner Lauren Amos, who also runs sneaker and streetwear shop Wish. Rabkin, founder of the online forum and magazine StyleZeitgeist (and occasional contributor to BoF), believes stores like theirs can serve as a launchpad for independent designers who don’t have the financial bandwidth to market and sell direct-to-consumer, as well as a safe-haven for brands that aren’t widely available in the US outside of New York and Los Angeles because they’re picky about distribution.

ANT/DOTE, a new multi-brand retailer, wants to serve Atlanta's creative class.

He also thinks Atlanta, a cultural capital with booming music, film and startup scenes, also has enough wealthy, fashion-curious residents to build a robust clientele, some of whom might have previously shopped at the now-closed Jeffrey.

“American stores tend to buy very conservatively,” Rabkin said. With an eye toward the conceptual, Antidote sells the likes of the entire Comme des Garçons family, Jil Sander, Mugler, Undercover — a favourite of both Rabkin and Amos’ — and is the only North American store to carry Hyke, a hot Japanese label that is now gaining steam abroad, thanks to collaborations with Moncler, Adidas and The North Face.

The one thing that the internet will never solve is the problem of browsing.

“The one thing that the internet will never solve is the problem of browsing,” he added. “You can get recommendations, but it will never be able to replicate the feeling of just stumbling upon something and having this moment of discovery.”

Localised — And Personalised

The Webster founder Laure Hériard Dubreuil wasn’t sure if her growing chain of stores would survive the pandemic. However, the French-born, Los Angeles-based exec had a lot of things going for her. Not only were three of her locations in Florida — which, for better or worse, was less restricted during the lockdown phases of the pandemic than other areas of the US — she had also spent the previous decade investing in retail talent, starting with The Webster’s first store in Miami in 2009.

In 2021, sales were up 60 percent from 2019, and profits have nearly doubled over the same period. There are now nine locations of The Webster — three in Florida (including one outlet), three in California, one in Houston, one in New York and one in Toronto. Dubreuil believes that, unlike some multi-brand retailers that have suffered after expanding, she has targeted regions where she’s confident there is a ready, willing and underserved client base that will take to the store’s optimistic, colour-rich edit that includes everything from Rosie Assoulin to Chanel. (It’s one of the only multi-brand boutiques left in the world to sell the mega-label.)

It’s no coincidence that many of the stores that have succeeded during this time are in secondary or tertiary cities: people are travelling again, but not as frequently or as far. Rabkin said that, in addition to serving Atlanta’s creative community, Antidote has had shoppers drive in from Nashville and Birmingham, Ala.

“I don’t want to lose the personalisation,” Dubreuil said of her approach to each store, crediting her start in the midst of the 2008 recession as a good prepper for what she faced during the pandemic.

A Fresh Start, With Some Stale Problems

Telsha Anderson-Boone, who opened T.A. in New York’s Meatpacking District in 2020, also said starting out at such a volatile time was, in some ways, a blessing: designers who were shorted by big-box stores but still desired a brick-and-mortar were more open to working with her. T.A.’s top sellers include Christopher John Rogers — whose knits she can’t keep in stock — PH5 and Ottolinger, as well as Christopher Esber and Julia Heuer.

“We do bring in different brands, ones that are not necessarily carried [widely] in the US, and we take risks with our buys,” Anderson-Boone said.

But while there is an optimism washing over retail right now, the fundamental faults of the wholesale model remain, making success elusive, especially for any store looking not only to sustain business, but to grow.

For instance, stocking the right mix of brands is harder than ever now since many prefer to sell direct. Then there are the logistical headaches. Even in good years when supply chains are running smoothly, bottlenecks arise, and sometimes a brand may not be able to ship their products to a store on time, which means items aren’t on the sales floor at full price for as long as they were meant to be, often resulting in deeper discounts. Online, competing against department stores and e-commerce giants remains challenging.

There are some new models for selling — such as consignment in-store or drop-shipping online — but they don’t provide as big of profits for the retailers, and they also require more upfront investment from already-strapped brands. And though consumers may want to browse in store, they’re still shopping online more than ever, so the frequency in which they visit retailers — and their loyalty to those retailers — continues to wane.

For every Charivari, there’s also a Maxfield.

“It was easier in the Charivari days,” Burke said, referring to the legendary Manhattan boutique that sold everything from Ann Demeulemeester to Dries Van Noten, and closed in 1998. “Today you see everything online.”

These new stores, however, are betting that the romance of shopping in-store, in front of a beautiful mirror, will — at least sometimes — trump the practicality of clicking and shipping.

“For every Charivari, there’s also a Maxfield,” Rabkin said. (That venerable Los Angeles retailer has been open for more than 50 years.) “There’s still a place for fashion with a capital F.”

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