Henri Bendel's Decision to Stop Carrying Outside Brands Puts Designers in a Tricky Position

Four years after deciding to stop selling apparel, NYC institution Henri Bendel will soon only sell its own merchandise. And the retailer didn't go about it in the best way.
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Four years after deciding to stop selling apparel, NYC institution Henri Bendel will soon only sell its own merchandise. And the retailer didn't go about it in the best way.
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Earlier this month, a number of beauty brands, accessories designers and sales directors received an email from Henri Bendel, the once-iconic department store in New York that decided five years ago to stop selling clothes to focus solely on beauty and accessories. In the e-mail, the retailer announced that it had decided to completely stop stocking third-party merchandise in favor of its in-house line, which it feels has become its core product.

We were shocked to hear the news, but it came as even more of a surprise to the brands and sales showrooms that had been working with the store for years, and who had, only weeks prior, showed their fall collections to its buyers -- who then put in orders for those collections.

"It's kinda sad, pretty wild," a New York-based accessories designer who asked to remain anonymous, tells us. "I hadn't heard anything about it, they had come in for regular appointments for fall, so it was a total surprise."

According to a source at a New York City accessories showroom, Henri Bendel said it would honor those fall orders. "There would be a lot of uproar if they cancelled everyone's orders," she explains.

But there's one big problem: Henri Bendel says it plans to deeply mark down third-party merchandise as soon as it hits the floor. That means that while those items are on sale at full price at other stores, they will be on sale at Henri Bendel, which is problematic for brands and the other retailers to whom they sell. "It puts designers in an awkward position," says our source. Henri Bendel also gave brands the option of not sending in their orders, but a smaller label wouldn't necessarily be able to afford to do that.

It's hard in more than one way for smaller brands, for whom Henri Bendel was a recognizable name to have on a stockist list, and a prime door in a competitive retail spot for New York. "For some designers it was their only uptown location, and now they have to go and get into Barneys, which is not easy," our showroom source says. We're also told that it was a good retailer to work with in that it kept relationships going and often held sales-training clinics with designers and sales staff, as well as trunk shows for consumers. It also held semi-annual "Open-See" events specifically to showcase emerging designers.

Of course, Henri Bendel and parent company Limited Brands (which recently majorly reduced Victoria's Secret's apparel business) have their reasons. Out of its 29 brick-and-mortar locations, the New York flagship was actually the only one still selling third-party merchandise. Only in-house merchandise is sold through it e-commerce site, as well. So, in a way, it was really just a matter of time before Henri Bendel restructured the flagship in the same way, though one might argue it could have gone about it a little differently, timing-wise. "It's too bad to see a New York institution change its course like this, but again you have to ebb and flow as the market dictates, so if that's what they need to do…I hope it works," said the accessories designer.

Our sales source points to Henri Bendel's changing customer as the reason for the restructuring, explaining that it wasn't making enough money on higher-priced items (like fine jewelry) because most of its in-store traffic is generated by tourists who are just interested in getting a trinket from their visit. "It seems like it's losing its cache. This will be the nail in that coffin," she adds.

"While we know this will be a transition for some of our customers, we hope they will embrace our uniquely Henri Bendel take on fashion accessories," a Henri Bendel spokesperson told Fashionista.