Yuppies were consumers
Without taking anything away from the atmosphere that the Pressmans created in the '80s, the frenzy had a lot to do with demographics: namely, the rise of the yuppie. Gene would no doubt hate the tag and, on the face of it, it seems loony hanging on an Alaïa or a Prada. But New York at the time was being defined by its "arrogant, smart children," in the words of James B. Lindheim, a marketing executive (and later the chairman of Burson-Marsteller), in a 1975 article in Harper's. Unlike previous generations, this new class, Lindheim said, would seek to define itself by what it consumed -- be it contemporary art or dead-chic black. And Barneys was their store.
Like Doonan's windows, Barneys ads in the late '80s and '90s had a topical flavor and caught the ironic, self-involved tone of the city's new art stars and Wall Street millionaires. (In one of Jean-Philippe Delhomme's serial illustrations for a 1993 catalog, the scene is a cocktail party, with the typical line: "Raoul was the perfect host, but Eleanor owned everything.") Ronnie Newhouse, part of the team behind those witty ads, told me that Gene "always wanted to push things. 'Oh, that's boring. Anyone can do that. Come back to me with a better idea.' " There was a distinct sense of connoisseurship, of people cultivating less a style than an identity based on style theories, like the minimalism of Helmut Lang or the bag-lady chic of Comme des Garçons. It was ripe for parody. I laughed when Newhouse reminded me that "Barneys was always the store for people who didn't like color."