It was where Sean Combs got his start in fashion, Sarah Jessica Parker bought her Calvins and André Leon Talley rode the escalator with Givenchy: memories from 150 years at Bloomingdale’s.
Queen Elizabeth II made a point of checking out Bloomingdale’s on a 1976 visit to New York, as any good tourist must.Credit…Ron Galella/Getty
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Ruth La Ferla and
In an era of fast fashion and memes with the life span of a mayfly, it is astonishing to think that, smack in the middle of Midtown Manhattan, there exists a retail institution whose existence reaches from the Gilded Age to the digital. That place is Bloomingdale’s, the retail stalwart anchoring a blocklong stretch of Lexington Avenue at 59th Street, as well as a department store consortium with outposts throughout the country.
Founded in 1872 by the brothers Lyman and Joseph Bloomingdale as the Great East Side Bazaar offering “skirts, corsets, hosiery, millinery, gloves” and a broad array of “fancy stuffs,” Bloomingdale’s set an American template for a modish form of dry goods emporium generally thought to have originated in early 19th-century Paris. If the original store, only three blocks south of the present-day flagship, sold mostly hoop skirts and ladies’ notions (alongside servants’ livery), the fact that Bloomingdale’s survived to celebrate its 150th anniversary this year can be laid to the knack its founders and their descendants had for holding up the looking glass of fashion to their world.
Few retail institutions have tracked style’s many evolutions as successfully as Bloomie’s, as it’s familiarly known. And fewer periods in its long history seem quite as memorable as the span of years that extended from the Swinging Sixties to the onset of internet retailing.
The reasons are straightforward. Bloomingdale’s in that period was guided by a visionary merchant, the chief executive Marvin Traub, and by a corps of quirky and intrepid lieutenants. Chief among these were the window designer Candy Pratts Price and the fashion director Kalman Ruttenstein, a style panjandrum with such surefire instincts that, as a 1994 New Yorker profile noted, it would have been crazy to buck them. Hardly anyone did.
In the interviews edited and condensed here, designers, journalists, store alumni and style aficionados weighed in on what it was that made Bloomingdale’s the Disneyland of retailing and why, in the fashion capital that is New York, it was Bloomingdale’s that Queen Elizabeth II chose to visit on an official bicentennial-year trip to Britain’s onetime colony.
Blair Sabol, journalist; fashion columnist at the The Village Voice, 1968-72 and 1976
It was 1976, the height of Bloomingdale’s. The subway took you right to 59th Street and into Saturday’s Generation. It was a place to hang. It was a gym before gyms were happening. It was a disco, it was a food store, it was a scene.
The cruising factor was so important. I remember going into the men’s department at 2 o’clock and seeing all the rich guys from Yellow Fingers. Every Thursday night you could look at the new interior displays and cruise around Forty Carrots. It was the first time I ever had frozen yogurt. That was my social life on Thursday night. I thought if I have nowhere else to go, I’ll go to Bloomingdale’s.
William Norwich, author; former columnist at The Daily News and The New York Post
Bloomingdale’s was Disneyland, filled with all kinds of people, tall and thin, men and women and everyone undecided. Saturday’s Generation was in the basement, and it was hipper than thou. There were probably any number of hip stores all over town, but Bloomingdale’s became an aggregator of hip looks.
Michael Kors, fashion designer
Bloomingdale’s always represented what was quick, what was new. It had this very New York spirit in that way. Also, the people watching was amazing. The customers brought the place alive. It was a full experience in that way — the food, the fashion, the theater of seeing it all in person. Even being in the store and looking around at all the people shopping told you where you wanted to go in fashion and where you didn’t.
Jeffrey Banks, fashion designer
You actually got dressed up to shop. If you wanted to know which celebrities were in the city on any given weekend, you’d go to Bloomingdale’s, where sooner or later one would turn up. André Leon Talley introduced me to Givenchy on the escalator.
I completely remember having my first frozen yogurt at Forty Carrots. I also told my mother I only wanted croissants from Bloomingdale’s bakery.
Debbie Bancroft, philanthropist and fashion consultant
In the 1980s and ’90s, a visit to Bergdorf was like having tea with your grandmother on Park Avenue. Going to Bloomingdale’s was like having tequila with your aunt by marriage who wore leggings and platforms.
David Patrick Columbia, columnist; founder of New York Social Diary
Bloomingdale’s was the center of Manhattan. Everyone went. The whole gay crowd went there on Saturdays. It was almost like show business. They promoted the store the way you promote a movie.
