No Holds Barred: Reclaiming my Bloomingdale’s Fix

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An Art Deco-inspired Hollywood promotion on the main floor of Bloomingdale's.

A recent Wall Street Journal headline read: “Shoppers Show Resilience As Prices Rise.” Who are these shoppers? Does inflation mean you buy one cereal box instead of two? Then again, you have those opting to go for broke buying a luxury car even though the interest rates are sky high. Dining out is higher but people are paying for that and willing to go high for low service. Travel still remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, I don’t hear the giant KA-CHING! coming from retail department stores or even boutiques. My car wash just closed its popular cards and novelty shop.

Goodbye to Little Trees Car Fresheners and same day birthday cards!

I haven’t been in a department store in four years. Nobody I know really has. And this isn’t a Covid side effect. After all, Sephora started to replace department stores beauty floors and now you don’t need to go to Sephora. That can be an online at-home check as well.

There are other red flags of warning now waving. Last week Tom Ford started selling off his entire brand with a “talks” report that Estee Lauder made a $3 billion offer for his beauty line. Tom wants out of it all to produce and direct his own movies. Kanye West wants out of the Gap — his Yeezy line was supposed to save the Gap from collapse. Now let the chips fall where they may. And the chips are falling already.

Scenes from the final Yeezy Gap Collection.

This feeling of free fall made me wonder what actually will become of the thrill and sport of shopping. And I’m not just talking luxe. Malls haven’t really recovered — they are turning into amusement parks and gaming arcades for kids to congregate. But kids aren’t really SHOPPING! Let’s face it, you need to be happy and hopeful to power shop. And who’s in that frame of mind lately?

And that made me sadly reflect on Bloomingdale’s turning 150 years old this year. Do people still go there (forget online). Bloomingdale’s was the cultural and retail giant who represented every era but especially the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s. NOT Bergdorf’s, NOT Barneys, forget Lord and Taylor or Altman’s or Saks — maybe Henri Bendel under the brilliant leadership of Geri Stutz. But Bloomingdale’s owned the highest pop history for a Department Store.  After all, it was the only American store Queen Elizabeth ever visited in 1975.  That was the same year that CBS’s 60 Minutes decided to do a story on its success.

I was called by the producer to be interviewed by Morley Safer.  I was a Village Voice columnist and was thrilled to guide Morley and his crew through my “temple of shopping” (speaking of temple — I fasted one Yom Kippur and ended up at Bloomie’s worshipping their sundown linen sale).

By 1973, Bloomingdale’s was everybody’s Disneyland. Morley was very uncomfortable reporting on this “fluff.” He had just flown in from a Saudi Arabia story. I remember gazing down at his feet after we filmed for 45 minutes and seeing 50 cigarette butts littered everywhere. He smoked at every break. He did, however, end up enjoying the tour despite his discomfort.

Now think on this — Bloomingdale’s in the ’70s and ’80s was a cultural force. It was, in fact, THE place to go to “learn” about style. As Andy Warhol said, “It was a museum of the eighties.” But more than that, it sold the first frozen yogurt (also featured a bread and cheese and gourmet food shop) and it promoted itself like a movie.

The famous Cinema 1 and Cinema 2 movie theaters were across the street.  Its location became the center of the cyclone.  Bloomingdale’s created “The Upper East Side.” Not to mention it was the 59th Street subway stop and the entry to its popular basement store “Saturdays Generation.” We all thought we were THAT!

Furniture for the Saturday Generation (source: The Bloomingdale’s Book of Home Decorating, 1973, by Barbara D’Arcy.)

People looked forward to its Lexington Avenue windows changing every ten days like a Broadway opening.  It created a neighborhood. Sure, Barneys came later, but that was too black and white and elitist.  The furniture model rooms floor became the place to go on a late Thursday night.  People met while trying out all the mattresses. Bloomingdale’s was always about cruising the racks AND each other.  Every week there was a new designer nook on the fifth floor — Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein all originated there before they ended up in their own stores.

