Can Bergdorf Goodman Win the Barneys Race?

The bankruptcy and liquidation of Barneys New York, the cutting-edge department store critical to the career starts of many designers, and that was adored by a set of young, fashionable Manhattanites, has spurred hand-wringing throughout the shopping world.

It has also unleashed a wave of high-stakes competition in Manhattan, now playing out against a backdrop of festooned holiday windows and the annual influx of tourists.

“There will be a battle for that consumer,” said Terry Lundgren, the former chief executive of Macy’s and the Neiman Marcus Group. “Bergdorf’s, Bloomingdale’s, Saks, the new Neiman Marcus and the new Nordstrom are all going to be after that business,” especially given the younger profile of Barneys shoppers.

The winner in that tussle could very well be Bergdorf Goodman.

“It’s an opportunity for Bergdorf’s to put their foot on the accelerator and really go after this consumer because of their uniqueness of only having one store,” Mr. Lundgren said.

Whether it succeeds or not will be largely the responsibility of a new driver: Darcy Penick, who became president in September 2018. Along with Yumi Shin, the brand’s chief merchant since last year, and Linda Fargo, its fashion director, she completes a troika of power women at the helm of the heritage store.

Previously the chief executive of Shopbop, an online retailer owned by Amazon, Ms. Penick, 41, has been charged with shepherding Bergdorf’s, which is owned by the Neiman Marcus Group, into the digital age in the midst of a radically changing landscape for New York department stores.

Just this year, Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus opened enormous splashy emporiums, while historic stores have vanished. Lord & Taylor closed its flagship Fifth Avenue store after more than 100 years; Henri Bendel shuttered in January.

While Ms. Penick, who speaks in measured tones and has a blond pixie cut, aims to propel Bergdorf’s forward, her office is steeped in reminders of the store’s legacy. There is a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy to a Bergdorf’s associate about hats, and a photo of a young Michael Kors, who got his start at the store.

Bobbi Brown’s 10 original lipstick shades are displayed in a frame. The walls are their own exhibit, papered in vibrant photographs of Bergdorf’s famous windows.

“I appreciate that it’s complete sensory overload,” Ms. Penick, clad in a more serene black-and-white floral Prada dress, said of the décor. “For me, it’s thinking about digital translations of this.”

Ms. Penick is part of a wave of new talent hired by Geoffroy van Raemdonck, the chief executive of Neiman Marcus since February 2018, who has been beating the drum of “transformation” and “modernization” for his company’s luxury retailers (Neiman’s, MyTheresa and Bergdorf’s).

Among those, Bergdorf’s is “really at the tip of the pyramid in terms of luxury,” he said in a phone interview, pointing to its customers, sales associates, location (two facing stores next to the Plaza Hotel) and brands.

“I was looking for a team that understands fashion, but beyond fashion — taste, and a taste for life and luxury,” Mr. van Raemdonck said. “And then it was very important to me that we expand beyond the world of the store on Fifth Avenue.”

Under Ms. Penick, the brand just introduced its first real app (it tested a shoe-centric app long ago) and its website is undergoing an overhaul that will make it look more like a magazine, with new bells and whistles for viewing merchandise and a better reflection of its in-store selection.

In fact, Bergdorf’s just started building its first team to “live and breathe” the, Ms. Penick said, after relying mainly on shared services with the broader Neiman Marcus Group.

Some of those changes may seem elementary, for a retailer in 2019, but Ms. Penick pointed out, diplomatically, the internet isn’t that old compared to Bergdorf’s. “The reality is we have a brand, a store, a history that is 120 years old,” she said. “That is, what, six times how long the online environment has been around? And so it’s still in a nascent form.”

Words like “modernization” and “transformation” can strike fear into the hearts of Bergdorf’s devotees, from consumers to designers to employees, whose loyalty has been cataloged in documentaries like “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s.” (The title was based on a New Yorker cartoon, but the phrase was supposedly overheard at the store at least once.)