Candy Pratts Price, fashion editor; designer; Bloomingdale’s chief window designer and visual merchandiser, 1975-85
My goal was to create theater. The question was “How can I make you want a lipstick?” We knew that the only way you could sell the brands was by making people stop on the street. We even thought of putting microphones on the street at one time, just to hear what people were saying. We didn’t.
The Lexington Avenue windows were prize real estate. We changed them out every 10 days. We did a corner window for home furnishings once when the Cuisinart first came out and built a modern kitchen with a model behind a kitchen counter displaying all the wonderful things you could buy. We had her cook an egg.
Stephanie Solomon, Bloomingdale’s fashion director, 1984-2013
For Mother’s Day one year, Candy had all the Lexington Avenue windows filled with female mannequins in couples, sitting around smoking and drinking Champagne. You could never do those windows today. You’d be jailed!
Candy Pratts Price
We changed the way of display. Once we placed a sauna inside the 59th Street side with cabins and all the “girls” with towels wrapped around their hair. Another time, we were inspired by “The Birds,” so we strung all these birds up on wire. I’m a fan of Agatha Christie, so we made a false ceiling and had a mannequin falling from the “apartment” upstairs.
Ed Burstell, brand adviser and strategist; Bloomingdale’s beauty buyer, 1986-89
It was multi-sensory. There was music coordinated to make you thump along. There was a famous perfume known for being very engaging. When Fendi launched one of their fragrances, the perfumer would spritz and say, “Fendi, ladies, the passion of Rome.”
A lot of those people who worked on the floor in cosmetics were go-go dancers at night, dancing on a box. I would see them performing, and the next day there they were behind the cosmetics counter. There was a little bit of gender-bending going on. It was all very much ahead of its time.
Zac Posen, fashion designer
Fashion now is becoming more entertainment-based, and that’s what Bloomingdale’s gave us, with their full-store country promotions, those incredible windows, the idea of creating an immersive experience that was for New York City but that extended to the rest of the world.
Now I see all these pop-up, niche-experience museums that are very successful and very social-media-driven, and I think that is essentially what Bloomingdale’s was at one time.
Emily Orr, assistant curator of modern and contemporary design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Bloomingdale’s had used technology to attract customers for decades. It was one of the first places consumers could experience the speed of an escalator. They could climb to the sixth floor and have a panoramic view of the city. Later on, the interior decorator Barbara D’Arcy was responsible for much of the ground floor layout with the black-and-white checkerboard flooring and that almost blocklong view you had of the main floor. They were always harnessing the power of architecture.
Pedestrians are still awed by that full facade on Lexington Avenue. The message there was not only “Come here to browse and buy a global array of goods,” but also “Come to experience the latest in architecture and interior design.”
For me, Bloomingdale’s was the Valhalla of what represented a fast, big city to a kid growing up in the suburbs. For the junior prom I needed a suit, and because I was super, super skinny, the clothes just swallowed me whole. But Bloomingdale’s carried smaller cut, private-label European clothes that fit me perfectly. I bought a creamy khaki-colored suit that fit me perfectly, and I still can’t believe the men’s department carried a suit that small.
That look of the Upper East Side, they created that. They got me the right handbag, the Cher jewelry if I wanted it and the boho top. I really miss that level of consuming. Amazon is not a part of anyone’s life, other than hitting the checkout key.
Julian Fellowes, creator of “Downton Abbey” and “The Gilded Age”
I included Bloomingdale’s in “The Gilded Age” partly because I wanted to illustrate the glamour of the big city. The character Marian has grown up in Doylestown, Pa., where the shops in 1882 would have been fairly fundamental. She’d have made her own clothes or ordered them from a local seamstress, and luxury goods were certainly in short supply. The shops in New York that had opened in the 1860s, ’70s and ’80s would have seemed unimaginably glamorous and full of things she had only dreamed about.
Sarah Jessica Parker, actor and producer
When I got to New York, I wanted so badly to be a Bloomingdale’s shopper, but I really couldn’t afford the things there — well, maybe I could have if I was totally irresponsible. Still, I could go in, and there were all these things you could aspire to — even if in the end you might leave with one Little Brown Bag.
There was one incident when I threw all caution to the wind. That was when the Calvin Klein underwear came out. People were on line at dawn with orders from friends, and I was, too. I remember Justine Bateman calling from L.A. asking me to pick her up a pair.
Robert Highsmith, Bloomingdale’s doorman since 1996
They used to open the store for Diana Ross. She would do her shopping late at night, at 9 or 10 o’clock. She was a very polite person, but she just wanted to be in the store by herself. Sometimes you’ve just got to give people their time and let them do their thing.
Patrick McDonald, fashion figure, New York and Palm Springs; worked at Bloomingdale’s in 1978
The store had floorwalkers then. They had to wear carnations. If you needed something, you would tap the counter with a pen and they would come to help you.
