“Luxury Was an Emotion”: Neiman Marcus and the Decline of Luxury Americana

The boysSylvester Stallone and Luther Vandrosshit up a Donna Karan show at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills California....
The boys–Sylvester Stallone and Luther Vandross–hit up a Donna Karan show at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, California. Photo by Jim Smeal/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images.Jim Smeal

This was all just how Neimans worked. In the ’90s and early 2000s, visiting its stores felt like watching an American remake of a European film, with everything gold and brocaded and sort of vaguely Mediterranean feeling. Just as Barneys epitomized New York cool, Neimans stood for a playful attitude towards the world’s finest things—an egalitarian attitude. As Downing said of the Beverly Hills customer, “They may dress in a casual sense, but they love high fashion, and they interpret high fashion.” That’s the line between shopping on Rodeo in blue jeans with a Chanel jacket, and shopping in sweatpants.

Did Neimans lose its sensibility, or did the definition of luxury itself shift? Neimans is far from the only retailer to find itself crippled with debt over the past decade. Like many retailers, including J. Crew., which also filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy this week, Neimans’ troubles began in earnest in 2013, after leveraged buyout left the company with billions in debt. The business was on track for a financial “transformation” before the pandemic, its chief executive Geoffrey Van Raemdonck told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, “but we had massive interest payments. Covid threw everything off track. This is an opportunity to reset our financial structure.”

But over the past decade, said Aldridge, the Dallas blogger, the store has felt less adventurous. “Ten or 15 years ago the shoe selection at the Northpark Neimans location was better than what they had to offer in New York. They would always have a few really outrageous things, because Dallas has those kooky customers.” Now, she said, “Neimans has become much more conservative with their buying.”

Dallas will never lose its singular sense of style, of course, but the concept of a distinctly American luxury seems to have faded. Or perhaps it’s just shifted to something less about glamour and more about speed. People are still buying kooky, expensive clothes, after all—but they’re finding them online, on sites like Ssense and Moda Operandi. While in-store purchases still make up the majority of luxury shopping around the world, visiting the Hudson Yards store felt like stepping back into a time portal to Beverly Hills in the ’90s, when things like beige and hummus seemed exotic. And each time I went, it was nearly empty.

The Neiman Marcus store at Hudson Yards in New York City. Photo by Craig BarrittGetty Images for Neiman Marcus.
The Neiman Marcus store at Hudson Yards in New York City. Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Neiman Marcus.Craig Barritt

What have we lost, besides great entertainment? “It goes beyond Neiman Marcus,” Becker said, “but there is a certain amount of consumer education that I think used to exist, and used to be cultivated by places like Neimans….They took the time to explain to their customers why spending a little bit more on something would mean that it would last longer or it would be better for their lifestyle.”

A woman at Neiman Marcus in Atlanta in 2003. Photo by mark petersonCorbis via Getty Images.
A woman at Neiman Marcus in Atlanta in 2003. Photo by mark peterson/Corbis via Getty Images.mark peterson

Downing said he is hopeful the store will recover, and added that he carries forward the sensibility he honed there in his new role at retail and entertainment conglomerate behind the American Dream Mall, whose opening has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic but which has already been controversial. “You can’t forget creating an experience, creating an emotion. And that it’s not about how people feel when they arrive. How do they feel when they leave?”

What will today’s shoppers, Downing wondered, “feel innately when they hear the name ‘American Dream’?” I couldn’t help but think he was talking about the real thing.

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