At the end of November, above the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, 16,000 Baccarat crystals began to sparkle from the new UNICEF snowflake designed by Ingo Maurer.
This is where the cost per square foot hovers around $1000 and Bergdorf Goodman faces a full block of Fifth Avenue and portions of 57th and 58th. (Plus Bergdorf Men's across Fifth Avenue.) Tiffany, Louis Vuitton and Bulgari occupy the other corners, but Bergdorf's sheer year-round style – made even more splendid for the holidays – makes it an elegant showpiece maybe second only to the Russian Winter Palace.
This is a grand reputation and commitment for a specialty retailer with 150,000 square feet of selling space to uphold. It is a safe conclusion that Bergdorf's management and its parent, the Neiman Marcus Group, considered $80 million over several years an essential renovation investment to increase sales and keep the rent paid to the Goodman family.
A redesign and facelift began in 2000, headed by the retailer's taste-impeccable design trio: Linda Fargo: vp, visual merchandising; Stephen Joseph, vp, store design and planning and construction; and Susan Homan, director of interiors, visual presentation. With president and ceo Jim Gold at the helm, they have moved the store into a phase of rebirth.
Of the moment is the new restaurant, BG, which opened in November with views into Central Park. The space, designed by Los Angeles-based Kelly Wearstler, has faux bois-finished paneling, plank hardwood floors and a parchment overtone that is an utterly fashionable extension of the store – too, too chic ever to be thought of as a "tea room."
There's a noticeably more, yes, hip concept for the fifth floor (contemporary sportswear, accessories, denim and shoes, and labels that include Catherine Maladrino, Tracy Reese and Tory Burch). Bergdorf's is in the midst of doing some serious branding for "5F." Gabellini Associates understands the classical beaux-arts architecture of the store about as well as anyone. (Michael Gabellini's design solutions preserved landmark designations for some Rockefeller Center retailers and renovated and reintroduced a 1901 landmark structure on East 60th Street for Nicole Fahri that had been home to the Copacabana nightclub.) The firm's work on Bergdorf's fifth floor supports his theory of looking at the history of a building and burnishing it, moving it into the next generation in a contemporary way.
Individual mise en scènes define product areas and provide a changeable display. The pièce de résistance, however, is an undulating ceiling, fiber-reinforced gypsum at its core, that gives a sense of direction to the large open spaces of the floor and leaves the shopper with the impression that the sunny outdoors is just a few feet away.
Best of all, Bergdorf Goodman is a New York mansion. Talk with Fargo for a few minutes and the word "residential" is out and on the table early on. This was an incentive to hire Randy Ridless when the major work started taking place on the main floor about two years ago.
Ridless designed the 7300-square-foot showplace shoe salon on the second floor in 2002, where collections of more than 60 designers are in the panoply of four interconnected rooms that balance 19th Century detailing and modernist elements with furnishings inspired by Arbus, Ruhlmann, Ponti, Poillerat and Jansen. The plush ambience, with its melange of unique vintage pieces and rich fabrics and passementerie and the domed silver leaf ceiling make the designer shoe salon as breathtakingly couture as the day it opened.
The main floor of the store is the store's personality. When Ridless approached the 9000 square feet, he presented a theme he called 19th Century interpretation of French 18th Century residential architecture. On the main floor, which constitutes the mansion's reception rooms, Ridless demolished walls, expanded doorways, raised the ceiling 6 feet in places and painted the ceiling and walls a rich shade of cream. The flooring is aged oak parquet de Versailles and eased by hand to replicate the look of natural wear. The Fifth Avenue entrance closest to 58th Street was restored to original splendor by exposing glass transom panels above the bronze entry doors.
On the fourth floor, luxurious bastion of couture and evening collections, spectacular escalator landings of the blackest marble are dramatic showcases for uber-sleek mannequins and their gowns. Elsewhere on 4, inset custom-made carpets, artwork and a huge photo mural contribute to the extraordinary serenity, grace and ease.
The third floor, housing the branded vendor shops along the outer perimeter, will be under Fargo's design hand. Somewhat loft-like, there will be many whites – curtains, scrims, textures – and wood plank floors. Beauty and personality is everywhere without jarring segues. That is the luxury of Bergdorf Goodman.