New York is a global city, with millions of tourists visiting every year in their quest to immerse themselves in the glamorous lifestyle of this city, which has been home to fashion icons like Audrey Hepburn, Mae Murray and Edie Sedgwick, to name a few. Always in fashion, these wonderful women strolled down the stores of Fifth and Madison Avenues, assisted the most important gala events in the city, and no doubt, were frequent clients of Bergdorf Goodman, that paradise that lies right in front of Central Park, besides the unmistakable Plaza Hotel, where you live and breathe the best of global fashion luxury.
With such a legacy, Bergdorf Goodman is a necessary stop for any fashion lover who visits the city, and a wide variety of tourism guides recommed the visit, and even stopping by for coffee if time—and your wallet—allows. Bergdorf Goodman is, additionally, the place where the female character of the movies is taken to transform her style, her being, into a fashionable lady. It is the place that symbolizes the best of New York fashion luxury, in a way similar to Galeries Lafayette in Paris or Harrods in London.
Behind the always enchanting windows, which reflect this luxury and the extravagant style of some of the most avid shoppers, lie large quantities of garments and accessories, all of them carefully created in the atéliers of those who are considered the most important fashion designers in the world. Each floor, motivated by a different aspect of fashion—shoes, casual wear, party clothing…—shows an amazing collection of products that I wonder every time I see them, who buys them?
In my most recent visit, I found, in the shoe salon, a wonderful woman: the typical New Yorker you can always expect to find wandering around the empty streets of the West Village on a Monday morning or having lunch with her friends in the Members Dining Room of the Met Museum. She, probably in her sixties, adorned with a beautiful red and black hat with enormous feathers, and accompanied by a younger personal stylist, is surrounded by open shoe boxes, and captures all the attention of the seller that helps her. There is, somewhere near, a group of Asian youngsters, carrying more bags than their arms seem to be able to handle, showing the increasing purchasing power in the region, while a couple of very tall, blond women, speaking a foreign language, seem to be discussing their shoe options. These seem to be the classical types of shoppers in Bergdorfs: the high society New Yorker, the wealthy foreigner, and the tourist who wants to purchase a luxury souvenir from their visit to New York.
In a magical and mysterious way, sales agents seem to be able to recognise those who can potentially become clients and those who will never be. In a very educated way, the welcome everyone in, but never offer any help or give away any details of the products and—God forbid—their prices. Only when they see someone getting really involved with a product they offer their help and, more often than not, it is actually the customer who needs to go find it. It is only when they see the promise of a fulfilled sale, with a sneak peek to the credit card that will be used to pay the product, that the seller finally trusts the promise of a consumer. Although, it should be said, a little purchase is never enough to make the consumer an expert, and it’s even less of an achievement when trying to become one of the seller’s favourites.
These distinctions between the frequent client, the one-time consumer, and the window-shopper, are what make Bergdorf Goodman so representative of the current state of fashion. Despite the process of democratisation that has been developing recently in the fashion world, with an ever-growing amount of people that has the opportunity to dress according to the latest fashions, this world continues to be a hierarchical system, of which only a few can benefit. The rise of fashion bloggers reflects these dynamics: we can see how normal people can dress to attract the general public with their point of view on fashion; but their increasing popularity attracts luxury brands that hire them for all sorts of “collaborations,” take them to fashion week, and turns them, finally, into “fashion insiders.” The most democratic views of fashion are absorbed by the same system, which, as sociologist Thorstein Veblen announced over a century ago, is the most faithful example of capitalism, and has the immense power of maintaining itself in a hierarchical structure, in which only those in power can succeed.
In the case of Bergdorf Goodman, we see the frequent client—which is not necessarily the high-society New Yorker or the wealthy foreigner, but extends to include fashion editors, royalty, and the real fashion insider that lives and showcases the luxury—that maintains a house like Bergdorf Goodman alive, despite the massive participation that fast fashion has achieved in the market. The one-time client is the person that, with some effort, manages to buy a few products in Bergdorfs; the person that chooses to buy a “good” bag or a “good” pair of shoes for a special occasion, or even as a type of investment. This person, as Bergdorf Goodman clearly knows, is someone that might have the potential of coming back and that, no doubt, contributes somehow to the chole business, but is nowhere near being a fashion insider or any type of fashion character. This type of buyer is the one that imitates, the one that follows the big names in the industry, wanting to buy the latest “it” item that just appeared in magazines. This type of buyer, despite their purchase, is not far from those that limit themselves to seeing, the window-shoppers, which are the most vivid representation of an anti-democratic fashion world; that world Simmel described at the beginning of the last century, where the upper classes are in charge of defining a style, and the rest limit themselves to mimicking such a style.
Although we tend to refer to a democratic fashion system nowadays, the truth is that Simmel’s theory, which so many consider outdated, can continue to be valid under a certain point of view. If now, why is it that we enjoy so much seeing that high fashion, when in reality it is only a few who can dress head-to-toe in Valentino or Chanel? Why is it that the proposal of luxury that Vogue and Harper’s Bazzar illustrate, promoting the purchase of products that only a few can afford, still sells millions of copies around the world? Why do we see fast fashion, the peak of what we consider a democratic fashion system, being nothing different than the crude imitation of designs created in the houses of high fashion?
Although more people now have access to fashion, this does not imply that democracy, undersood like in social sciences as the phenomenon in which power is in the hands of the majority, the normal people, as the main characteristic of fashion. And this does not mean, either, that the hierarchies existing in fashion have been taken down, or that they will be anytime soon. And these hierarchies, the power of fashion and luxury insiders, and the desire of knowledge of the masses, are what, to me, Bergdorf Goodman represents.
Photography: Laura Beltran-Rubio