On a recent Sunday afternoon at Henri Bendel, while looking through crossbody bags, Charly Zubi, a lawyer who lives in Fort Lauderdale but grew up just outside New York City in Westchester, told The Daily Beast, “I've been a Bendel girl probably since I was in the womb.”
It would be Zubi’s last visit to the storied Fifth Avenue department store, which will close in January after 123 years in business. During Bendel’s final holiday season, die-hards and newbies were shopping side-by-side.
Zubi’s mother had loved the shop, and passed those feelings down to her daughter. As a law student at Fordham, Zubi said she would bring friends to Bendel’s, “Whenever we got really sad or depressed. We’d just come up here and go wild.”
Zubi’s last Bendel purchases included a bracelet, monogrammed jewelry case, three candles, and two Jetsetter bags. “I need one of every iconic thing so I can refill for the rest of my life,” she said.
In the store there were few signs of imminent closure. In lieu of an “Everything Must Go” placard was a mammoth mural of a leggy cartoon “#Bendel girl” toting an armful of the store’s recognizable brown-and-white striped bags.
At a place where black leather tote bags sell for over $400 and fuzzy child’s key chains cost $68, it might seem gauche, or somewhat desperate, to plaster 'Sale' signs everywhere. After all, many shoppers were lured into Bendel’s seeking refuge from the bustle of Midtown during shopping season, not to be reminded of the sorry state of retail in 2018.
While the inescapable striped box motif is inarguably vintage, the rest of the store felt very 2018; or at least, perhaps a 1960s Bendel shopper’s idea of the future. Robotic, pixelated shapes of hearts and stars were placed in the front windows. Futuristic pink neon lights dressed the walls.
In September, The Wall Street Journal reported that higher-ups at L Brands had chosen to sacrifice Bendel in an effort to grow profitability, especially at Victoria's Secret. Employees who agreed to stay with Bendel until the bitter end were given bonuses and the opportunity to interview for jobs at L Brands.
The store has been owned by L Brands since 1985, and has since grown from its original Midtown storefront to a chain of 23. All Bendel outputs are closing in January, and the e-commerce site will shutter, too.
A rep for L Brands, which also owns Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, declined to comment to The Daily Beast.
Two middle-aged women visiting New York from Ottawa, Canada had no idea that their first visit to Bendel’s would also be there last.
“They’re closing?” asked one incredulously, while trying on a pair of round pink sunglasses. “Where are the sales, then?”
Most discounts could be found on the store’s second floor, which includes a balcony with comfy couches that often house shopping-weary husbands. (And a primo view of the 20-foot tall “Christmas tree” constructed of 400 brown-and-white striped Bendel boxes.)
Upstairs, a mother and daughter duo visiting the city from Westchester, Pennsylvania were also unaware of the news. “I didn’t know that,” the mother said, while sifting through discounted wallets. “Thanks for the information.”
“I thought they were really popular,” her teenage daughter offered.
Bendel’s is popular, but unfortunately not in a way that translates to cash. Fashion die-hards are more than happy to spit out a highlight reel of the store’s history: it was the first American store to carry Coco Chanel, a young Andy Warhol got his start as an in-house illustrator, Gossip Girl’s fictional Blair Waldorf loved spending her parents’ money there.
In 1957, former fashion editor Geraldine Stutz took over as president of Bendel, turning it into a fashion incubator over the course of her 29-year career.
It was Stutz who hired Warhol, and also helped promote the careers of newbies Perry Ellis, Ralph Lauren, Sonia Rykiel, and Stephen Burrows, The New York Times noted in her 2005 obituary. When Monica Lewinsky launched a line of handbags in 2000, the designs were exclusive to Bendel's.
However, the Bendel name lost significant recognition. When I told friends that I would report on Bendel’s last hurrah, the common response was, “What’s that?”
But Bendel's isn't closing meekly. The store’s bustling first floor operates in a speedy, but composed manner that resembles the set of a prime-time television show set in an ER.
Inside Bendel’s nearly 86,000-square-foot space, any time a shopper wanted something like a certain type of bag design or a custom monogram, it seemed that a staffer just materialized, ready to help in seconds.
In fact, the only thing staff seemed to be incapable of was talking to me. A cashier deferred my request to speak with her manager, who directed my questions to L Brands’ PR. It was one of the kindest rejections I’ve ever received.
Nancy Deihl, director of NYU's M.A. Program in Costume Studies, told The Daily Beast that given the gnarly state of business for department stores, she was not too surprised by the shuttering. That said, she was not necessarily expecting the news.
“In fashion now, there is this turn towards heritage,” Deihl said. “People are so interested in the backstory of a brand, and you think that might keep people coming in the doors of Bendel.”
Unlike other troubled department stores such as Lord & Taylor and Sears, which were often indistinguishable, the Bendel look remained unique until the end. Designers found the image that worked for them: whimsical, patterned accessories that projected the put-together, but still playful mentality of many a fictional New York career girl. (Albeit one with a well-paying job, or rich parents.)
“It had a lot to distinguish itself from other places," said Deihl. "It was uptown, luxury, and even though it was definitely an American store from the beginning, it communicated a sense of European style.”
But lately, that breezy aesthetic has given way to quirky-chic, kitschy items that betrayed the brand's signature polish. It's hard to find something at Bendel's that is not logo-fied to death, which is a tough sell in an upscale market that is dominated by clean lines and minimalist sensibilities.
Even the brand's candles are mammoth, look like they weigh 16 pounds, and reek in a way that comes off as less aromatic and more “something died in this room and I'm trying to cover it up.”
In an oversaturated accessories market, Professor Deihl believes that it was tough for Bendel's to stand apart from the competition.
“Department stores have hugely increased the floor space that accessories occupy,” Deihl said. “There are people who are going to spend money on accessories, but to do so they really want that designer touch. They weren't getting it at Bendel's.”
Near the end of my Bendel's excursion, two men in pea coats entered the store.
“I've never been in here before,” one of the men said.
“It's just for women,” the other responded. “They sell bags and stuff.” They promptly turned around and left.
For Zubi, the Florida lawyer and perennial Bendel's shopper, it was a bit harder to exit the store's gilded doors.
“Once I walk out, I probably won't come back,” she said, with her voice slightly raised. “It’s not bittersweet, it’s just bitter. Straight bitter. Just terrible. Really sad.”