In what could almost be a Hollywood fantasy, Ira Neimark worked his way up from being assistant to the doorman at Bonwit Teller to being CEO at Bergdorf Goodman. He has just published his hybrid memoir/business book, Crossing Fifth Avenue to Bergdorf Goodman: An Insider’s Account on The Rise of Luxury Retailing (Specialist Press International), to document a transforming period in American retail history as well his own role in shaping one of the most venerable department stores of our time.
Born into a well-to-do family that lost everything in the Crash, he was obliged to get a job as a seventeen year old, and after landing the lowliest position there was in a business he seemed destined for, never really looked back. He now describes himself as ‘the oldest living guy in the business’ and a ‘benevolent dictator’ but unlike a dictator, he gives good, straight answers and admits to mistakes.
When I read your book, it seemed to me there was a kind of inevitability to the way department stores changed, the way designers became their own brands and were no longer dependent on department stores.
Inevitability? You’re on my favorite subject. What happened was, Jonathan Logan owned a company called Youth Guild and Liz Claiborne was a designer [there] for 15 years. She kept saying you guys are missing the boat—the customer is looking for separates … Liz Claiborne took $50,000 of her own money and $200,000 she borrowed and started Liz Claiborne. Within ten years Liz Claiborne made the Fortune 500. So that was the first real name that made it big. But it didn’t really happen until someone realized that Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta’s name on the label as well as Bergdorf or Saks cut a lot more ice.
Did you see the writing on the wall?
I don’t think I was smarter than anyone else.
So how seriously do you mean it when you say that you transformed Bergdorf Goodman from an ‘old, dull, expensive and intimidating’ store to a ‘young, exciting, expensive and intimidating’ store? Why intimidating?
Well, look I’m not used to talking on these things [gestures to tape recorder] because I say many things that are candid and get a lot of people in trouble …
It’s not that controversial …
Oh, well, I’ll give you my life confession. When I say intimidating, when I used to come to New York when I was an out-of-town merchant, I would go from store to store to see what ideas I could get to see what I could bring back to my store and my last stop was usually Bergdorf’s. The store was really for very wealthy, older women. It only had elevators, no escalators. So I would take the elevator to the fourth floor, and once you got to the fourth floor there was a desk with a grey-haired, very aristocratic woman who said ‘May I help you?’ And I would say ‘No, I don’t want any help.’ But there was no way to get out. You had to wait for the elevator [in front of her]. And I would think ‘Oh boy, I’m stuck here.’ And as sophisticated as I was a merchant, I was intimidated! Now, when I was asked to run the store, I thought, Oh boy, here’s an opportunity to take a store that had been dull, that was expensive and intimidating and it didn’t take a copywriter to convince me to say ‘young, exciting and intimidating.’ It had to be intimidating.
If you look at the crowd here [gestures to the people outside the window on Fifth Avenue], walking through, breakdancers and all that crowd, you didn’t want people walking through the store, diminishing the effect. Women love to be associated with good-looking women. Fashionable women like to be associated with fashionable women.
So it’s all theater.
What are your feelings in general about shopping? It’s an idiotic thing we do, we don’t need this stuff.
Why do people shop? I’ll give you a good reason. In the book I talk about my mother being one of seven daughters … when I was five, six, seven, eight, I used to listen to my aunts arguing with each other about who had a better milliner, whose beauty parlor was better. ‘How can you wear that hat?’ They would just argue. But women find that they’re always looking for something new, interesting, exciting … it makes them feel good about themselves.
It’s a very temporary satisfaction–then the urge has to be fed again.
It’s a built-in urge of women with taste who are interested in looking right … they’re never satisfied. How can I make myself better? The question is, ‘Do they do it for themselves, for men, for their girlfriends?’ I think it’s a combination.
Last month, NYSD, along with Robin Seegal and her sister Janie Lewis, held a book party at Robin’s Fifth Avenue apartment for Ira’s new book, “Crossing Fifth Avenue To Bergdorf Goodman.”
So what else have you learned about women then, being in this business?
Women are a lot smarter than anybody gives them credit for.
I had the sense, on reading the book, that although you enjoyed the glamour, my true feeling was what you really enjoyed was how to move stock through, how to merchandise.
It wasn’t the thing that interested me the most, it was the thing that puzzled me the most, that bothered me the most. What interested me the most was ‘How do you make it exciting?’
Are you bossy?
I was called a benevolent dictator.
Does that explain why you told your students at FIT that they had to attend your lectures wearing jackets and ties if they were boys and decent dresses if they were girls?
It’s a standard. And I think that many people don’t have a standard of what they should look like and dress like. I think dressing makes you represent who you are, who you want to be. And those who don’t know, have no personality and couldn’t care. I guess I call them fashion illiterates.
And you don’t think money has anything to do with it?
Not at all.
It clearly fascinates you, how people dress …
Yes! I have studied people from the day I was born … you can tell if a customer is going to buy the blouse or is just browsing. Yes, I watch that very carefully.
You had ambition … was it as good as you thought when you finally got the top job?
If you look at Bergdorf’s, and my office used to be on the corner and I could look out the window to Bonwit’s and I would look out once in a while to the corner of 56th Street and Fifth Avenue and say, ‘I used to be a doorboy there.’ And yes, it was gratifying that I got over here. I shouldn’t say that but that was what I thought.