A great design or work of art has an element of timelessness. It may be difficult to tell if it was made last week or 50 years ago. I recently purchased this handbag because it possessed a classically beautiful silhouette. It was hidden among some average purses, but still stood out. The black leather was smooth yet sturdy, the hardware was elegantly understated, and the size was perfect for everyday use. It gave the impression of a chic New Yorker, but I suspected it had a bit of a past. Peering inside, it was fully lined in pigskin and had a label that read: Made in England exclusively for B. Altman & Co New York. These details provided insight to when the handbag was actually made. B. Altman was a New York department store started in 1865.
Founded by Benjamin Altman, the luxury department store started as a family owned dry goods store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The Industrial Revolution introduced new technologies, including railways and sewing machines. These impacted the fashion industry by reduced the cost of shipping and created ready-to-wear clothing and accessories, which were more affordable and accessible. B. Altman did so well that the store expanded to a larger location in 1877, and then again to 365 Fifth Avenue in 1920. The department store was known for its: “fine, conservative selection of top-quality and top-label merchandise, for its pleasant ambiance and for exceptional customer service” (New York Times). It opened 6 other branches on the East Coast, in mall locations in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Short Hills, Paramus, White Plains, and Manhasset. B. Altman offered ready-to-wear designer clothing, or commission custom-made designs. The store’s also offered private label merchandise, like the handbag I found.
B. Altman was never classified as a trendsetting in terms of its merchandise. It stocked classic, well-made items. The store had a successful 124 year run, but filed for bankruptcy in the 1989. As I considered the history of B. Altman, I pondered the fate of contemporary department stores today. It’s difficult to ignore the changing landscape of retail. I grew up in the heyday of the American mall; a time when brick and mortar businesses flourished. The great power of these physical locations was their siren call: it was a location where, regardless of age, you could socialize safely, see new fashions or products, and get a few errands in. The lure of consumerism was so subtle and beautifully infused in these spaces. Grab a cup of coffee with a friend, walk around, and buy a new shirt. While the intention may not have been to make a new purchase, the progression was natural. It’s difficult to resist giving in when the item is in your hand, or fits so well in the dressing room.
Logo and image courtesy of The Department Store Museum.
And with the strong economy of prior to 2008, discretionary incomes allowed most consumers the routine splurge of a new piece of clothing or gadget. Enter the financial crisis. We’ve all felt the effects, although some more than others. Every person I talk to still feels shell-shocked. Economists intellectualize this as “another bubble”- that tempting pie-in-the-sky idea of going to college so you can gain skills for a meaningful career, or buying a house for your family to provide stability. When the bubble burst, the economy toppled. Millions lost their homes due to sub-prime mortgages. Entire industries were moved off-shore to cut costs. Job opportunities shrunk. Students entering the workforce couldn’t get jobs, nor could their educational loans be discharged in bankruptcy. The prices of necessities inflated while wages shriveled. Businesses adapted to the virtual arena to stay afloat. The paradigm shifted. Some retailers have managed to stay afloat. Others, like The Gap, have uncertain fates. This classic American retailer announced that it would be closing a quarter of its North American brick and mortar locations. Will all physical stores eventually close their doors, like B. Altman? Every time I make a purchase, I realize I’m navigating a new space. I have to make my dollars go farther than before, and the way in which I spend my money is like casting a vote. My tendency is to support brick and mortar stores. There is something immensely enjoyable about trying on clothing and accessories in person. Mostly because it offers the surprise of finding something you didn’t know you were looking for, like this handbag.