So when I was a little girl, I knew about Neiman Marcus. What I knew was that if you were somebody you went there to get your very best clothing. My personal experience with Nieman’s started when I graduated from high school and was headed to college. My mother bought me a suit for $90 dollars in camel cashmere. I thought she had virtually lost her mind spending that sort of money. However, it lasted through college and through 7 years in my career after college….then into my marriage. Finally, I had to give up the skirt because I had taken the hem up and down so many times, that I had lines for each phase of short, long, short and long again that I couldn’t get that out no matter how many times I sent it to the cleaners. But the jacket went on to another 10 years. That’s almost 20 years at about $4.50/year, so I figure it was a bargain buy.
As I grew older, a trip to Dallas always included a trip to Neiman’s at the least a trip to NorthPark and if I could swing it to downtown Neiman’s. And when my muse, my niece who would always put up with my prom dress styles, was asked to be a deb, a trip to Neiman’s was a must – as well as when she wed.
The trip always included lunch at the Zodiac Restaurant at Neiman’s which catered to ladies’ lunches and a menu to match. But in the genius of the store, the menu included some light fare, but also some very tasty and heartier fare.
This was the secret of Neiman’s. It seemed to curate its products for not only the budget-minded but the affluent as well, and believe me, being the budget-minded, I always thrilled at seeing what the swells buy and have available to them.
Stanley Marcus was a genius when it came to marketing the store and filling it with items that seemed to me, be a must-buy. No matter what department, there was always something that was irresistible and that I needed. Makeup – was every sort of item you could imagine; jewelry was the same – you wanted a real and very large diamond, they had it – you wanted a large fake diamond-looking thing, they had it, only it looked like the real thing because it was so tastefully done. The shoe department became my favorite. I have a pair of my first Manalo Blahnik were from Neiman’s and I still have them today and wear them.
Mr. Marcus was a delightful man and had a charm befitting a consummate retailer. I met him a couple of times, and through him, I was able to get some fabulous lace – which is a whole other story. He was totally charming in a very old world sort of manner, where gentlemen were gentle men. He had a genius of stocking his store with creatives that not only understood what the market was but how to stock each department so that everything was indispensable. It was always alluring and enticing. There was hardly a time I didn’t go into the Neiman’s that I didn’t see something that I couldn’t live without and bought. When I got it home, it was just as much fun as when I purchased it.
So that’s all fine and dandy, but the real genius was the clothes and what Mr. Marcus had in his store. He knew the genius of Christian Dior and in the early 1950s had him make a special trip to Dallas to the downtown store to promote and show the New Look to all the women of Neiman Marcus. But Dior wasn’t the only one. He encouraged warm relationships with Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, Halston, Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs and not only the designers but the fashion magazines of the time were closely watching this genius retailer. W Magazine always included a section on “What’s In Store” and Nieman’s was always one of the top stores featured in this section every season.
The last time I met Mr. Marcus was in Santa Fe, and I could tell that he was failing. Shortly after that, the store sold. Losing the head and particularly a vital head of a company is devastating. It took a while to take effect, but the pizazz and excitement of the store died in the last 18 years.
But there were other circumstances too. The proliferation of that cheap/fast fashion business model that was so horribly profitable (at the expense of the consumer’s misinformation and ignorance) that did a lot to kill the sales of quality products and garments, albeit much more durable and far more economical. It was the price that the consumer was addicted to, and therefore there was nothing that could convince the consumer otherwise. They were getting very little and paying very little while the store that sold the real goods was dying on the vine.
The unfortunate thing is that we are beginning to see a swing toward the other direction now. There is more of a market today for quality than any time that we’ve seen in 30 years. The naysayers and the critics may decry the fact that there is no sustainable “sustainable movement” that’s taken root, but in fact, there is. It’s very hard to see, and particularly now with this virus business interrupting everything, but it has appeared.
Pretend for an instant that you have a market that is coming of age, and by that I mean, wants to spend their money (or their parents’ money) in a certain way that they choose, that has not been exposed to any other market in the world. Pretend this is a pristine consumer who hasn’t been exposed to couture, Zara’s, Forever 21, Grunge, or any of that. And what happens with this group? Well, this group has started selecting high-end, luxury designer goods to purchase. That’s what this group wants.
Additionally, there is a growing feeling of weariness of having to go shopping so often. Every time a person turns around they have to go get something else to replace the items that haven’t lasted through 2 washings and 6 weeks of wear. Additionally, these people didn’t mind dressing like patrons of the local Army/Navy surplus or the nearly new shops to go to work in. While they are in vogue the nerd wearing the khaki pants and blue shirt is the one getting the credit cause they simply look more creditworthy. The nearly-new grungy look doesn’t inspire promotion and certainly doesn’t inspire the boss to pass on a raise to this person. So these kids are looking for something that would be more appropriate to wear. The trouble is that sort of clothing isn’t available in those fav fast/cheap fashion shops. And the shops where they might purchase it – like Bergdorf’s, Neiman’s and Barney’s are not there.
But Neiman’s couldn’t hold on any longer. A lot of experts think that things will be remarkably different. I’m not so sure. I still believe there’s a place for these stores and think that there’s a genius retailer out there who will figure this out and market it out to these consumers who are sick of wearing the same worn-out, ill-fitting clothes for the last 30 years.
In the meantime, I’m sad about Neiman’s and hope they can reorganize and come back. Probably not, but I hope the hole that this leaves in the retail market in Dallas can be filled by another equally inspired marketer. Dallas is what I like to think of as a target-rich environment for retail and having a fabulous department store isn’t something that has to die. I mean look at Harrod’s, Fortnum and Mason’s and Selfridges. They still exist in all their finery and there’s no reason that this can’t continue.
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