A Tale of Two Department Stores

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It is both the best and worst of times for the complex relationship between retail, ethical/sustainable clothing production, and technology. A staggering number of stores that were everyday go-tos have either shuttered their doors or massively scaled back their operations due to the convenience of online alternatives and an inability to keep pace with the ever-accelerating rate of change within the fashion world. Simultaneously, the intersection of technology and fashion allows bloggers, influencers, and online style updates to democratize the industry with their own editorials and introduce unique perspectives. While e-commerce requires fleets of gas-guzzling trucks to deliver packages wrapped in cardboard, fortified in bubble wrap, and sealed in plastic, there are a number of designers who combat this aspect of online retail through sustainable manufacturing. They actively work to minimize their environmental footprint and to better serve their community, often making ethical production a component of their platform. Nowhere is the crossover between eco-conscious operations and technology in fashion better exemplified than the divergent trends of Barneys New York and Neighborhood Goods. Although the two department stores might have been merely forty blocks away from one another, they operate(d) with very different agendas. 

In August, Barneys New York filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy with over $100 million in debt. Among Barneys’ main financial woes were significant rent increases and a decline in sales. If Manhattan could be encapsulated in a store, then Barneys was the place: dazzling ensembles assembled with the speed of a Wall Street trade; the store’s unapologetic luxury and trendsetting style served as a sartorial symbol for the city itself. Once a department store that led the vanguard for fashion in the United States (introducing Americans to the likes of Armani, Azzedine Alaia, Christian Louboutin, and Commes des Garçons), in recent years, Barneys lagged in terms of innovation and in response to evolving consumers tastes. With the fall of one of Manhattan’s most cherished brick and mortar retailers, technology claimed another fashion victim. Barneys was not alone. In 2019, Forever 21 declared bankruptcy, Karen Millen closed all of its stores (Boohoo Group acquired the online business rights to the label and its designs can be found exclusively on the web), Debenhams closed 22 stores, Topshop closed all of its US stores, and L.K. Bennett closed 15 stores. The jobs lost due to these closures are just one significant impact of the tech-fashion relationship.

Online luxury providers Net-A-Porter and Moda Operandi afford consumers access to sustainably and ethically produced merchandise and constant fashion updates through newsletters (Net-A-Porter features Porter and Moda Operandi provides The Edit). In addition, their content is available to consumers in one de-centralized forum for fashion, allowing for price comparison and increase in optionality. Although Barneys, too, was a one-stop-shop for fashion’s biggest names, the department store could not showcase an entire outfit assembled on one model as did its online competitors nor did it meet the demand for ecology-conscious fashion. Net-A-Porter is entirely fur-free while Barneys had a fur salon; The RealReal enables customers to uncover consignment items with the same designer appeal as Barneys’ merchandise but for less. Furthermore, unlike the de-centralized shopping atmosphere of the internet, Barneys was situated in affluent neighborhoods, which precluded any possibility of an egalitarian realm for browsing and potential purchasing. These same retail locations that took such a grave toll on its earnings (in January of 2019, the rent of Barneys’ Madison Avenue flagship jumped from $16 million to $30 million) hindered the retailer’s ability to stock the latest season’s merchandise and return profit to its vendors, underserving the elite to whom they expressly catered and the fashion community of which they considered themselves apart. Even when Barneys set up shop in Downtown New York City in 2016 to update their image, the store was still unable to shake the stigma of elitism that influencers and online retailers alike – whether luxury, streetwear, or a combination of the two – have defied. 

