‘Barneys was a unique little oasis.’

Creative director Ronnie Cooke Newhouse revisits the 1990s Barneys ad campaigns that saw her assemble a cast of Steven Meisel, Linda Evangelista, Glenn O’Brien, several lobsters and a chimp.

Interview by Thomas Lenthal

In 1923, a clothing store at 7th Avenue and 17th Street in Manhattan went out of business. The store’s lease, fixtures and stock – 40 men’s suits – were bought by a man named Barney Pressman with $500 raised, legend has it, by pawning his wife’s wedding ring. He renamed his new store Barney’s and began selling discounted, though good-quality men’s clothing for ‘less-affluent customers who had Champagne tastes but beer budgets’, as the New York Times put it. To promote his store, he began a Barney’s tradition of investing in innovative advertising.Barney’s son Fred, who took over the business in the mid-1940s, stuck with the store’s basic principles – quality menswear, altered for free, at reasonable prices – but introduced New York’s men to European chic including Givenchy and Pierre Cardin. Then in 1978, Fred’s son, Gene, persuaded his father to let him open a small women’s department, setting in motion the process of transforming the store into a go-to shopping destination. Over the next 15 years, Gene and his brother Bob added new designers, opened new stores, and commissioned photographers such as Herb Ritts and Nick Knight to shoot ads, renewing the brand’s image and reputation along the way.

With the passing of 1980s moneyed glitz and shiny glamour, Gene Pressman decided to take Barneys’ ad campaigns in a new direction, and in 1990 hired Ronnie Cooke Newhouse as creative director to work alongside writer and man-about-town Glenn O’Brien. By then, the company had dropped its apostrophe, expanded into Japan with the help of Isetan, and was deep into planning its ultimate coup: moving its main store uptown to a huge space on Madison Avenue, again designed by Peter Marino.

These big steps were matched by the memorable campaigns that Cooke Newhouse delivered between 1990 and 1995: a series of witty, visually challenging and sometimes downright silly campaigns, often shot by Steven Meisel and featuring the era’s best-known faces, particularly Linda Evangelista. The images of supermodels and monkeys, hot actors and lobsters, combined her visual direction and O’Brien’s text to meld downtown sass and uptown sophistication, in the process bringing Barneys’ communications defiantly up to date and buttressing the company’s daringly irreverent image during its rapid expansion. And in the process, Cooke Newhouse and O’Brien proved that fashion advertising didn’t necessarily have to be po-faced and that humour could – and still can – boost sales.

Earlier this year, Ronnie Cooke Newhouse met with System’s Thomas Lenthal to discuss her era-defining work for Barneys, the difference between uptown and downtown, and the precarious future of today’s department stores.
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