Bonwit Teller

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Bonwit Teller & Co.
Type Department store
Industry Retail
Fate Liquidated (1990)
Founded 1895 New York, New York
Headquarters New York, New York
Products Clothing, footwear, bedding, furniture, jewelry, beauty products, and housewares.

Bonwit Teller & Co. was a department store in New York City founded by Paul Bonwit in 1895 at Sixth Avenue and 18th Street. In 1897 Edmund D. Teller was admitted to the partnership and the store moved to 23rd Street, East of Sixth Avenue. Bonwit specialized in high-end women's apparel at a time when many of its competitors were diversifying their product lines, and Bonwit Teller became noted within the trade for the quality of its merchandise as well as the above-average salaries paid to both buyers and executives. The partnership was incorporated in 1907 and the store made another move, this time to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 38th Street.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, Bonwit Teller was one of a group of upscale department stores on Fifth Avenue that catered to the "carriage trade". Among its most notable peers were Peck & Peck, Saks Fifth Avenue and B. Altman and Company.

Bonwit changed ownership frequently, particularly after 1979. Bonwit Teller's parent company declared bankruptcy in 1989, resulting in the closure of the bulk of the company's stores.[1] Despite efforts over the years to restore the brand, Bonwit Teller is largely a moribund brand.

History[edit]

Founding and early history (1880s–1946)[edit]

In the late 1880s, Paul Bonwit opened a small millinery shop at Sixth Avenue and 18th Street in Manhattan's Ladies' Mile shopping district. In 1895, which the company often referred to as the year it was founded, Bonwit opened another store on Sixth Avenue just four blocks uptown. When Bonwit's original business failed, Bonwit bought out his partner and opened a new store with Edmund D. Teller in 1898 on 23d Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.[2] The firm was incorporated in 1907 as Bonwit Teller & Company and in 1911 relocated yet again, this time to the corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-eighth Street.[3] The firm specialized in high-end women's apparel at a time when many of its competitors were diversifying their product lines, and Bonwit Teller became noted within the trade for the quality of its merchandise as well as the above-average salaries paid to both buyers and executives.

Bonwit Teller from an advertisement ca. 1920

They announced that this new location would provide consumers with:

In 1930, with the retail trade in New York City moving uptown, the store moved again, this time to a new address on Fifth Avenue. Bonwit took up residence in the former Stewart & Co. building at Fifty-sixth Street, which would remain the company's flagship store for nearly fifty years. The building had been designed by the architectural firm, Warren and Wetmore in 1929 and redesigned the next year by Ely Jacques Kahn for Bonwit. Two more floors were added to the main building in 1938 and a twelve-story addition was made to the 56th Street frontage in 1939.

The company, in need of capital, partnered with noted financier Floyd Odlum. Odlum, who had cashed in his stock holdings just prior to the stock market crash of 1929, was investing in firms in financial distress and in 1934 Odlum's Atlas Corporation acquired Bonwit Teller. Odlum's wife, Hortense, who had already been serving as a consultant, was named president of Bonwit Teller in 1938, making her the first female president of a major department store in the United States. The Odlum's also retained a connection to the firm's founding family, naming Paul Bonwit's son Walter Bonwit as vice president and general manager.[3]

Changing ownership (1946–1979)[edit]

Floyd and Hortense Odlum would sell their investment in Bonwit Teller to Walter Hoving's Hoving Corporation. At the same time, Albert M. Greenfield's Philadelphia-based investment company Bankers Securities Corporation acquired Bonwit Teller's Philadelphia stores. With Bonwit Teller, Hoving would establish a strong retail presence on Fifth Avenue that would also include Tiffany & Co. Although Hoving was responsible for the significant growth of Bonwit Teller, it was ultimately this over-expansion, along with constantly changing ownership, that led to the firm's collapse.

The company would undergo another ownership change just ten years later with the acquisition of Bonwit by Genesco in 1956. At the time, Genesco was a large conglomerate operating more than 64 apparel and retail companies. While Genesco's portfolio included other upscale brands, including Henri Bendel, the company was largely known as a shoe retailer. Bonwit Teller, which had developed a cutting edge reputation promoting a young Christian Dior and other prominent American designers, began to lose both its fashion and sales momentum in the mid-1950s following the acquisition by Genesco.[2][4]

Branch locations[edit]

Bonwit Teller had started to expand as early as 1935 when it opened a "season branch" in Palm Beach, then in 1941 it has opened a full-time branch in White Plains. This was followed by the opening of a Boston store in 1947 in the Back Bay neighborhood. By 1958, the store had locations in New York, Manhasset, White Plains (which it moved to Scarsdale/Eastchester next to a large Lord & Taylor store), Cleveland, Chicago, and Boston, as well as resort shops in Miami Beach and Palm Beach.

In 1961, the company added a store in Short Hills and, in 1965, merged with the three-store Bonwit Teller Philadelphia chain (Philadelphia, Wynnewood, and Jenkintown). Later branches were located in Oak Brook, Troy, Palm Desert, Beverly Hills, Bal Harbour (replacing the Lincoln Road resort shop in Miami Beach), Kansas City, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Columbia, South Carolina.

