New York City is brimming with the finest luxury shopping in the world, but among the multitudes, three iconic stores symbolize New York style and retail grandeur like no others.
In a tight cluster, where the Upper East Side meets Midtown East, you’ll find “The Three Bs” of shopping: Bloomingdale’s, Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman. These scrappy natives each rose up from rather humble beginnings, deployed unique strategies to flag down busy New Yorkers, and conquered economic challenges to achieve their venerable position on the world stage.
1000 Third Ave. (at 59th Street)
The Bloomingdale brothers, Joseph and Lyman, began their first retail endeavor with the relatively unusual practice, at the time, of selling a variety of ladies’ apparel rather than a single specialty item. The brothers took another gamble when they moved their operations from the Lower East Side to Third Avenue and 56th Street in 1872, banking that the city’s new Central Park and other area attractions would draw customers uptown. By 1886, the Bloomingdale’s Great East Side Bazaar moved a few blocks north to 59th Street, and by 1929, had overtaken the entire city block where the store resides to this day.
Thanks in part to ubiquitous Big Brown Bags and Bloomie’s-branded underwear, the 1970s and 80s were a heyday for the Bloomingdale’s brand. In 1976, Queen Elizabeth toured the store during a state visit, and in 1984, Bloomingdale’s made a splash in the movie “Splash,” as Daryl Hannah memorably shattered televisions with her piercing mermaid call. This was also a time of unprecedented expansion for the store with new locations opening in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Dallas and Washington, D.C. Today, Bloomingdale’s operates 52 stores and outlets in 13 states, but the grandest by far will always be the Art Deco masterpiece and global shopping destination on the Upper East Side.
660 Madison Ave. (at 61st Street)
In 1923, Barney Pressman opened the doors of a tiny menswear shop in Chelsea. Boasting the slogan “No bunk. No junk. No Imitations,” the store was a decidedly discount affair offering low-cost suits and free alterations.
Over the next four decades, thanks to stewardship by Barney’s son Fred, and later, his grandsons Gene and Bob, Barneys became a renowned downtown style destination. In the 1960s, Fred began bringing European menswear to the States, giving rise to the concept of men’s designer clothing. In the 1970s, Gene and Bob made the first foray into women’s designer clothing, launching a dazzling 70,000-square-foot women’s store in 1986. The popularity of Barneys at this time cannot be overstated. Simon Doonan, window dresser nonpareil, made merchandising a work of art; Madonna paraded through store events; and cutting-edge, then-unknown designers, such as Giorgio Armani and Comme des Garcon, began to sell their wares.
By 1993, Barneys opened its 230,000-square-foot new uptown flagship store — billed as the largest new store in the city since the Great Depression. While this move was intended to be an expansion, changing economics led to the shuttering of the Chelsea stores by 1997, breaking hearts of shoppers across the city. Luckily for New Yorkers, the story doesn’t end there. Just this past February, Barneys — having endured bankruptcy and several ownership changes — has reclaimed the original Chelsea space, opening a new store where Barney Pressman first opened his doors 93 years ago.
754 and 745 Fifth Ave. (at 58th Street)
The storied history of Bergdorf Goodman begins just before the turn of the 20th century when French immigrant Herman Bergdorf opened a tailor shop near Union Square. Just two years later, Edwin Goodman, an apprentice of Bergdorf’s, bought a share of the business to form Bergdorf Goodman. The young Goodman was by far the more ambitious of the two; he encouraged a move uptown to The Ladies’ Mile section of Fifth Avenue and bought out Bergdorf entirely in 1906. Another move to midtown was followed by a risky transition from tailored clothing to high-quality ready-to-wear fashions. The change in course was a huge success, precipitating the need for even more space.
In 1928, Bergdorf Goodman opened its doors in a new building at its present-day location at Fifth and 58th, the site of Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s former residence. The success of Bergdorf Goodman, combined with the Depression’s dampening of real estate prices, led Goodman to buy the neighboring stores, and soon he held the entire block and a stunning penthouse apartment atop the building. Son Andrew took over the business following his father’s death in 1953 and raised the profile of the store through further expansion and smart product line additions, including a perfume and young women’s shop with more modest pricing. In 1969, Andrew sold the company to what is now Neiman Marcus Group.
This new corporate ownership ushered in an era of modernization and expansion, including creating a standalone men’s store across the street and converting the Goodman penthouse apartment into a salon and spa. Despite multiple changes in location, ownership and management, Bergdorf Goodman remains the only premier luxury store situated solely in New York City, as Edwin Goodman himself had always intended.