Gentlemen Prefer Bergdorf's

As one of New York's most powerful executives was being driven to work one morning about a year ago, a window display caught his attention. But that's an understatement. The executive had his driver pull over at Fifth Avenue and 58th Street so he could get a better look. Clearly, he liked what he saw, for as soon as he reached his office he called his salesman at Bergdorf Goodman.

"I want that window," the CEO said.

"Sir?"

"The clothes are terrific. Send me one of everything."

This was a novel moment, even for a salesman who had served a great many powerful men over the years. And that impulsive mid-five-figure purchase is probably not the last of its kind. Something is happening at Bergdorf Goodman Men's that not even a troubled stock market and nervous-making economy can stop—buzz is up, and so are sales.

Credit the success to 49-year-old Peter Rizzo, who became President of Bergdorf's just over two years ago. A former high-school music teacher and graduate of the Bloomingdale's executive training program, Rizzo had no burning interest in fashion until he went to work for the late Fred Pressman, the legendary merchant who turned Barneys New York from a meat-and-potatoes supplier of men's suits into the preferred Manhattan purveyor of luxury menswear.

From Pressman, Rizzo learned two facts of retail life: First, the merchandise, not the merchant, is the star of any retail success; second, that you will never go wrong by filling your shelves with quality Italian products. "Textiles, tailoring, and manufacturing—Italy's the world leader in every category," Rizzo explains. "I've been going there for 23 years."

"If you noticed me, I wasn't well-dressed," the English dandy Beau Brummell is alleged to have said. Seated Marine-straight in his ascetic office, Peter Rizzo wears a three-button gray suit, blue shirt with cuff links, his signature knit tie, and a pair of handmade English shoes. His single expression of flair? The bottom button of each jacket sleeve is insouciantly unbuttoned. The effect is explicit: classic style, with only a modest concession to fashion. Brummell would have approved.

He would also have approved of the high-end Italian labels Bergdorf's carries and displays so well: Brunello Cucinelli, Canali, Brioni, Giorgio Armani, Sartoria Attolini, Kiton. But those brands are hardly a secret, and in the competitive world of luxury retailing, none of those companies would give any one store—particularly a merchant with a single location and only 35,000 square feet of selling space—exclusive access. So what is it about Rizzo's store that makes a man want to buy an Etro jacket when there's an Etro store just a few blocks away?

The answer is . . . well, the answer is in the air. It's sociological.

"Think back to 1987," Rizzo says, "After the Wall Street crash, there was a rejection of conspicuous consumption. Sure, there are always people who want the top of the line. And you must always offer the very best, with the best service. But people also change their buying habits—and Bergdorf's had to start to address value and image in a more understated manner."

When Bergdorf Goodman unveiled its men's store, however, not much thought was given to that recessional psychology. Instead, BG Men's essentially rode the coattails of the women's store, which had built a stellar reputation based on exclusivity and service, with a liberal sprinkling of hauteur to give it a cosmopolitan flavor. Eloise, you will recall, amused herself at The Plaza hotel while her mother shopped at Bergdorf's, just a skip away.

The idea of the store as a residential retail environment—a one-of-a-kind monument so special that its owners lived in a penthouse over it—survived even the change of ownership, when the Goodmans sold the family business to Carter Hawley Hale stores in 1972, who later sold it to The Neiman Marcus Group. Menswear was then languishing in a 15,000-square-foot corner of the first floor, while womenswear, cosmetics, fragrances, and home furnishings dominated the rest of the store. Male fashion looked like the next big thing. So, in l990, Bergdorf's turned what was the original FAO Schwarz toy store across the street into a three-story temple of men's fashion.

The Bergdorf Goodman Men's store had great brands, and just like the women's store, it went out of its way to provide unique services—such as a barber, a fully-equipped private office for business conversations that couldn't wait, a putting green, and a resident golf pro. What was missing? A sophisticated approach to casual wear, a personal point of view, and an overall mastery of men's style.

"The Bergdorf flag will always be planted in tailored clothing," Rizzo says. "But American men have become much more worldly about daywear and weekend wear. The European way of life is catching up to us. Clothes are becoming more than body cover. And this isn't temporary—men are now required to learn about clothes that are beyond suits, that augment a casual lifestyle. Which means they need to supplement their wardrobe."

