A Look Back at Henri Bendel and “The Gilded Cage”

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Henri Bendel on West 57th Steet, via Geraldine Stutz Fellowship/Parsons School of Design

I’m still saddened by last week’s news that Henri Bendel—the flagship store on Fifth Avenue and its various satellites in other cities—will soon cease to exist. L Brands, Bendel’s corporate owner since 1985 (and the force behind Bath & Body Works, Victoria’s Secret, et al.) is closing down the brand due to its lack of profitability.

I could ramble incoherently for thousands of words about the ways that L Brands gradually dragged Bendel down into tacky irrelevance and ruined it for those of us who were lifelong shoppers (and I mean, lifelong—I probably visited the original Henri Bendel location in utero). Instead, I’ll share this gem of an article that The New York Times ran in 1960.

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The New York Times, September 21, 1960

In 1960, Henri Bendel was still a single New York City department store, located at 10-12 West 57th Street. (The business was founded in 1896 by Mr. Bendel, a Louisiana-born milliner, and had occupied that building since 1913.) Geraldine Stutz, who became a retail legend for her innovations at Bendel, had been the store’s president for three years.

The Times ran this story to cover the opening of The Gilded Cage, one of many mini-boutiques located along Bendel’s first-floor “Street of Shops.” Like the nearby spaces that specialized in luxury hosiery or trendy housewares, The Gilded Cage had a very specific focus: cosmetics, skincare, and fragrance. It was directed and managed by a woman named Helen Van Slyke (a former beauty editor at Glamour magazine and future cosmetics executive and novelist) and staffed by five saleswomen wearing pink smocks.

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So, what could you experience in a visit to The Gilded Cage? Its staff offered $10 makeup consultations with “personalized attention, excellent service, and impartial advice.” For a one-time fee of $125, a customer could even commission a sculpted model of her own head, all the better to see particular cosmetics demonstrated on her own painted plaster features. Or you could just shop for a specific item, of course.

The brands featured in The Gilded Cage were carefully chosen by “Mrs. Van Slyke” (as the Times referred to her): Elizabeth Arden, Germaine Monteil, Estée Lauder, Revlon, Borghese, and Biotherm, “a new name from France.”

The description of one wall that “shows 160 lipsticks” makes me wonder whether the merchandise was arranged by category rather than by brand. That would have indeed been a new approach.

And yes, the best for last: a list of the perfume brands stocked by Henri Bendel in 1960. The Gilded Cage offered scents from the Henri Bendel house brand and selections from Givenchy, Balenciaga, Chanel, Revillon, Balmain, Lanvin, Lancôme, Gres, and Rochas. What else could you ask for? (Well, Caron, maybe. But it really is an impressive list.)

I wish I could travel back to 1960 and step into that pink-and-lavender oasis—with its metallic bars sourced from actual antique bird cages!!—to sample some perfumes, face powder, and a lipstick or two.

At least I have a memory of visiting The Gilded Cage when I was a preteen, with my mother, who purchased a set of hair barrettes for me. They were made in France and had little pearlized blue hearts on them.

By the time I was shopping on my own, Bendel had been sold to L Brands and reopened in a larger space on Fifth Avenue…but I’ll be posting more about my visits to that store later this week…

 

2 comments

  1. Sad news indeed. Today I made what I realized might be my final visit to the flagship of another great New York department store, Lord & Taylor. As I looked around the main floor, where I worked for a few months in my youth and shopped for many years thereafter, I reflected on the golden age of retail and was glad to have been alive for its final years.

    On a side note, Helen Van Slyke was a client of the literary agency where my sister worked when I was a teenager. Can’t say I read any of her novels then, though; I guess they seemed rather old-fashioned (as in ’50s-’60s) to me. I might enjoy them more now!

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  2. Yes, it is sad to see these once adored department stores fall by the wayside. Shopping during the heyday of those stores was such a wonderful and magical experience, even if you never bought anything. Now those days are gone forever and the only stores available now are very high end stores that cater to only the wealthy. I remember going to a local department store (Hutzler’s in Baltimore) with my Mom when I was a child. We would have to take several buses to go “downtown” where all the department stores existed at that time. We would have lunch in the “Tea Room” and then peruse the different departments via an escalator. Happy times and a lovely way to spend the day in that era. Now my shopping exists in my condo in front of my computer.

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