Chain Reaction

With a slew of new luxury shops either here or on their way, Boston, some say, has at last emerged as a style capital. But behind the slick facades is a lot of mass-market mediocrity.

And natty Bostonians aren’t buying it.

To the untrained eye, Barneys New York in the Copley Place mall doesn’t look so very different from some of the city’s more established fashion retailers—Saks, Neiman Marcus. In fact, if you took away the funky chandeliers, tiled mosaic floors, and two-months’-mortgage-for-a-jacket price tags, you could almost be in a Target. At 45,000 square feet, and with a display style that could be described as “cultivated clutter,” the store represents something of a first for the city: a truly mass-market approach to haute couture.

Certainly the PR and media campaign that greeted Barneys’s arrival in March had the feel of corporate-driven blitzkrieg. There hadn’t been this much fuss about an opening in Boston since Krispy Kreme came to town a few years back. “To hear local women tell it,” the Herald informed us in a preopening puff piece, “the arrival of Barneys New York is the biggest fashion event since Newbury Street became synonymous with style.” The store’s arrival was not merely news, then—it was history.

And an arbiter of change: In recent months Italian couturier Valentino has opened on Newbury, and stiletto emporium Jimmy Choo a few doors down from Barneys. L.A. high-end leisurewear dealer Juicy Couture is putting the finishing touches on its swank lower Newbury address, while the Dior boutique at Copley will soon undergo a massive expansion. Rumors buzz that Prada has already leased a spot at the Mandarin Oriental hotel-in-progress, while Nordstrom will introduce four area stores over the next five years. Dolce & Gabbana is said to be on its way.

Barneys is located in the former Loews Cineplex space, right next door to Chili’s, but customers aren’t usually inclined to stop off at the Tex-Mex franchise on their way out. Instead, according to the store’s VP and general manager, Timothy Olmstead, his clients might hit up the “full-service concierge,” who will be more than happy to book a table for them at one of the city’s tony eateries. Previously—at least according to conventional wisdom—such pampering was reserved for women who had townhouses on Beacon Hill and family plots at the Symphony. Barneys will book a table for someone who’s just purchased one of its fancy Aerosmith T-shirts.

“Boston has always had a reputation for being conservative,” Olmstead writes in an e-mail, “but I think that Boston-ians are fashion savvy and want the same beautiful clothes as shoppers in New York or L.A.” The media, so far, have tended to perpetuate this line of reasoning—that we’re finally shedding our stodgy old rep and getting some style. But Boston’s luxury boom has more to do with a feeding frenzy among upscale chains than a sudden hipness (which industry locals like Louis Boston owner Debi Greenberg would argue we’ve had for quite some time now, thank you). Nationally, the luxury retail market is in the throes of expansion fever, and Boston—with its educated, prosperous population—is among its first targets. The metro area is home to more than 4 million people, and many of its aging residents are sticking around to spend their money once the kids are grown. “A lot of wealthy Americans are no longer retiring and moving to Florida. They’re heading back into downtowns,” says Milton Pedraza of the Luxury Institute, a market research firm that tracks the spending habits of the wealthy. “Luxury retailers are realizing there’s a need to be local in the top U.S. cities—that means Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas.” Having a retail presence, adds Boston real estate agent Tom Brennan, is as much about branding as it is actual sales. “A store is a big billboard sign,” he says. “It’s like paying $20,000 for an ad in a magazine. Just a different form of advertising.”

A student population of around 250,000—some with an average monthly disposable income of thousands—is further bait. As Brennan puts it, “Chains know that if people can afford to send their kids here, they can afford to send them with extra money for shopping, getting their hair done, for fun.” Moreover, retailers know that catching kids early will help lock them in as customers forever.

So, while Olmstead says that “opening in Boston was like moving to a city where you already have family” (a reference to Barneys’s preexisting store at the Mall at Chestnut Hill), the reality is probably a little less touchy-feely—closer to a big-box, Barnes & Noble/Wal-Mart version of luxury marketing than a coming-home. Greenberg can’t help but point out that Barneys was acquired by Jones Apparel Group in 2004. “These people don’t buy these companies to keep them small,” she adds.