Marvin Traub with Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Bloomingdale’s in 1976.

Thanks to an era of tremendous talent and administrators like CEO Marvin Traub and Fashion Director Kal Ruttenstein — who were always accessible and instructional about what was next.  They co-opted it all into a celebration and presented it like a fun bazaar on every floor.  No other store reflected the ’70s like Bloomingdale’s — from food to shoes to bras to beds.

Friends of mine actually “hooked up,” mostly in the Men’s Department (entrance was right off 3rd Ave – no need for elevators) on any Saturday morning.  Both gay and straight knew to go to that location and shop the checkerboard first floor and then hit Yellowfingers Bar across the street.  A weekend overnight experience was bought and sold following that format.

The concept of “pop-up” stores within a store started at Bloomingdale’s. And let’s not forget that Yves St. Laurent chose Bloomingdale’s to introduce the first perfume blockbuster “Opium” which the store sprayed through every door entrance in wall atomizers.

Mary McFadden, Oscar de la Renta, Kal Ruttenstein, and Bill Blass.

If the age of department stores made them all into universities of “style,” Bonwits was Yale, Bergdorf’s may have been Vassar, but Bloomingdale’s was wild and crazy UCLA. And who didn’t want to go there? It was open to everyone — not stuffy and highbrow — its basic “brown bag” shopping bag became its most popular brand item.  People wanted that over bags from Vuitton or Hermes.

Those were the days when the cultural zeitgeist was exciting and could be picked up on the streets and sold back better to the public.  Stores and shoppers came together, and shopping became a true drug high.

But time moves on.  So did we! I moved out of NYC and I tried shopping at Bloomingdales in LA’s Century City (it was awful).  In fact, I haven’t been in a Bloomingdale’s store in 30 years.  I don’t live that life anymore and prefer to remember the good old days — like everybody else.  I ask my NYC pals if they shop there — nobody does anymore — but a lot of us are no longer “shoppers” and today’s “shopping experience” feels stressful, not celebratory.

Recently the New York Times did a lovely tribute to Bloomingdale’s anniversary.  Wonderful reporter Ruth La Ferla called me for a quote.  I asked her what she thought the new shopping scene was and she felt it was at the new TIN building which is Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s creation at the South Seaport.  It consists of six restaurants (Asian, Italian, Vegan, French) along with wine and beer bars, bakeries, candy stores and a high-end grocery nook.  Think Eataly on steroids.  Yes, two floors but basically a food court done like an amusement park.  And that may seem exciting, but to me – it’s a one-shop and hard to get to.  Remember Hudson Yards with its dining, shopping, and sculpture was supposed to be such a promise?  The location fizzled it.  It has to be more than just food.

Jean George making the rounds at one of his 6 full service restaurants (there are also 6 quick service restaurants, seafood, meat, cheese, produce and retail markets, too) at the Tin.

Personally, I think farmers markets have picked up the shopping heat — with no fast food, but artists selling clothes, jewelry, and pet gear.  Farmers markets are exploding in many cities, but time will tell.  Consumers, not stores, will determine the trend.

Meanwhile I just read where Bloomingdale’s is opening a new smaller format store called “Bloomies” — a highly “curated assortment of popular brands and tech items” with a restaurant called “Colada.”  The press release states: “The focus is to be fun, casual, and convenient home giftables (candles).”  They are even relaundering their popular underwear with “Bloomie’s” stamped on the ass, along with t-shirts, hoodies, combat boots, and vape pen lighters (none of which I would buy).  CEO Tony Spring sees Bloomie’s as a “smaller box to shop for people who are looking for a real point of view, a sense of style, and an experience that is worth the visit, that’s not a chore — it’s a hobby.”

Well, good luck with that!

Sadly, shopping has become a chore for a lot of us as the clothes look awful. And as for it being “a hobby” — does that explain why so many of us stay home and let our fingers do the clicking.

It’s a new day!

*Dedicated to the titans of style and merchandising Marvin Traub and Kal Ruttenstein!


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