Remembering Henri Bendel’s Legendary Friday Morning Lineup

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Below is an excerpt from award-winning journalist Julie Satow’s forthcoming book, When Women Ran Fifth Avenue: Glamour and Power at the Dawn of American Fashion (Doubleday, June 4), a “glittering, glamorous portrait of the golden age of American department stores and of three visionary women who led them.” Satow’s book follows Geraldine Stutz of Henri Bendel, Hortense Odlum of Bonwit Teller, and Dorothy Shaver of Lord & Taylor.

Number 52 turned a bright shade of red and let out a squeal. To an outside observer it might have looked as if she had just supplied the winning question on Jeopardy!. But for the 24-year-old costume designer turned pocketbook maker, it was something far better. Anne Leibensperger, as number 52 was known in regular life, had just been awarded $250 and a coveted spot to show off her shoulder bags at Henri Bendel.

“It was like a dream come true,” Anne said a few minutes later, regaining her composure. It was her second attempt at the Friday Morning Lineup, as the weekly open call that Geraldine Stutz, the fashionable president of Henri Bendel, had begun in the early 1960s.

At 8:30 on Friday mornings, silk-screen artists, coppersmiths, leather tanners, and knitters came from as near as Queens, New York, and as far as Queensland, Australia, to line up along the West 57th Street service entrance for a coveted moment to present their creations to a Bendel buyer. That morning, standing behind Anne was an Argentinian accountant who also fancied himself a pocketbook designer, a pregnant mother who ended up waiting two hours, only to discover she had lined up for the wrong buyer, and a grandmother who made leather garter belts. For some it was their first audience, while others were Friday regulars, appearing each week, stubbornly undaunted by the rejections. There were sportswear designers with hanging bags over their shoulders, jewelers clutching small attache cases, fabric-makers lugging great zippered containers, and at least one accessories creator who toted her goods in an oversized laundry bag. Friday mornings were an abundant pipeline for new merchandise: 15 percent of the items in the store were discovered during the lineup.

When Bendel finally opened at 10:00 a.m., the hopefuls filed in under the watchful eye of Buster, the store’s famous, dapperly dressed doorman who had arrived as a teenager in 1906 and was still there half a century later. Taking their places along a narrow, overheated corridor adjacent to the freight elevators, the wannabe designers were handed tickets on a first-come, first-served basis and waited their turn. If they were lucky, they found a folding chair to sit on; otherwise, they crouched on the floor or leaned against the walls, some politely chatting and admiring one another’s wares, others quiet, nervously biting their nails or staring off into space.

Friendships were formed in the line, business partnerships, even romances—one couple who met on the line later tied the knot. There was tedium, and to a degree humiliation, waiting hours for an audience that could last as little as 90 seconds.

“I thought, ‘Do I really want to subject myself to this?’” said Ilene Danchig, who ended up successfully selling her fabrics to the store.

For Anne, there was no doubt. Despite the hours-long wait, the potential rejection, the crowded conditions, and the 51 tense people ahead of her, “yes, yes, and most emphatically yes” she would do it again, she said.

new york circa 1983 geraldine stutz, president of henri bendel, circa 1983 in new york city photo by pl gouldimages pressgetty images

Images Press

Geraldine Stutz, president of Henri Bendel, circa 1983 in New York City.

It was Geraldine’s hope that the parade of amateur clothing and accessory designers, so many talented and untried, would continue flocking there on Friday mornings, despite the downsides. “That back door is a lifeblood to the store,” Geraldine said, adding that Bendel needed “clothes all our own, otherwise, we would end up being a baby Bonwit’s or a mini-Bergdorf’s.” For Geraldine, Friday mornings were the very essence of Bendel. “Businesses are getting so big, aren’t they?” she asked. “The commercial market is consolidating big business. On the other end of the stick is this very lovely world of small, personal businesses that work today out of lofts and cellars…. On Fridays anybody can come in and show anybody anything. It’s that infusion of fresh young ideas that keeps the store fresh.”

Friday mornings weren’t always easy for the Bendel buyers, who were made to wade through dozens—sometimes more than 80—designers over several hours. “I take every single one seriously, you never know who the next terrific designer will be,” Claire Nicholson, a 31-year-old accessories buyer dressed in a Kenzo shirt and creamy white harem pants, with serpentine bangles adorning her wrists, told The New York Times one Friday.

“I have an appointment to see Claire Nicholson,” said a willowy blonde to the guard as she took her ticket. “So does everyone,” called out a voice in the crowd, causing laughter to ripple down the corridor.

Armed with a calculator and a million ways to politely say no, Claire met an average of 45 designers any given week, although her record was 88. She “wrote an order,” or said yes to, one in five, she said.