You can feel an antichain storm gathering in Boston. Predictably, a lot of the rumbling is coming from the owners of smaller, established boutiques. Equally predictably, a lot of the ire is being leveled at Barneys, with its explicit New York affiliation and department-store scale. “Can I be honest?” asks Tess Enright, co-owner of Tess & Carlos, a small local chain with a new store on Newbury. “I haven’t been to Barneys once. I don’t even care.” The litany of gripes is similar to those heard from independent bookstores a few years back: The new chains are driving up rents and eating up a limited amount of disposable income. “Boston is like a big pie,” says Riccardo Dallai Sr., owner of Newbury Street boutique Riccardi. “Everybody has a slice, and the slice is getting smaller.” Exclusivity is all but dead. “It used to be that you’d go to Newbury to get things you couldn’t get anywhere else,” says Marcelo Fernandes, whose Newbury Street menswear shop, Market, closed this spring. “But big labels just aren’t going to say no to a place like Barneys. Nowadays, nothing’s special.”

Fernandes’s comment gets to the heart of what the luxury fashion market is all about—a tacit understanding that you can don your new dress at a cocktail party and be reasonably sure that three other people won’t arrive wearing the same thing. So while some boutique owners express concern that chains like Barneys will upset the delicate balance of brands carried by local stores, possibly putting some out of business, buried within these arguments is a larger issue: that these newcomers are creating a homogenized—i.e., mass-market—retail landscape, undermining the very foundation of their industry. After all, the more luxury goods are aimed at common people, the more common those goods become.

“When Barneys opened, they said they’d push the envelope and introduce some new lines,” says the owner of a local boutique that stocks an assortment of independent labels. “I think they’re playing it safe. This is the kind of merchandise that appeals to a large commercial crowd—a lot of Theory women’s sportswear that you can get in quite a few places; Marc Jacobs, which you can get in Saks, in Neiman’s, and in Jacobs’s own store.”
Gretchen Monahan, owner of Gretta Luxe, goes so far as to suggest that Barneys pulls the cashmere over customers’ eyes. “I shop at the Barneys in New York all the time,” she says. “It’s a whole different ball game. The Barneys here isn’t serving the person who’s looking for something that uniquely defines them, the sort of shopper who will never be tricked by knockoffs, who doesn’t confuse Marc by Marc Jacobs with Marc Jacobs Collection.”

Nonsense, counters Olmstead. “We bring the same offerings here as there,” he says. “We don’t have a market-oriented buying team; it’s the same team for all our stores.” Local store owners would argue, however, that a city with an identity as strong as Boston’s needs a market-oriented buying team.
Olmstead, who has been with Barneys locally for 17 years—mostly with its Chestnut Hill enterprise—is fighting an unfair battle here. He does know his market, and he does care about his customers, and he probably is committed to upping the stakes a little in the local fashion scene. All the same, as Louis Boston’s Greenberg points out, attitudes might be changing in Boston, but the underlying character of the city remains very much in place, and a large part of that makeup is the resistance to the idea that we need lessons in cosmopolitanism from our uppity rival to the south.

Indeed, of all the markets in the United States, perhaps Boston will prove most resistant to the idea of mass-market luxury. It’s the age-old paradox—in spite of its international students and its tourists and its sophisticated business environment, Boston has always remained an insular, tight-knit town. The high-fashion retail community here is an extreme example of that ethos. It’s intimate and niche-y (that is, exclusionary), and people like it that way. “We’re not New York,” says Greenberg. “Boston values small.”

It could be argued, of course, that Barneys isn’t doing anything Saks and Neiman Marcus haven’t already done here—opening large stores to compete with, and possibly dominate, locally owned boutiques. But it all comes down to a matter of tone. Saks and Neiman’s entered the market as unabashed chains. Their explicit intent was to provide shoppers with more fashion options, not to revolutionize the way Bostonians think about what they wear. Barneys, whether by its own design or through media hype, has come to typify that brash, trendier-than-thou New York attitude that rankles people here. In this context, Olmstead’s assertion that Boston shoppers “want the same beautiful clothes as shoppers in New York or L.A.” comes across as condescending, almost pitying.

Some say Barneys got off on the wrong foot from the start. “I don’t know where they got their guest list from, probably New York,” a local socialite says of the store’s opening party. “All of these people weren’t invited. I have one friend who spends an enormous amount of money at Saks and Louis who wasn’t on the list. She was like, ‘What do they think they’re doing? They have to invite the right people!’ I think they were trying to do something different, trying to cut a new swath through society opening parties. But Boston’s very small. It will rub people the wrong way. You can’t be too different, or you’ll be out.”