L Brands, an American fashion retailer that own Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, announced today that it was closing all 23 Henri Bendel stores, including the Fifth Avenue Manhattan flagship, and the Bendels website to boot, to “focus on increasing shareholder value.”
The store was essentially founded in 1895, when Henri Bendel moved to New York City from Lafayette, La., and began making hats for the city’s elite, but it wasn’t transformed into the high-end emporium for designer clothes it became until Geraldine Stutz was made president in 1957.
During her 29-year career there, Ms. Stutz made Henri Bendel a place where new designers (including Ralph Lauren, Stephen Burrows, Perry Ellis and, briefly, Monica Lewinsky) could get tremendous opportunity and exposure. And where shoppers could walk out with brown-and-white striped bags full of stylish wares.
Mr. Bendel died in 1936 at the age of 69, two decades before Ms. Stutz’s career at the store began. He was buried in Valhalla, N.Y. (“A Negro quartet” performed at his funeral, The Times noted.) The store’s vice president, Abraham Beekman Bastedo, succeeded Mr. Bendel as steward of the institution for almost 20 years after his death.
For much of its history, the Henri Bendel flagship was on 57th Street at Fifth Avenue. It was purchased in early 1929, and the next year unionized dressmakers for the store, who were paid $40 a week, threatened to strike over labor terms that included the right to shed 20 percent of the staff twice a year.
Workers were arrested outside the store as they attempted to recruit for the union. In 1923, Mr. Bendel had given 45 percent of the company’s capital stock to employees, worth almost $2 million at the time.
When he died, Mr. Bendel left the following to Mr. Bastedo: $200,000, the use of his estate in Stamford, Conn. — what is now the Stamford Museum and Nature Center — and half his stock in the store. The Times described Mr. Bastedo as an “aide” and a “faithful employee.”
The Times reported this faithful employee’s address as 399 Park Avenue, which, as it happens, was also Mr. Bendel’s address. (It later became the skyscraper headquarters of Citibank, facing the iconic Lever House.)
Mr. Bastedo, who lived the rest of his life as president of the store, died in Stamford in 1953. He is buried alongside Mr. Bendel in Valhalla. On FindAGrave.com, he is listed as Mr. Bendel’s spouse. In 2010, a Wikipedia user took a photograph of the grave site, which features a statue of a robed figured casting roses before her, with the names BENDEL and BASTEDO carved beneath it.
It was later management of Henri Bendel that moved the flagship store around the corner to Fifth Avenue, with that location’s iconic Lalique windows. That lease, was purchased in the late 1980s and doesn’t expire until early 2021, according to the Commercial Observer, which calculates that L Brands will be on the hook for about $13 million in rent, unless some accommodation is made.
Still, capitalism responded positively to the news of the closure of Henri Bendel. L Brands shares, which were trading in the $90 range in 2015 and 2016, saw a bounce all the way from $27.95 to $28.97 on the day of the announcement.