Surviving 10 Hours and 32 Minutes at Bergdorf Goodman
It seems wrong that a yellow mop bucket should be on the main floor of Bergdorf Goodman. Or that a Windex bottle and dusty pink rag should be left on a pebbled glass table next to two handbags. It’s like running into a teacher outside of school, or walking into a movie theater brightened by overhead lights. There’s a sense that you’re not supposed to be seeing this right now.
Yet the theme of Bergdorf Goodman this holiday season — there is a theme every year, which dictates the famous window decorations — is “magic in the making.” And this is how the magic of Bergdorf Goodman is made before doors open. It is 9:47 a.m., and the marble floors and display counters are being spot-cleaned. There is no music playing yet, which means the clicking white noise of the handbag security tags is still audible: a constant tapping that can’t be unheard once it’s identified.
Or it is 9:24 a.m. in the gilded jewelry salon, where pieces are being unpacked from soft beige boxes, having been locked up overnight in safes. You are allowed to know about some of these safes, like three that nearly touch the ceiling of a cramped back office, behind a door papered with holiday sales incentives for Bergdorf staff. (Sell $75,000 worth of one luxury European luxury brand, win a $8,550 watch from that brand.) Other safes are secrets, which is deemed necessary when the jewelry for sale can currently reach $1.6 million.
Or it is 10 minutes before opening, and small lines are forming in front of the entrances. Outside a revolving door on 58th Street, a blond septuagenarian in a black beanie peers inside, sucking on a cigarette. She has lived on Park Avenue for 47 years, she said, but also lives “in France and in many places, as we Greeks do.” She has come to shop Saint Laurent and meet friends for lunch.
The first few people in the door move with purpose and experience. They are not here at 10 a.m. to browse. So why are they here? What brings anyone in 2022 through the doors of department stores, whose foot traffic has generally declined, usurped by the convenience of online shopping?
A customer waits at the Bergdorf Goodman 58th Street entrance for store to open its doors.Credit…Landon Nordeman for The New York Times
The obvious answer is that Bergdorf Goodman is not like other stores. There is only one, extravagantly decorated and expensively stocked, exclusive to New York City. It is about a century old, yet still somehow embedded in news and pop culture.
In the documentary released last week by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, a friend of the duchess specified that she learned about the relationship in 2016 over their regular tea and champagne date at Bergdorf Goodman. (There was also a 2013 documentary made about the store.) In 2019, when the writer E. Jean Carroll accused President Donald J. Trump of rape, which he has denied, the allegation that it happened at Bergdorf Goodman was crucial to the way the media told the story.
The less obvious answer to why people shop here, which sinks in after spending a day in the store, arriving before opening and staying until after closing — 10 hours and 32 minutes of meandering through the back rooms and sales floors — is that Bergdorf Goodman is a place where shoppers are rarely, as a matter of store policy, ever told “no.”
Later That Day. …
Here are two things sold to two shoppers during the first two and a half hours of business on Bergdorf Goodman’s street level: a practical black leather no-logo messenger bag by Akris ($1,590) and a pair of diamond teardrop-shaped earrings by Verdura ($33,500), whose purchaser planned to wear with a sky blue Oscar de la Renta gown.
Several floors up, more orders were being prepared for messenger delivery to Manhattan residences. One included five sweaters and jackets (from Dior, Alaïa and Fendi) totaling just under $10,000. The customer had also bought a few ornaments.
Christmas is serious business at Bergdorf Goodman. By the end of this day, about 800 ornaments would be sold in-store, a company representative said, or nearly 90 per hour. (The store didn’t provide a daily customer count. Neiman Marcus Group, which owns Bergdorf Goodman, is a privately held company.)
Out of sight from the shoppers looking for crystal Santa Claus heads or (now sold out) miniature glass renderings of French onion soup — away from the shelves of nonedible gingerbread houses for $1,500, a price in line with what a New Yorker with a roommate might pay in monthly rent — a woman named Theresa Herbert was wrapping gifts bought from the décor department.
Ms. Herbert spent her shift delicately piling white tissue paper into silver boxes. Then she wrapped the boxes with purple bows, using five strands of ribbon, which she tied so that if the bows were crushed in transit, they could still recover with some light massaging.
She estimated that by the end of her shift she would have wrapped about 50 gifts. The wall behind her station was covered with schedules, thank-you cards, Post-it notes and illustrations of female comic-book characters on cardboard, drawn by a colleague. Ms. Herbert has been working at Bergdorf Goodman since 1999, she said, on and off in various roles.
“I don’t even wrap my own Christmas presents,” she said, laughing. “I do bags.”
Tucked into the shipping department, Ms. Herbert falls into the category of Bergdorf Goodman employees without much daily face time with customers. They roam the offices and storerooms, where signs remind them that Everybody Water, a brand of boxed water, is not for everybody, but for customers only.
On the other end of that spectrum are employees like Jeffrey Delgado, whose customer relationships have become part of his wardrobe. Every day he wears stacks of beaded bracelets given to him by people he has served at the BG Restaurant, on the seventh floor, a busy Midtown lunch destination known for its chopped salad and tony people-watching.
When I walked into the small kitchen, a chef was transferring lobster bisque from a large vat into a smaller vat.
Mr. Delgado offered a tour of his wrists. “Each one has a different story,” he said. “This one with the whale tail came from a lady who was on her way to Venice. She was like: ‘I have a very special one in my house in Hawaii. I’ll be back in a month, and I’m going to bring it.’”
