Dean & DeLuca, Barneys and the Fate of Bohemian Consumerism

When Dean & DeLuca opened on Prince Street in 1977, three years after New York Magazine declared SoHo the most exciting place to live in New York, the artist Donald Judd soon began doing his weekly grocery shopping there.

He and his wife, a dancer, lived nearby on Spring Street at a time when it was possible to hire Philip Glass or Richard Serra to do your plumbing but it was not possible, until Dean & DeLuca came along, to find arugula south of Eighth Street.

There are people who cannot understand why anyone would be nostalgic for New York in the chaotic 1970s. When I think about them, I think about the likelihood of running into a famous conceptual artist at Whole Foods.

As it happens, I have never noticed anyone familiar to me from the Whitney Biennial waiting on the long but quickly moving line, scrolling through his phone to present the necessary evidence of an Amazon Prime membership that earns him a 10 percent discount on cauliflower rice.

During the 1970s and ’80s, the sophisticated shopping experience was not branded in efficiency or self-denial or schemes devised in investment banks. Dean & DeLuca was itself a work of art. This was also true of Barneys, another institution born of the ethos that shopping was an act of self-actualization. Now both institutions find themselves in financial free-fall.

Beginning in the late 1980s, Barneys emerged to define an intelligent urbanity in fashion, one that countered both the ostentation that consumed American tastes and the parodic masculinity imposed on women now entering the professional work force in large numbers.

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CreditJeenah Moon for The New York Times

Over the years both Barneys and Dean & DeLuca eventually veered far enough away from their origins to make them seem less necessary. They transformed into rarefied chains, serving the needs of a global moneyed class in many ways hostile to distinction, wanting in Hong Kong or Dubai what they are used to in Manhattan or Rome.

These kinds of changes would ultimately remake New York as well, as the city seemed to enter into a brutal and protracted phase of bad karmic trades, losing what made it extraordinary in exchange for the genericism that so many people for so long had come to the city to avoid.

Dean & DeLuca, now owned by a Thai real-estate outfit, is immersed in such steep debt that it can no longer pay vendors or employees, as my colleague Julia Moskin recently reported. The stores look like ghost malls on planet Humboldt Fog, with empty shelves and soda bottles and very little else. This has all unfolded as Barneys announced on Monday night that it is filing for bankruptcy, with plans to close 15 of its 22 stores.

In both cases, misfortune has come at the hands of overexpansion, of dramatically altered shopping practices, of New York’s annihilating real-estate market. Barneys is controlled by the former hedge-fund manager Richard Perry, but even he could not insulate himself from a rent increase on the Madison Avenue flagship that nearly doubled annual leasing costs to $30 million.

Despite these abiding economic truths, it is also true that the city that produced a retail culture focused on discovery and experimentation has become a place with Amazon boxes on the stoop of every brownstone. We have allowed our habits to become so effectively manipulated toward convenience that is hard to imagine appreciating idiosyncrasy if it returned.

The world that created Dean & DeLuca was a world in which demand was not so obviously engineered. The store arose organically to serve a nascent colony of painters and sculptors (and the artistic hopeful), who since the early 1960s had been taking over loft spaces in industrial buildings in SoHo, fighting to remain in them as the city threatened evictions.

Though it is easy in retrospect to see the store as the beginning of SoHo’s end, the incubator of a pernicious gentrification, the grocer had thrown in its lot with the rebels. One of its founding partners, Jack Ceglic, was a portraitist who designed the store to evoke a gallery or a museum using different gradations of white to showcase the tomatoes and figs and greens to greatest advantage.

An early review of the store in The New York Times described a space “lighted by a rear skylight and high-up fixtures that make a Pyrex double boiler seem practically sculptural.” In the same vein, is hard to describe the energy that pervaded Barneys during the 1990s, a few years after it had opened its store for women, in Chelsea.

Beyond the store’s great innovations, the garments themselves seemed to encode an entirely new understanding of femininity. The clothes weren’t for women supported by rich men; nor were they intended for anyone coming apart beneath the storm of her own ambitions. Everywhere you looked you saw the sort of person you had come to New York to be: uncompromised, assured, inspired, composed.

As a young journalist just beginning my career I could afford to buy things at Barneys when I happened upon a good sale, just as I could afford morels or wild salmon at Dean & DeLuca from time to time when the numbers worked in my favor. It is hard to see how anyone in a similar position could make a habit of that now.

The cost of living in the city has become untenable, obviously. But beyond that, the creative industries that for a long time had provided the client base for these kinds of stores now produce uncertainty over consistency, compensation of the kind that does not easily accommodate luxury.

At the same time, the internet has reshaped desire; influencer culture has diminished the hunger for the exceptional. Those who can afford nearly anything so often are moved not by what no one else has but what Instagram suggests everybody else wants.

Barneys first came to the attention of the masses via legacy media, the HBO series “Sex and the City,’’ a show about a writer who dressed beautifully, outlandishly, expensively guided simply by her own spirit.

During the period the show became iconic, we could still make sense of the idea, originating in the 19th-century conception of the department store, that shopping was a social experience. You went shopping with friends, you went shopping to look at people, because in the right contexts, those people were bound to seem interesting.

You might let your mind take you places — you weren’t constantly consulting your iPhone, which wouldn’t be invented for a decade. You wrote stories in your head for the people you saw — imagining what they did, where they were going in those pants, what they would do with that kimono, those boots, that lipstick, who they loved and who loved them.

On the recent occasions I have been to Barneys, the stories have written themselves. I move through quickly and with purpose and I see women around me who seem to be filling a void rather than satisfying an aspiration. I see only money and all its deprivations.

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