Doormen, gilded revolving doors and chandeliers line the path to Bergdorf’s nine floors — six, if you exclude the ornate BG restaurant on No. 7, the event space on No. 8 and salon on No. 9. Handbags are displayed and often priced like museum pieces, “fur services” remain on offer, and the occasional penguin statue suddenly pops up next an artfully posed mannequin to take some of the stuffing out.

Ron Frasch, chief executive of a namesake consulting firm and a former head of Bergdorf’s, has likened it to “the Willy Wonka of retail.”

It was singular, he said, in that the chief executive could walk around the store daily and talk to its top customers and top sales associates. Clients were catered to in multiple ways: flown to fashion shows in Europe; allowed into the store at night so they didn’t have to be trailed by bodyguards during the day.

“The challenge with Darcy and her team is how you respect that uniqueness and maintain it,” Mr. Frasch said. “The biggest challenge for anyone running Bergdorf’s is to not screw up the value of what Bergdorf’s means to its customer.”

Despite her digital pedigree, however, Ms. Penick understands the allure of bricks and mortar.

She began her career in Neiman’s training program in Dallas, after college at Wellesley, where she majored in peace and justice studies. While she is from St. Louis, she has been an East Coaster since her college days and currently lives in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. (Surely that adds a dose of hipness to the store?)

She went on to become one of two buyers for Bergdorf’s fifth floor, responsible for contemporary women’s clothing brands like Vince, Joie and Juicy Couture. She repeatedly referred to a reaction she calls “the ‘Ooh, Bergdorf’s,’ which flies from people’s mouths when you say the brand.”

Next came a short-lived clothing start-up focused on 30-to 50-year-old women, five years at Saks Fifth Avenue working on designer footwear, and Shopbop, where she entered Amazon’s orbit. (No, she never met Jeff Bezos, despite ample time in Seattle and at Shopbop’s headquarters in Madison, Wis.)

Now, Ms. Penick said, she is merging the two “underpinnings” of her career in luxury stores and digital shopping.

She is overseeing a staff of about 900, including some of retail’s best store associates: More than 60 percent of the salespeople bring in at least $1 million in annual revenue each, the company said. And the new app has a Wishlist tab that will eventually allow associates to build assortments for customers, which can be pulled into fitting rooms on visits or shopped for online.

“We really liked the idea of building an environment that supported that exact same type of work online that we’re doing in store,” Ms. Penick said. “It isn’t technology for technology’s sake.”

Some technology can be lighter fare, though. Bergdorf’s is creating a separate app tied to a new bar and restaurant — Goodman’s Bar — that is set to open in mid-December in the men’s store, across the street from the flagship.

On a recent October morning, Ms. Penick shared a sampling from the restaurant, including avocado toast topped with Russ & Daughters lox, and pastries from Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery in the West Village.

“If you’re shopping for a Kiton suit down away from the bar, we’ll give you the experience of ordering your favorite cocktail or learning about a new spirit,” Ms. Penick said. “We’ll bring that to you in your fitting room.”

Bergdorf’s also started a series this spring called Designers Off Duty, which invited customers to spend time with designers in unusual settings. Phillip Lim, who recently published a cookbook, taught a cooking class for one event where clients made one of his mother’s recipes and then shared a meal with him.

At another event, Jason Wu held a private sketching class with models wearing pieces from an upcoming collection.

Then there’s the new initiative known as BG Radar, which showcases emerging designers in stores and online — just as Barneys used to do. Coincidence?

While Mr. van Raemdonck acknowledged that “it’s never something great for anyone in the industry to see an established household name like Barneys be challenged and go through liquidation,” he said that he believed that Bergdorf’s would benefit from its exit.

While Bergdorf’s does not disclose its sales, Mr. van Raemdonck said he expected that its business could increase significantly in coming years, noting that its digital revenue is not yet at the level of the Neiman’s chain, where online sales exceed 30 percent of total sales.

“I do think that the growth of Bergdorf from a fashion standpoint is going to continue to accelerate,” he said.

“We are at the beginning of our journey.”