Henri Bendel closes its doors on luxury clothing

Rumors of a big Friday meeting swirled around Henri Bendel, the midtown luxury department store, all week. It was recently announced that a new Gossip Girl tour, a la the famous Sex and the City tour, was created to take tourists around the city's elite hot spots featured on the show, so naturally people thought the meeting would be about this. Bendel's, which has been featured several times on the show, seems to be the only place Serena and Blair shop. My inside source at Bendel's was suspicious: "We wouldn't be having a big meeting to talk about the tour," she told me.

Bendels Takes It Off

    The 114-year-old Henri Bendel luxury department store will stop selling clothing and focus instead on its accessories and cosmetics.

    Peter Kramer, Getty Images

    Customers preferred to spend thousands of dollars on accessories instead of clothes, said one source at Bendel's.

    Gregory Bull, AP

    Henri Bendel is often featured in Gossip Girl as the favorite shopping destination of the show's main characters.

    Jemal Countess, WireImage

    Bendel's is a stop on a newly opened tour in New York for Gossip Girl fans.

    Amy Sussman, Getty Images

    Bendel's is expanding by opening six accessories-only stores in shopping malls nationwide.

    Amy Sussman, Getty Images

Today it was announced the unthinkable. The 114-year-old Henri Bendel is going to stop selling clothes, and focus on its accessories and cosmetics.
It's wiping out the 3rd floor Designer and Trends department completely. The 2nd floor, contemporary clothes, will continue to sell throughout August. There will be no new shipment of clothes in, but expect a giant sale as August nears to clear out their merchandise. After August, the floor will sell more of the Bendel's line of accessories, jewelry, handbags, coffee and tea, etc., along with other accessory brands. The mood in the store is somber, as 11 people were laid off yesterday, and several more layoffs are expected among managers, designers, and sales executives.

Last March I examined whether or not high-end department stores were turning into museums. At Bendel's, the focus of my investigation, the upper clothing floors were museum quiet, whereas on the first floor, lipsticks and barrettes were flying off the shelves. In one corner, a woman dropped $400 on Laura Mercier makeup; in another corner a woman spent $2,000 on headbands. One could have easily predicted that Bendel's would only focus on its golden merchandise.

The clothes just haven't been selling. "It's ironic people won't spend a thousand dollars on a Missoni dress, but then they'll buy thousands in headbands," says my source. Of course Gossip Girl, where Leighton Meester sports a different iconic headband each episode, has been a huge promoter of the bands. Bendels has a crazy selection, not just of headbands, but also of sparkly clips, barrettes, and more, many priced at hundreds of dollars.

The closing of Bendel's as an all around department store, one that has been going since 1895 on that business philosophy, marks the end of an era. Henri Bendel, with its iconic brown and white stripes, decadent marble interior, and luxury trendsetting displays, was one of the landmark luxury department stores, up there with Harrods, Harvey Nichols, and Saks Fifth Avenue.

But don't sing a swan song for the store yet. Just because it's changing its business model doesn't mean people will stop coming.In fact, Bendels is expanding its own brand, opening up six accessories-only Bendel stores in shopping malls nationwide this year.

Employees receive huge discounts at the store, so they can dress the part of a Bendel's girl: a head full of sparkly hair clips, a wrist covered in dainty bracelets, holding a giant patent leather Bendel's bag. The image of luxury has changed. The new Bendel's girl is someone who drops her money on a few expensive accessories, while maybe she bought her outfit at H&M.

There is one plus that may come out of all of this: While Bendel's will leave the luxury clothing market to Bergdorf Goodman, Saks, and Barneys, Bendel's will have lots of wide open real estate to devote to accessories. Hopefully this will open up opportunities for up-and-coming handbag and jewelry designers to showcase their work through the Bendel's brand.
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