Claire told the rest some version of, “These are wonderful but they’re not for me,” or “I’m sorry but I’ve finished with the leaf motif,” or “It’s very pretty but it’s too junior for the Bendel customer.”

She would often lavish praise, despite declining to buy. “They really look delicious,” she told a designer of brass bracelets. “They are absolutely charming,” she said to a designer of ceramic pins, but were too breakable for the store’s heavy floor traffic. “They do look quite, quite wonderful,” she assured another, trying to soften the blow. Of course, there were the occasional catastrophes. One woman threw a two-pound necklace at her after being rejected. Another woman collapsed in her office and asked that she phone her psychiatrist.

Claire, whose husband was a well-known songwriter with hits like, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (“Aweemaway, aweem away”), heard all manner of shtick. “Hello, these are my little friends,” said one lady, presenting a series of crocheted hair combs. “I’m late for my dentist’s appointment in Chinatown and this is all I have to show,” said another, before presenting Claire with a single ostrich feather. When she had first been hired, Geraldine had given Claire a directive that became her guiding principle: “Buy only what you would wear personally. Buy only if you’re drooling for it and forget about what will sell.”

model armina warsuma in a look from stephen burrows 1971


Model Amina Warsuma wearing a look from a Stephen Burrows collection at Henri Bendel in 1971.

Jean Rosenberg, who oversaw all the store’s merchandise, still liked to participate in Friday mornings. One morning, she was considering a handful of colorful sweaters by a lineup hopeful. “Could you make something special for us?” Jean asked the designer, always angling for an exclusive. Usually, the purchases were modest, maybe just two of a kind, or possibly half a dozen. But while the orders might start out small, if the items proved popular with customers, they could lead to larger reorders.

At first, Bendel ordered only a few of Mira de Moss’s evening-wear designs after meeting her at a Friday lineup. Soon, she was getting reorders worth $100,000, or $300,000 in today’s dollars. The handbag designer Carlos Falchi was discovered at a lineup, eventually earning his own boutique at the store. There was also Ted Muehling, a jewelry designer who took a shoebox of his sculptural work to the lineup and won a Coty Award just six months later. It was the same with the hat designer Don Kline, also a Coty Award winner, who called the Friday lineup experience “nerve-wracking.” And Patricia Underwood, a milliner and Coty Award winner, remembered the lineup as “pure showbiz,” adding that she fielded one offer to become an importer and two opportunities to start a partnership while on the line.

After Geraldine was long gone from Bendel, there were attempts to copy the exclusivity and uniqueness of the store’s Friday Morning Lineups. In August 1995, Paper magazine rolled out what it dubbed a Fashion Mobile, a mobile home that was filled with fashion editors and stylists, parking it in a lot near Manhattan’s Union Square. The editors and magazine writers welcomed a steady flow of designers throughout the day, including Serena Da Conceicao, who offered a single outfit designed to attend a rave, and Gaetano Cannella, who brought an entire runway show worth of clothes, including a bridal gown for his finale. Jeremy Scott, before he became famous, made an appearance, accompanied by his muse, the model and 1990s club kid Jenny Dembrow, who was dressed in one of his designs, a hot-pink sheer organza dress.

By 2009, Leslie Wexner of The Limited and Victoria’s Secret fame owned Bendel’s, and tried to revive the Friday Morning Lineup as a twice-yearly affair, attempting a poor approximation of its fabled tradition. Designers spent a sleepless night holding their spot on a midtown sidewalk, braving the March cold to meet the store’s representatives. The first in line was a student from Parsons School of Design who had hair accessories to sell, and his endurance was repaid with a promise of a future appointment with a buyer, although no sale. Also lucky was a jeweler who specialized in snakeskin cuffs that had reportedly been worn by Rihanna, and a swaggering designer who arrived with a gaggle of models sporting his bubbly neon skirts. A 13-year-old girl in a plaid dress and braces played hooky from school for the chance to show off jewelry that she had been working on “all her life,” and Bendel selected a few rings.

Others were less fortunate. The creator of “peeky socks,” which lacked toes, and were meant to be worn with flip-flops, garnered a quick no. The designer of “Kamelflage”—a triangular piece of fabric that went inside a thong to avoid unseemly lines when wearing tight pants—was also rejected. (The designer was undeterred, telling one newspaper reporter that his life’s goal was to “wage war on the front lines.”)

But these modern reincarnations were poor approximations. The original legendary Friday Morning Lineup under Geraldine had a status of cool and promise. It was “like Camelot, a brief moment in history,” one buyer recalled. When the formula changed, the magic was lost, and so was avenue for artistic discovery and the next fashion innovation.

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