That day he wore 27 bracelets, but he had more at home, he said, some too fancy to wear every day. A customer from Mexico gave him a Balenciaga bracelet for his birthday, he said, telling him to open it when he got home.
These relationships are not uncommon. Bergdorf Goodman has a storied personal shopping service; outside the restaurant there are framed letters from Jacqueline Kennedy to her personal shopper, sent ahead of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. (The Halston-designed pillbox hat she wore the day her husband was assassinated was believed to have been bought at Bergdorf Goodman.) The store’s most well-known personal shopper, Betty Halbreich, wrote books about style based on her reputation for truth telling.
That afternoon, a stylist named Jin Hye Edwards was greeting a client, Cristina Wallach, in a luxe dressing room on the fourth floor. After meeting a year ago, Ms. Wallach and Ms. Edwards became fast friends. In October, Ms. Wallach took Ms. Edwards to a party for Bulgari at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. “My husband doesn’t like that kind of thing,” Ms. Wallach said.
Ms. Edwards had pulled a number of cardigans and tees from Loewe and Givenchy, among others, for Ms. Wallach’s consideration. She was preparing for a trip to Asia and didn’t have time to shop for herself, she said.
“I like to spend time on other things,” said Ms. Wallach, who described herself as a former rock singer. She met her husband, then a Booz Allen consultant, while singing at a hotel in Malaysia. The couple live in Pennsylvania but have an apartment in Chelsea, which Ms. Edwards has also visited. “It’s beautiful, three floors, and the top has a Jacuzzi,” Ms. Edwards said, adding that it required a crane to install.
Ms. Wallach, who ordered a plate of roast chicken brought to her dressing room, said that didn’t “like to bother anyone, and I like to have my own space.”
“I don’t normally want to be pampered like this,” she said, “but I really had no time to eat.”
Employees here are encouraged to never say no, and that’s how a fashion collector named Yawen Gao ended up in a sixth floor fitting room, zipping herself into a pair of Schiaparelli boots that aren’t available to the public.
Last year, Schiaparelli opened a boutique in Bergdorf Goodman, its first store in the United States to sell the brand’s surreal clothing and anatomical accessories, like a leather bag affixed with a septum-pierced nose.
For his fall 2021 collection, Daniel Roseberry, the Schiaparelli artistic director, designed impossibly tall black platform boots with gold carved toes. The director Janicza Bravo wore a shorter version to the Met Gala, but they weren’t produced for sale. Ms. Gao wanted them anyway. Faisal Hasan, a Bergdorf stylist and her friend, made it happen.
It took about nine months, a trip to the Schiaparelli Place Vendôme headquarters in Paris and measurements of Ms. Gao’s feet, but at last, here she was, taking off her amphibian-esque Avavav “monster” patent leather boots in order to hoist herself into the Schiaparellis, which she said cost her about $7,000.
Except nothing is perfect, and the new boots didn’t zip all the way up her thighs. That’s OK, Mr. Hasan said, they could be professionally stretched. Ms. Gao still managed to stand up in them; normally 5-foot-1, the boots made her over six feet tall.
“They’re much higher than I thought,” Ms. Gao said, though she’d been warned by both Mr. Hasan and Schiaparelli. “They’ve been saying: ‘Oh, it’s dangerous, you could fall, you could get injured.’”
Yet as the sun set unreasonably early — and Bergdorf Goodman weathered what is usually its busiest hour, between 4 and 5 p.m. — it was not just fashion collectors with townhouses full of Simone Rocha and other avant-garde runway pieces shopping for shoes.
By 5:30 p.m., a company representative said, the store had sold 66 pairs of shoes by Chanel, whose prices start around $850 for ballerina flats. (By 6:30 p.m., the bartender at the restaurant said he had sold about 76 espresso martinis, at $21 each, and I wondered if some correlation could be shown over time.)
Laura Zatezalo, who was in New York to visit her son at Juilliard — she lives in Las Vegas and New Orleans — was trying on pairs of René Caovilla strappy beaded stilettos, marked down to about $1,000. She rolled up her gray Adidas sweatpants to take a few steps.
Ms. Zatezalo briefly considered wearing them with a Balmain leather lambskin garter skirt to the Box, a nightclub her son was taking her to the next night.
“It might be too much,” said Ms. Zatezalo, who is interested in developing a reality show about plastic surgery consultations.
Waiting for the sales associates to return with a different size, I watched a man — one of many waiting on the couches for their companions to finish shopping — blow puffs of smoke from his vape into his Gucci hoodie. Ms. Zatezalo cheekily flashed the vape hidden in the sleeve of her hoodie. “My son taught me that trick,” she said.
I wasn’t convinced that vaping shoppers would have actually been scolded if caught. Bergdorf Goodman is a place where leashed dogs are welcome and lingering customers are served champagne.
At 7 p.m., they weren’t even told the store was closing. There was no announcement over the speakers. The music didn’t turn off. There is no shooing of customers, gentle or otherwise, who are still shopping, said Christopher O’Keeffe, the store’s director of loss prevention.
Outside, while Mr. O’Keeffe was locking the exterior doors, a few people tried to walk in. Most left when they realized what was happening. One woman didn’t.
“Is it closed?” she asked.
“Yes, we close at 7,” Mr. O’Keeffe said.
“Is it 7 already?”
“Yes, it’s 7.”
“Is there something specific you’re looking for?”
“I just want to look at a Valentino bag.”
He unlocked the door for her.