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The One Big Trend Barneys Missed Might Have Rewritten its Fortunes

With Oct. 3 just hours away and Barneys facing the prospect of finding a buyer or going bust, some industry watchers wonder if things could have turned out differently for the mainstay of New York’s fashion scene.

It’s probably too late for a round of “coulda, woulda, shoulda” to reverse the luxury retailer’s crumbling fortunes but Martin McNulty, who helms global brand performance agency ForwardPMX, believes Barneys missed an all-too-important opportunity to embrace its most loyal community of fans.

If there’s no salvation for Barneys and the lights go out at its Madison Ave. flagship, “you’d see legions of people with black arm bands on, and that would be every stylist in New York,” McNulty claimed, describing Barneys as both a “cultural institution” and “so much more than a retailer.” Because for stylists pressed to dress the rich and the fabulous—or maybe just the Instagram famous—Barneys is “still really, really important.”

Long before the word “influencer” penetrated our the collective lexicon, Barneys, McNulty argues, was pioneering the as-seen-on-the-street style game, thanks in no small part to the late, great fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, who practically was a fixture outside the East 60s store, snapping shots of well-dressed patrons and trendsetters alike.

“This stuff was going on long before bloggers and it was fantastic and authentic,” McNulty said, crediting Cunningham and his beloved New Yorker column for virtually inventing what we now call street style.

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If only Barneys had figured out the potential gold mine this potent cocktail of scenesters and shutterbugs presented, McNulty said at the WWD Digital Forum late last month.

The retailer’s sales associates likely gave shoppers a frosty reception if they were spotted purchasing “armfuls of clothes” destined to be shuttled right back for a refund a day later, he said, noting the rise of the influencer and this type of rapid-buying behavior around outfits meant to be only worn once.

“Instead of [associates] resenting that and thinking ‘well, my multiples are going to be down’ what [Barneys] should have really done was embrace this community,” McNulty explained. With all of the real estate at its disposal, Barneys could have unlocked a new revenue stream by dedicating a floor inside its flagship where influencers and their entourages could “shoot clothes in the best way possible.”

Which means, of course, that Barneys “could’ve got a slice of every bit of revenue that all of these bloggers are now creating,” McNulty added.

Real estate is among Barneys largest burdens since annual rent at the Madison Ave. flagship jumped from $16 million to $30 million in January. Monetizing influencer and stylist relationships could have changed the game—or at least forestalled Barneys’ woes.

McNulty admitted that such speculation and hindsight are 20/20, though fashion should learn from Barneys’ travails. “I don’t fully have the answer but what I’d say is don’t erase your DNA,” he concluded, “particularly not in the apparel space because you’ll be left with nothing.”