Learning the language of luxury

Sarah Blair and Christopher Lacy of Barneys New York on how to thrive in a multi-vendor environment

Guest lectures

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On January 12th 2018, Sarah Blair and Christopher Lacy of Barneys New York set foot inside Polimoda’s Villa Favard headquarters to deliver a guest lecture titled Buyer and the Beast: how taste, luxury and humor define a brand.

The two sat side by side in front of the Rendez-Vous audience, taking turns in sharing their decade-long experience in retail.

Setting high standards

“The luxury industry is changing in its methodology and approach to both the consumer and the internal customer, that is to say the employee” Christopher Lacy stated, “When you’re defining taste; you have to keep hold of yourself and your past, whatever brand you work with. As, we are tasked with having our personal taste and defining what we want to project out to the consumer. There are three important points of focus that we live by: innovation, modernity and heritage. Luxury isn’t always about what is expensive – it’s about what is meaningful.”

Along with being one of the world’s most renowned department stores, Barneys New York has launched a number of designers and products within the US marketplace, many of which have actually become the store’s anchor brands. Jewelry artisans and designers, both classic and contemporary, are particularly popular among customers because of their ability to supply one-off bespoke pieces. Much is going on behind the colorful and often amusing displays of Barneys New York: focus groups, customer analysis, outreach campaigns and, last but not least, in-depth product research.

“Curating a large specialty store is a wonderful challenge each season” Sarah Blair segued, defining the DNA of Barneys New York’s legacy “It’s not only about having good eyes as merchants you must be strategists; you must possess strong intuitions in predicting customer behavior. Our portfolio is a mix, from heritage brands to niche modern debut lines – it is up to a buyer’s knowledge and gut instinct to identify each brand’s iconic element and execute and deliver an on-point seasonal presentation. The assortment must be compelling, synergistic and cohesive to offer the customer the most dynamic experience. What is going to move people to spend their money and to invest? It is always about desire and emotion.”

Sarah Blair & Christopher Lacy - smartphone view

Taking bold chances

While creating a unique retail experience and scouting the daring, ever-changing frontiers of luxury production, Lacy and Blair acknowledged the importance of risk-taking and patience when introducing a new brand to the floor.

“Not every brand you bring in do people get right away – but that’s ok because the fun part is when you want them to get it” Lacy revealed, “As you go out, look for the things that seem odd but that are relevant to your consumer. You need the data to be able to understand how you need to engage with your consumer but you have to have the gut instinct to know what needs to happen next, so it is twofold: there’s the logic and the feeling and that’s how we curate what we do. We have to support our brands so they can support us.”

Sarah Blair proceeded, addressing the complex topic of how they strategize in-store positioning for new brands “Sometimes when you’re launching new products within the marketplace it takes a while to gain traction and really see the trajectory happening. We always try to focus on merchandising the floor, looking at aesthetics and making sure that a more niche brand is adjacent to a powerhouse brand as to create natural traffic and gain more exposure. We usually anticipate that within a year or so our clients are going to respond to it and there will be a consequential halo effect – usually web and brick and mortar are symbiotic. We put a lot of effort in storytelling. Our website has a section called The Window where we highlight our designers and their collections through compelling interviews and videos. We obviously look at square footage productivity and traffic patterns to analyze our business and customer behavior. We consider Barneys a brand in its own right.”

Sarah Blair & Christopher Lacy - audience

Getting down to business

At the height of the lecture, the SVP, DMM Women’s Accessories and Director of Customer Experience and Strategy went over the more practical aspects of their work and what it takes to keep abreast of the ever-evolving world of retail. As of today, for example, sustainability has acquired a leading role in the language of luxury.

We are now in a retail environment where it goes beyond craftsmanship, it goes beyond the heritage of your brand. People want to know, what does your brand do that’s changing the world.

Christopher Lacy

He proceeded in explaining how, when it comes to the American market, technical details are key in getting across the product’s intrinsic value.

“We organize product knowledge training sessions for our employees, in order to teach the keywords necessary to present the product in a compelling way. We also host clinics where our buying team meets up directly with the vendor, who sheds light on the heritage and passion behind the product, which is in turn conveyed to the client. If you have the idea that your brick and mortar stores are there to drive business to your online and not vice-versa, you should be aware that is really not how luxury works, because it is all experiential.”

“You kind of know how established you are as a brand when you become part of the culture” Lacy continued, as the Rendez-Vous came to a close “This environment continuously tests your adaptability, how agile you can be. Not taking yourself too seriously is an important part of keeping the creative juices flowing. As Barneys New York we have launched a number of humorous campaigns, hosting South Park cartoon characters in our store windows as well as opera singers paying homage to Madonna’s ‘Celebration’ and breakdancing elves… all have contributed in creating Barneys’ great atmosphere. We need to have fun doing what we do and that is a crucial caveat to staying in this industry.”