Flagships of New York: Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel

The series Flagships of New York: The Great Department Stores continues with a look at Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel.

• Bergdorf Goodman
754 Fifth Avenue, 58th

The one and only Bergdorf Goodman remains an exception among the great New York department stores, because the company chose to limit its business to the pair of stores on Fifth Avenue and 58th Street (and online now, of course). Its main store sits on the west side of 58th Street and the men's store on the east side of the avenue. Bergdorf Goodman's exclusivity is accentuated by its geographical proximity to its posh neighbor - The Plaza, directly to the north, as well as the sight of the horse-drawn carriages lining up at the southeast corner of the park nearby. If you want to shop at BG, you have to come to one of the most important intersections in Manhattan.  

At the end of the 19th century, Herman Bergdorf, a French immigrant to New York City, owned a tailoring shop on Fifth Avenue and 19th Street, specializing in fine tailored suits for women. In 1899, a 23-year-old tailor by the name of Edwin Goodman came to work with him. Two years later, in 1901, Edwin became a partner, creating the business known as Bergdorf Goodman. Later, while Goodman traveled to Europe on his honeymoon, Bergdorf decided to move the business to a cheap address on W. 32nd. St. Goodman did not care for this decision. According to the company story on fundinguniverse.com, "The two men did not remain partners much longer: Goodman bought out Bergdorf, who then retired and enjoyed his remaining years in Paris." 

With Bergdorf out of the way, Goodman concentrated on building an affluent clientele. He moved the store up Fifth Avenue to where Rockefeller Center now stands. Business boomed, and he quickly outgrew the space. With rumors of the future Rock Center circulating, Goodman relocated his store to the current site on Fifth Avenue and W. 58th St. After his death in 1953, Goodman's son, Andrew, assumed leadership of the company and further expanded the store. Bergdorf Goodman was sold in 1972 to a company that also acquired the historic Dallas retailer, Neiman Marcus. The latter currently operates the two Bergdorf Goodman stores in New York City in addition to its own stores.

"Wish You Were Here," a window of fantasy travels at Bergdorf Goodman

A shopping trip to New York should always include a visit to Bergdorf Goodman. Highly recommended for the holiday season is a trip to the 7th floor to shop for holiday decorations and to look at the store's restaurant overlooking Central Park. Go all out for lunch or afternoon tea. This year's holiday windows, "Wish You Were Here," imagine a fanciful trip to all corners of the world. The elaborate mashup of Victorian exotica at times borders on steampunk.

Bergdorf's blog, 5th/58th, has a nice feature on the making of this year's windows.

• Henri Bendel
712-714 Fifth Avenue, between 55th and 56th

You would be forgiven if you assumed that Henri Bendel, the man who brought the fashions of Coco Chanel and other French designers to his store in New York, hailed from France himself, but then you will have to answer to the citizens of Lafayette, Louisiana. Henri Willis Bendel was born in Vermillionville, the town later known as Lafayette, in 1868. When he was a young man he opened a millinery shop in Morgan City. There he married Blanche Lehman, the daughter of the prominent Lehman family, the very Lehman branch whose brothers would move to New York during the Civil War to build a powerful investment firm. Henri and Blanche also moved to New York where Henri met success with his designs. Tragically, Blanche died soon thereafter. According to an article in the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, "To cope, Henry plunged into his work, soon opening large stores on Fifth Avenue and Paris.  His designs were instant hits and his business skyrocketed." 

So, there you have it. The roots of Henri Bendel rest not in Paris but in French Louisiana. As designer and retailer, Bendel would cultivate Parisian connections. Speaking French greatly helped his cause. According to all reports, Bendel maintained a personal connection to the citizens of Lafayette throughout his life. A generous man, Henri gave his store employees valuable shares of the business. He died on March 22, 1936. His nephew later became president of the company. (Read more about Bendel at American National Biography) Limited Brands, a company based in Ohio, bought the company in 1985.

For many years, Henri Bendel's store was located in an eight-story building at 10 West 57th Street, and many generations of New York women fondly remember that location. In 1990 the store moved to its present spot on Fifth Avenue, filling two landmarked buildings and building a new structure. Visiting the store, with its accessories, cosmetics, perfumes, and gifts, including festively packaged gourmet food items, is something akin to visiting a paradise for many fashionable young women.

store window at Henri Bendel inspired by Balanchine's The Nutcracker

This year's holiday windows at Henri Bendel, based on George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, encourage the store's young women clients to explore their inner Clara. Presumably, when the young women of Bendel's grow up, they move down the street to Bergdorf's.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple, who has ridden many escalators over the last two weeks. This post is part of a series, Flagships of New York: The Great Department Stores.

Read all the posts in this series, Flagships of New York:

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