If 2019, claimed more high-profile victims in traditional retail, the sustainability crisis in mass-market online retail also came to the fore. The rise of Instagram influencers demands fast and frequent turnover of fashion lines so that a social media personality’s content is most up to date with trends. No brand is more recognized for rapid merchandise output than Fashion Nova, whose garments are stitched together by a workforce paid “illegally low wages” according to The New York Times. The new normal for fast-fashion brands of producing anywhere from 12-24 lines a year not only means that more artisan retailers scramble to keep pace with the ever-changing trends but that working conditions are sub-par, countless items are shipped using planes, trains, and automobiles every day, cheaper materials that leave a severe carbon footprint (like polyester) are employed, and vast amounts of surplus clothing are landfilled. In fact, Business Insider reports that “the equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second.” Yet, as options for the all-in-one shopping experience that the High Street and department stores provide dwindle, consumers are driven to fast fashion brands that cater to social media demands but exploit workers and pollute the environment.

International demand for ethical and sustainable manufacturing has begun to give rise to corporate accountability. Until recently, one might have included Zara in the list of retail titans without an environmental conscience. While Vox reports that the company has undeniably damaged its surrounding biomes and paid its workers sub-poverty wages, Zara’s parent company, Inditex, announced in July that they would employ 100% sustainable cotton and 100% recycled polyester and have 80% renewable energy in all of their facilities before 2025. Although this in no way compensates for the past havoc the brand has wreaked upon the environment, it does pressure other fast-fashion brands to improve upon their environmental footprint – if for no other reason than customers will look elsewhere if companies do not conduct themselves along the lines of a more ecologically conscious code. 

Better still, certain smaller brands instill conscious production into their culture from inception. Unable to find quality outerwear that was both well insulated and animal friendly, James Yurichuk, founder of Wuxly and Canada native, designed his parkas that use “military-grade PrimaLoft Gold Insulation that outperform traditional down-filled outerwear.” The brand is Peta-certified, produced locally in Canada, and made of long-lasting and entirely recyclable materials. A more well-known eco-friendly label is Reformation. Although, the brand provides style at a slightly higher price point than most fast fashion outlets, ethical and sustainable production has been a cornerstone of the brand’s platform since its founding and remains inextricably linked to its popularity. For example, 100% of the workers in their LA factory earn “living wage,” shoppers are provided with a Refscale that breaks down the environmental impact of each item, and the label’s packaging is comprised of 100% consumer waste materials. Understanding that environmental awareness is a priority for their clientele, Reformation also sends an email to customers at the close of the year with the amount of water, carbon dioxide, and waste shoppers have saved with their purchased items.

Enter Neighborhood Goods. A new department store with a new mission. Neighborhood Goods has two locations: a flagship in Plano, Texas outside Dallas (a state and city synonymous with oil and gas) and a store in Chelsea Market, New York (a neighborhood market that houses food stands with a global view, small artisan shops, and vintage spots). On their web page, the store has a section called “Stories,” in which they spotlight sustainably and ethically conscious brands. One of these is Emory Bee that sources sustainable and vegan fabrics to fabricate classically tailored and youthful silhouettes. The store even fosters its own social network of sorts by investing in communities, featuring its own employees’ style preferences and goals for 2020 on their website (as Goop has done), and creating a forum for joint experience through their boutiques. It hosts events that range from cooking classes to yoga lessons to trunk shows and works to make its spaces inviting: in the New York store, there is a healthy-minded café, Tiny Feast, and an aesthetically tantalizing lifestyle section in which there is an entire corner dedicated to Taschen gems. Neighborhood Goods writes: “We’re reshaping the notion of department stores and physical retail to foster a new culture around shopping and the experiences therein. We’re building beautiful, social spaces, featuring amazing food, drinks, events, live speakers, and more.”

While the era of traditional luxury in-store shopping represented by Barneys New York may be coming to close, a new department store experience that can both meet the ever-shifting landscape of social media fashion and take on ethical and sustainable goals takes its place. Neighborhood Goods places its finger to the wind and shape-shifts its approach to style based on the consumer and not the other way around. Whether in Plano, Texas or in Chelsea Market, one enters an atmosphere of inclusivity with the understanding that store items have been carefully curated. They are displayed on the floor because they look fantastic and, better yet, are fantastic for the environment.