Barneys Addresses Struggles With Irreverent New Window Campaign: “NOT CLOSED”
Barneys New York, the iconic department store that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August, has finally released a statement on its financial struggles, and has done it as only Barneys could: with a cheeky new window campaign, “Dear Shopper.” It features mantras “inspired by sensational headlines,” per a press release, such as “BARNEYS TIL I DIE,” “NOT CLOSED,” and “THE EMPEROR HAS CLOTHES.”
The campaign was spearheaded by the store’s creative director, Matthew Mazzucca, in partnership with High Snobiety editor-in-chief Thom Bettrigde and Interview editorial director and Wieden + Kennedy global creative director Richard Turley. (Bettridge was the executive editor at Interview until he decamped for High Snobiety in July. Turley is also a co-creator of Civilization, the avant-garde newspaper that found its way to a Junya Watanabe menswear collection earlier this summer.) “The lens we went into it with,” said Bettridge in a phone interview, “was that Barneys has never been more relatable than it is right now,” explaining that “financial distress is a common American trope.” Turley added that they wanted “to encourage them to be a little bit more vulnerable and out front.”
“It’s been really hard to navigate,” Mazzucca said in a phone interview, of the fracas around Barneys’s financial woes. “We haven’t really had an opportunity to speak for ourselves.” Not only about Barneys’ struggles specifically, he said, but the larger retail environment in New York: “Certainly we’re not the only ones,” he said, who are feeling the pressures of sky-high rent and the dominance of e-commerce. They wanted to explore “what it means for true New Yorkers” that these factors have driven so much change in the city. The campaign came together in about two weeks, arriving just in time for a New York Fashion Week launch.
The Barneys team decided to use the windows rather than a news story because it felt more cohesive. “Putting something in the press, putting [together] something that can be broken apart, doesn’t feel right,” Mazzucca said. “This is something that like, you can’t disassemble and make a different thing out of.”
The corporate big guns, including CEO Daniela Vitale, didn’t need any convincing: “She’s bold,” Mazzucca said, “and thank God for that!”
Plus, it’s, ya know, on brand. Window witticisms have been a Barneys New York signature for decades, a tone long set by creative-ambassador-at-large Simon Doonan. More generally, acerbic but stylish advertising is part of Barneys’ DNA, since it transformed from a discount menswear store into a temple to forward-thinking fashion in the late ’70s. The company put Andy Warhol in commercials in the ’80s, and in the ’90s, creative director Glenn O’Brien (himself an Interview alum) put the season’s best fashion into painted advertisements by Jean-Philippe Delhomme, complete with dry creative upper-class ripostes: “Ruth had multiple personalities. They all had credit cards.”
The new windows are white, minimalist boxes overladen with text, intended to communicate honestly about the company’s struggles, and to remind its customers that the Barneys they loved is still there—physically and spiritually. “Part of the brief from Barneys was, ‘People think that we’re closed,” Bettridge said, “so there’s something really straightforward about [saying], Okay, let’s just write ‘We’re not closed’ on the front of the store.’”
The windows have a “simplicity,” Mazzucca explained, adding that “the white with the plexi-glass goes back to that level of transparency, and kind of keeping things simple and monolithic, like the brand itself.” Behind a window reading GIVE ME SOME are boxes of seasonal and timeless must-have accessories, from Gucci’s Mickey Mouse head handbag to a basket of french fries, along with a shopping list on the back wall that seems dreamed up by the ideal Barneys gallery-hopping richster customer: “healing crystal earrings,” “CBD oil,” “pillow to scream into.” Another window reads, 4,573 HOT LOOKS FOR FALL, a sendup of manic marketing emails—in front of a rack of plain white shirts. A third window reads, NOT LAST SEASON, and contains two cubes: A BOX OF PURSES and A BOX OF MANOLOS. (Another benefit of a conceptual, copy-driven window design is that “it was extremely inexpensive,” Mazzucco said.)
Of course, there’s always a risk of a campaign with a sense of humor backfiring, especially when financial wrongdoing is involved (Barneys reportedly owes some brands, including The Row, Celine, and Saint Laurent, millions of dollars). The goal, Mazzucca said, “is to be radical and [provocative] without being offensive or aggressive.” The campaign is really a message to customers. “It's an objective kind of way of us just speaking for ourselves,” said Mazzucca, “and speaking to the people within our company, the store staff, our customers and clients.” Ultimately, he said, the message is to the customers; the campaign arrived with a letter explaining that “like a lot of us out there, we have had our share of financial struggles,” but that “we are open for you.” On the Instagram post announcing the campaign, a few commenters were not impressed, with a handful pointing out that Barneys has yet to repay its vendors.
But Mazzucca has already seen a great response from passers-by. “I love to stand on the sidewalk and watch people react,” he said. He’s seen a number of customers read the letter, laugh, and come in. The campaign will also roll out across the five remaining Barneys stores (17 of the 22 stores were closed when the company filed for bankruptcy), and he, Bettridge, and Turley will continue to update and morph the windows over the next five weeks, along with text and visuals that expand the campaign into the second floor of the store, creating a space to respond to feedback on the project.
“As a company,” Mazzucca said, “we need that levity to work through it.”