During this period, Bonwit grew at a much slower pace and with a lower degree of coordination than its peer, Saks Fifth Avenue, which was roughly the same size as Bonwit in the 1950s. During this period, Bonwit did retain a role on the development of fashion and design, most notably helping to launch the career of Calvin Klein.

Decline and bankruptcy (1979–1990)[edit]

Allied Stores Corporation acquired the company, with the exception of its flagship Fifth Avenue store, in 1979.[2] Shortly thereafter, the company's flagship store was sold separately to Donald Trump. Trump demolished the flagship Manhattan location in 1980 to build the original Trump Tower[5] and Bonwit opened a new location, around the corner from its original store, at Fifth Avenue and 56th Street. The new location would be attached to Trump Tower's indoor mall and was constructed by joining several adjoining buildings. The new store, with 84,000 square feet (7,800 m2) of space, was significantly smaller than the original Bonwit Teller with over 225,000 square feet (20,900 m2).[6] Ultimately, Bonwit only lasted a short time in its new location, before being closed in 1990. Bonwit would be replaced by another short-lived department store venture, Galeries Lafayette.

In 1986, Bonwit's parent company was sold to Canadian entrepreneur Robert Campeau. Just a year later, in 1987, the company was sold for $101 million to Hooker Corporation an Australian developer that also controlled B. Altman & Company.[2] Hooker would attempt an aggressive expansion of the company's store base from 13 to 28 but losses mounted and the company, with 17 stores in the U.S., filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August 1989. Bonwit was once again put on the auction block but under the bankruptcy plan, Hooker liquidated most of the Bonwit stores. As a result, there was a sharp cutback in the number of stores, to 4 from 16, effectively putting the other 12 out of business.[1]

Post-bankruptcy (1990–2000)[edit]

The Pyramid Company purchased the Bonwit Teller name and its remaining stores from bankruptcy court for $8 million in 1990.[7] Pyramid included a Bonwit store as one of four major anchors in the company's then soon-to-open Carousel Center mall in Syracuse, New York, which opened later that year.[8] The company had plans to expand the store name throughout the company's other two dozen malls and to create a new flagship store in Manhattan. However, these plans never materialized. The Syracuse store, the last remaining, closed in March 2000.[9]

Pyramid reportedly lost $60 million between 1990 and 1999 operating Bonwit Teller. The amount was the subject of a lawsuit alleging company chairman Robert Congel illegally transferred $20 million of the debt to partners in the company's Crossgates Mall in Albany, which never housed a Bonwit Teller store.[10]

Since 2000[edit]

In 2005, River West Brands, a Chicago based brand revitalization company, announced that it had formed Avenue Brands LLC to help bring back Bonwit Teller as a luxury brand. The company was seeking to use the Bonwit brand to draw attention to a line of upscale apparel and accessories.[11]

In June 2008 it was announced that Bonwit Teller "boutiques" would be opening in as many as twenty locations, beginning with New York and Los Angeles. However, with the onset of the recession in 2008 and 2009, it appears that this venture is not proceeding as originally anticipated.

Appearances in film[edit]

  • In the 1995 film Die Hard with a Vengeance, Bonwit's Fifth Avenue store was bombed by villain Simon Gruber in the film's opening sequence. Bonwit had been out of business for five years by that time.
  • In the 1978 film Oliver's Story, starring Ryan O'Neal and Candice Bergen, Candice plays the role of Marcie Bonwit. Later in the movie, it transpires that Marcie Bonwit is an heiress to the Bonwit Teller fortune.
  • In the 1979 film Rocky II, Rocky Balboa shops at Bonwit's store in Philadelphia as part of a spending spree sequence. Rocky purchases an expensive leather jacket (with a tiger design on the back), a fur coat for his wife Adrian and expensive wristwatches for his brother-in-law Paulie.
  • In 2009, Bonwit Teller was written into a scene on Mad Men, a television series that explores the world of advertising. Peter Campbell, advertising account executive, returns a Bonwit Teller dress to their 5th Avenue store, where he discovers that Joan Holloway, a former co-worker, is now employed there as a sales clerk.
  • In the 2013 Hallmark Channel movie Window Wonderland, a window dresser (Chyler Leigh) explains how Salvador Dalí dressed windows at Bonwit's in his surrealist style.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Bonwit's Owner Files for Bankruptcy. New York Times, August 10, 1989
  2. ^ a b c d Australians buy Bonwit Teller. New York Times, May 1, 1987
  3. ^ a b http://dlxs.lib.wayne.edu/d/dhhcc/retailers/bonwitteller.html
  4. ^ Bonwit's Lady Boss. Time, Jan. 22, 1965
  5. ^ The Midtown Book - Trump Tower
  6. ^ Bonwit Teller: Lively Interior On 57th Street. New York Times, April 23, 1981
  7. ^ 5 Bonwit Teller Stores Are Sold, Likely Insuring Retailer's Survival. New York Times, March 11, 1990
  8. ^ "Carousel Center 20th Anniversary (1990-2010)". Retrieved 19 November 2011. 
  9. ^ "Bonwit Teller to make last sale", Chicago Sun-Times, 2011-03-07: 41, retrieved 2011-11-19 
  10. ^ "Suit Slams How Congel Covered Losses" Syracuse Post-Standard. May 28, 2006
  11. ^ Bringing back Bonwit. Crain's Chicago Business, June 05, 2006