Because men are notoriously reluctant shoppers, however, getting them to buy more and different clothes is not as simple as, say, putting great new outfits on display, as you would at a women's store. In the luxury field, Peter Rizzo believes, most items must have dual appeal: They should speak to the man who can afford anything—and everything—in the store. But they also need to appeal to men at what Rizzo calls "the Lexus price point," that is, men who care about luxury products but don't want to pay outrageous prices for them.

The solution is creating an environment in which men take pleasure in spending money. For those great Italian brands, Bergdorf's selects only the clothes that fit the store's philosophy of refined, classic styling. But there is also merchandise offered nowhere else: the Bergdorf Goodman Collection of clothes made to the store's specifications—always by first-tier Italian companies. When Rizzo and his colleagues swept into Bergdorf's, that collection represented less than one percent of the merchandise on the first floor. It's now 50 percent, the same percentage you'll find in men's sportswear.

The putting green, barber, and guest office are long gone. More important, for Rizzo, is what has taken their place: merchandise that reflects his philosophy of "product first, not label." When you enter the store, you see things that you never would have found at the old Bergdorf's, like leather jeans, suede-and-knit jackets, and Anglo-Italian-inspired sport coats that would be ideal for an English professor at Princeton, worn perhaps with a debonair Italian shirt.

This mix of classics and surprises is reflected in the lineup of merchandise this fall in which texture, color, silhouette, and artisanship are key. That's why corduroy slacks are offered in fabrics never seen before—and why weekend pants come in tweedy wool plaids that have been traditionally reserved for sport jackets.

As you move through the store, you find the themes you've encountered at the start of your visit echoed in other departments. Rep ties, for example, are back in a big way at Bergdorf's this fall—but in textured wool, not silk. An Etro sport coat has a flash of orange under its collar. A computer bag from Mantellassi of Florence is made of supple leather reminiscent of what you might find in a finely made gentleman's glove.

But then, every turn of a corner at Bergdorf Goodman Men's store reveals a small treasure. Men's underwear—is there anything more banal? Not here. The boxers made by Emanuele Maffeis, a venerable shirtmaker from Bergamo, outside of Milan, are lined, come with pearl buttons, and are sold in a small bag that's crafted from the same exquisite cotton as the shorts themselves.

You may be immune to the charms of handmade knives, badger shaving brushes, and shoeshine kits by Lorenzi, but it is hard to resist Bergdorf Goodman Collection shirts from Florence that are adorned with a sachet from Santa Maria Novella. The luggage is out of this world, particularly the textured calf weekenders and the Edward Green canvas-and-leather suitcases, for which you're encouraged to choose your favorite-colored canvas.

And for those who can't find every last thing they need at Bergdorf's, there's a "return trip" bag that can be rolled up and stashed in your suitcase—just in case you go on a shopping spree while you are traveling.

While some other world-class men's stores are looking down the barrel of a recent 20 to 30 percent decline in sales, Bergdorf Goodman Men's has been seemingly immune to the market fluctuations. In fact, the store's sales and profitability have been stellar for the past two years—the sort of solid performance that leads, inevitably, to talk of expansion.

Growing a business is tricky, though, and it's an open question whether there's enough wealth and style across the United States to support clones of a store like Bergdorf Goodman. "These decisions are made carefully here," Peter Rizzo says. "But executives inside the company are seeing what a well-run men's business looks like and what level of profitability it can achieve."

But expansion can take many forms. Rizzo delights in the Bergdorf Goodman magazine, printed on 70-pound paper in an oversized format reminiscent of W. Customers receive it free of charge; others can buy it for $10 at Rizzoli bookstores. "I want these to become collectors' items, like art books," Rizzo says.

There's one other telling measure of Bergdorf's growth. As the world knows all too well, nothing screamed success louder than dress-down chic in the nineties: Khakis and a blue work shirt were considered de rigueur. And even though dot-com chic may have ended, "casual Friday" dressing remains ingrained in the culture. But at Bergdorf's there's been such a demand for sport jackets and made-to-measure suits that the store has added six custom tailor collections to its made-to-measure department. Now that's success.

745 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10022; 212-753-7300.