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Remembering Geraldine Stutz--maverick merchant.

Before Fred Segal in Los Angeles, Jeffrey New York in the Meatpacking District, or Colette in Paris, Geraldine Stutz was a retail groundbreaker. Her "street of shops" idea propelled Henri Bendel from a sleepy carriage trade emporium into a lively specialty store selling everything that was new and innovative. A concept so novel in the 1960s and '70s that it continues to inspire and influence retailers the world over to this day.

I first met Ms. Stutz as a young salesperson in the "Shoe Biz" department on the main floor of Bendel's. I was too naive to even anticipate the impact she would have on me. Working at the store throughout college I was at the epicenter of New York retail. Now, many years later, I appreciate what an extraordinary retailer she was.

Bendel's had existed for years at its original location, at 10 West 57th Street, just west of Fifth Avenue. But Ms. Stutz single-handedly enlivened the dark main floor with a series of individual shops selling gifts, one of a kind jewelry, stockings, handbags, men's accessories, and tabletop items for the home. Eli Zabar even had a food concession--unusual back then for a store so small. The cosmetics department stocked major luxury brands including a skincare line by Erno Laszlo. All this within one store, though Bendel's was not even a fraction of a full-size department store.

Geraldine Stutz first made her name running I. Miller shoes in the 1950s. This was a storied place that occupied the southwest corner of 57th and Fifth Avenue where Bulgari now sits. In 1960, Genesco, the parent company of I. Miller, promoted her to the helm of Bendel's to rejuvenate a tired brand. Her vision for Bendel's mixed art, fashion, movies and music; she understood the influence this had on contemporary culture.

Ms. Stutz was the impresario who discovered and nurtured designers like Americans Stephen Burrows and Holly Harp, and a very long list of International designers such as Gianni Versace, Giorgio Armani and Sonia Rykiel, as well as Dorothee Bis, Jean Charles De Castelbajac, and Jean Muir. These are just a fraction of the many designers that debuted at Bendel's before they were shown elsewhere. No one, it seems, had Geraldine's vision or panache. Her taste was simply impeccable.

Bendel's was a magical place in its heyday and it was Geraldine who brought New Yorkers the truly special, and the truly unique, right up until 1985, when the Henri Bendel store, and name, was acquired by The Limited.

Everyone was important, from the display staff who cleverly used Barbie dolls dressed in miniature fur coats for props in the windows, to the cast of characters who were the store's buyers, sales force, movie stars, and of course, everyday customers

She showcased everything in a chic and intimate setting down to the delicious scent of Agraria, an orange blossom potpourri, that would hit you at the store's main entry doors. The building was several stories tall with two tiny elevators manned by uniformed operators. "Buster" was the doorman and store mascot before other retailers had greeters at their front doors. Ms. Stutz's concepts were often imitated, but no one could duplicate her idiosyncratic vision for the cutting-edge New York woman.

When I first met Ms. Stutz, she was in her early fifties, but embodied the mind-set of a much younger person--curious, inquisitive, always looking to discover new things. Only in retrospect, as a retail store leasing broker, can I look back and reflect on what an influence she had on me and still does. Retail changed to keep up with her. Or as the late owner of the "Shoe Biz" department remarked, "if you're in fashion, you shouldn't be conservative!"

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Author:Greenwald, Beth
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 19, 2005
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