Belated Thoughts On The Demise Of Henri Bendel: When I graduated from High School in tiny Novi, Michigan, my dear mother decided that it would be a fabulous idea for me to give a piano recital to all my friends and family... Not exactly my idea of how to celebrate my graduation, but next thing I knew I was flying to NYC for the first time with her to buy a recital dress from Henri Bendel.
This was back in the early 2000's when Henri Bendel still carried the many brands that made it so famous, and a marquee destination for quality and high fashion products.
Well, that little black dress still sits in my closet as I type, but Henri Bendel is soon to be no more. What happened?
I'm not here to discuss the 2008 financial crisis that impacted everything from real estate to retail, nor am I going to spend time to re-analyze the slow recovery and many strategic pitfalls HB made in the last 10 years. (You can read all of that on WSJ or BusinessInsider, or BOF.com yourself.) Instead, I want to write from my own experience and my fashion designer's POV of how the fall of Henri Bendel is the signifier of a much larger phenomenon that I consider the Democratization of Design & Manufacturing.
If you are younger than 30 years old, you may not know that the distinction between luxury fashion and mass market was once much more distinct than it is today. Back in the day, Henri Bendal was among a handful of retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales that offered real quality goods with stringent product design and development and testing processes to ensure that the money you spent was truly worth it. The level of designers and labels that were able to sell to these stores were highly skilled in what they do, and would be considered true visionaries in the art of design.
But then, a seismic shift happened where mid-tier contemporary brands emerged and more affordable retailers such as Macy's and Dillard's, among many others, also started to offer private label products with the same level of design and quality at a fraction of the price. In other words, they democratized the design and manufacturing process by setting up a Product Life Cycle Standard Of Operation for all fashion graduate hopefuls to produce with relative efficiency. Indeed, it no longer matters if you have talent or not, nor the precision or vision to be a designer, so long as you can follow through with the system.
Under this system, a great design and amazing craftsmanship are no longer an exclusivity and milieu of one "star designer.” In fact, the concept of a “rockstar designer” is the thing of the past, YSL v.s. Saint Laurent anyone? Instead, the system now trains a team of designers/merchandisers/product developers that work together not just to pump out designs on a regular basis, but designs to meet all sales objectives, withstand discount seasons, meet on time delivery with quality passing all regulations and tests, AND look similar enough to what's selling in the luxury world to entice buyers to spend less but buy more.
The advancement of digital retail and technology has only sped up the democratization and boom -we are now in the age of a digitized fast fashion cycle with more than 12 deliveries per year!
I'm the product of this SOP just like countless other fashion designers born in the 80's who started working in the mid 2000's. All of a sudden, designing and producing quality products is no longer an exclusive process exercised by a few fashion giants who have the access and the capital.
When I design for Kohl's vs. Coach, it is actually the same level of design detail, time, and energy demanded of me for both collections. The only difference is you pay $79.99 at Kohl's instead of $327.00 at Coach. Yes, I could probably afford more embroidery flowers on Coach's satchel but not Kohl's, and you may argue that Kohl's is only in faux leather whereas Coach uses genuine leather. But let me ask you, Which bag would you buy without a sweat if they look similar enough? Even if you end up hating the Kohl's bag, you still have some money left to buy a new one.
When the process of producing fashion has become democratized and inclusive to the point that anybody, including fashion startups can utilize the same Product Life Cycle SOP to offer value and quality of design, anyone can be your competition.
After all is said and done, however, my personal observation of Henri Bendel is that unlike other doomed retailers who were beaten by the new mass market competition both online and retail, Henri Bendel beat itself by abandoning its branded business that built up its reputation, and tried designing their own products using the same Product Life Cycle SOP created by the democratization of design and manufacturing.
Farewell H.B., you will always occupy a special place in my heart.