Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Tale of Two Bs

Heavens to Betsy!

Trolling the mall today I came across two startling storefronts. The first was the Betsy Johnson store— never hard to miss as it is painted shocking pink and stuffed with crayon-colored clothing. The windows and entrance were plastered with "STORE CLOSING" signs. I had heard she filed for bankruptcy in April, but seeing the result of that announcement was a little unnerving and very sad. Say what you will, Betsy Johnson was a force to be reckoned with. Though it's been years and years since her clothing was aspirational for me, I still got a kick out of Betsy's crazy ideas and delighted in her trademark runway cartwheel.

No turning cartwheels over this

Our paths almost crossed at Conde Nast. When I was starting as the junior in Glamour's art department she had just left Mademoiselle's to become in-house designer for a trendy boutique. I heard she was a delightful whirlwind at Mademoiselle and would knit you a crazy sweater for $10. Her star rose quickly in the boutique world. The Betsey Johnson label launched in 1978 and grew to 65 stores worldwide. She was a downtown-club-scene kind of gal when that was all very new. While her design sensibility began as wild flower child it morphed into a look that was very sexy yet feminine at the same time. But her clothes were Young— think prom dresses for today's club kid. Following her own fashion formula, she once described her style as "Take a leotard; add a skirt".
Early Betsy
Later Betsy
Heaven knows Betsey has had a good run. I'm actually relieved that no one else is taking over the reins of the company. That is never a Good Thing (see next subject). Supposedly she will still be designing a little. Betsy will be 70 in August. None of us in the neighboring age brackets have many proms to attend but could sure use an infusion of her joie d'vivre.

To Be or Not to Be

When a store changes hands one assumes either the product will remain the same or the name will change along with new stocking. In the case of Henri Bendel the name's the same, but the store is a mere shell of its former self.

A bit of history to begin: Henri Bendel was the original little boutique that could. Founded in 1913 by a former milliner, there was only ever one store. The 10 West 57 Street building was a jewel box of a place, catering to the carriage trade and always carrying the most avant of avant garde fashion. Bendel's introduced to Americans that new Paris sensation, Coco Chanel. And so it went. Helmed by the retail genius Geraldine Stutz from 1957 to 1986, a trip to Bendel's (for this working gal) was a little like visiting a museum with price tags. There was a Street of Shops on the first floor— mini boutiques showcasing tabletop items, stationery, flowers, cosmetics and all manner of accessories— a Street of Dreams. There was one of the first "makeover" make-up boutiques on the fourth floor (Beauty Checkers) and endless "salons" of clothing to inspire and aspire to. Bendel's carried the looks before they could be knocked off cheaper elsewhere and prided themselves on discovering a host of new talent through their Open See merchandise calls.
The Fifth Avenue Bendel 
The s(mall)er version 
There were two camps: those who pronounced it "Henry Benn-del" (emphasis on the Ben) and those who said "Anh-ree Ben-dell" (emphasis on the dell). Never sure, I usually mashed it up into "Anh-ree Benn-del". Although I may have purchased one or two things (if only to possess that iconic shopping bag), the visit I remember clearest was sharing an elevator with the newly married Linda McCartney in the early '70s. She was casually wearing a gigantic, gorgeous mink coat over slacks. Her small daughter Heather (probably about 7) was dressed in complete English Child attire— a velvet collared coat and matching little hat. Not a word was spoken, and I tried not to stare. Like many celebrities attempting to lead real lives, she seemed uncomfortable with my being there.

In 1990 the (probably leaky) old Bendel building closed, and the store reopened nearby on Fifth Avenue. But it wasn't the same. The intimacy and history were gone. By this time the owners were Limited Brands, they of Express and Limited stores, mall favorites. Three years ago Henri Bendel decided to stop selling clothing altogether to concentrate on accessories, fragrance and candles. And that accessory to the fact is what has just opened in my local mall. The handbags and scarves look cheesy. The candles were the same as those sold at Bath and Body Works (another Limited company). There is nothing in this store I will ever need or desire, except the old Bendel magic. Which unfortunately is not for sale.
A bag I will never carry


  1. Great history lesson:)

  2. I noticed the local Betsy Johnson store was closing and wondered why. Now I know! I'm so sad. I loved her clothes when I was young, but I can't wear them anymore.

    As for Henri bendel, I wandered into one at a mall and wondered what it was. I really didn't like the stuff. Great to know the background!

  3. As a friend of mine used to say, "Henri Bendel is like Saks 5th Avenue on acid." And it was true. They carried the coolest clothes and they were always exactly perfect. I would be mildly ecstatic if Henri Bendel was to start selling clothes again and to stop selling those ridiculously cheesey accessories.