There was a jacket in Saturday’s Generation, a bomber, patchwork corduroy with cotton sleeves. I called my mother and asked if I could buy it. I felt like Undine Spragg in “The Custom of the Country.” That jacket was the only thing I needed in life.
Bloomingdale’s was democratic. It felt like being invited to a party. But it could also be overwhelming. I went with a friend once to get a pair of stockings and there were so many choices she had to turn around and leave.
David Patrick Columbia
It was really quite difficult to get an account there. You had to go through a process. But when you did receive a Bloomingdale’s credit card, it was almost like having a Who’s Who listing. You felt you had really moved up in the world.
There were a lot of tourists, and people from every country knew that Bloomingdale’s bag. It was part of the scenery of New York. That name on the bag would bring people into the store.
The store’s branding set it apart. That Massimo Vignelli brown bag design became completely embedded in the culture.
Oh, I had hundreds of them, I loved them so much. That was the shopping bag of the Upper East Side — not Hermès, not Bergdorf, not Barneys. All of this was really the beginning of modern merchandising. What Bloomingdale’s did was look to the zeitgeist and sell it back to us.
Candy Pratts Price
Marvin Traub knew that the pulse of the city was dictated by the eyeballs that were out there. He was that P.T. Barnum kind of retailer. And Kal was the ringmaster.
Kal Ruttenstein was a true tastemaker, though I guess you’d call it an influencer now. It was not just that he spotted the trends, he had to sell them. He had feelers out all the time for whatever a hot thing was, on the street, on the runway, on the Lower East Side.
He brought this unknown to see me called Alexander Wang. He was making intarsia sweaters with movie stars on them — not movie-star movie stars, but rock ’n’ roll people or European actors like Charlotte Gainsbourg. I loved them, but we had to beg and plead with the merchants to buy into the line. But then … well, you saw how that worked out.
Kal gave me carte blanche to do projects in the windows. For my first full collection, they gave me all the windows in the store. Think about it. I was 21.
Sean Combs, rapper, record producer, fashion designer and entrepreneur
Kal came to our offices personally to view our first collection, which consisted of velour tracksuits, denim hookups, coveralls, baseball caps, T-shirts and cashmere sweaters. He bought into it without hesitation. His presence front row at every fashion show I produced made a statement to the industry that we were serious about our business. Bloomingdale’s hosted our first event and gave Sean John their most iconic windows on Lexington Avenue. We were creating the future of fashion. Kal saw that from the start.
Michael Gould, Bloomingdale’s chief executive, 1991-2014
If Bloomingdale’s didn’t have the kind of customer service Saks and Neiman had, it had that excitement you got from Kal Ruttenstein going to Europe and finding things to bring back. He might see stuff at a flea market in Paris and give it to the Necessary Objects department to create a whole new line for us.
When I first went to interview with Kal, I told him right out I had no real qualifications for the job, but he saw something in me. He said: “There are lots of people much more qualified than you, but I’m going to hire you because you were a kindergarten teacher. That makes you a great candidate for the job.” I stayed at Bloomingdale’s for almost 30 years.
Jeffrey Seller, producer of “Rent” and “Hamilton”
After “Rent” exploded in 1996, Anna Wintour came to see it on her own. She loved the show, and she called Kal, and he fell in love with the artistry, the songs, the costumes and with Daphne Rubin-Vega. He started calling me every single day: “We have to do something!” We ended up doing a line of clothing inspired by Angela Wendt’s costumes.
I was writing about fashion at The Village Voice, and nobody would give me the time of day but Ralph Lauren and Kal Ruttenstein. He was a true explorer. He would come downtown. He would want to see something because it was representative of the hippie generation. He would ask: “Would you wear it? Would you buy it?”
Candy Pratts Price
In 1976, Queen Elizabeth came for the bicentennial. We did a window for the Royal Highness. All the designers did tartans. I learned that the queen could not disembark from a car on the left. We had to change the flow of traffic on Lexington Avenue for her.
It was August and we had to do a dress rehearsal where they instructed us on the rules. You couldn’t pick your head up until she put her hand out. You had to wear a hat and gloves. A hat and gloves is not exactly my look. Still, I took the subway from Seventh Avenue to Bloomingdale’s, and I stood all the way because it was hot and I didn’t want to get wrinkled. On the way up there someone on the train turned to me and said, “You look like you’re meeting the queen of England.” Well, guess what?
You know what is so New York? People could say, “I got off the train today and ran into Bloomingdale’s, and, oh, by the way, the queen was there.” They didn’t even close the store!