How Bonwit Teller Changed The Luxury Retail Shopping Experience Forever

June 7, 2017
Cutting-edge fashion. Shop-window-as-art-gallery displays. A spray of violets that was the defining luxury logo of its time. Bonwit Teller was more than a department store. It was a wholly new approach to high-end retail that forever changed how we think about style and shopping.


A 1961 window by Andy Warhol with paintings inspired by comic strips and ads. Heiner Bastian/Andy Warhol: Retrospective
FROM THE MOMENT IT OPENED ITS DOORS in Manhattan in 1895, Bonwit Teller blazed a trail and was the envy of arrivistes such as Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue. Bonwit’s signified impeccable taste, but not of the starchy, exclusive ilk. Instead it set an unprecedented standard for refined style mixed with approachable, cultivated service, and turned the act of high-end shopping into a sensual experience for all.
After establishing on Sixth Avenue and 18th Street, just down the street from Frederic Schumacher’s first shop, the company moved into the striking Art Deco structure at Fifth and 56th that would become its iconic flagship. Gentle wafts of perfume enveloped you as you walked through the door. Our own Les Gazelles au Bois fabric hung in the dressing rooms. Avant-garde windows by the likes of Salvador Dali, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol delighted and shocked passersby.
Chic shoppers riveted by a window display in 1940. Reginald Marsh/Museum of the City of New York.
Bonwit’s was a pioneering tastemaker of the highest order, the first brand to implement the boutique shop-within-a-shop concept, the first to install a woman president at the helm of a major department store (who led through the Depression to booming profit, no less).
And then there were the clothes. Bonwit’s was the destination for discovering the next big thing, the first U.S. retailer to champion such era-changing designers as Lanvin, Schiaparelli, Andre Courreges and Calvin Klein.
A 1936 window in response to the Dada & Surrealism show exhibiting at MoMA at the same time. Karl Worsinger/Museum of the City of New York


Schumacher’s Les Gazelles au Bois fabric in a wood-paneled dressing room.
In the 1970s, the brand fell prey to mismanagement. In 1980, a young Donald Trump demolished the flagship building, including architectural elements he’s first pledged to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Trump Tower rose on its site, a much-diminished Bonwit’s tucked inside. By 1990 the store has closed for good.
But by that point Bonwit’s had transcended any brick-and-mortar confines, its visionary spirit already deeply woven into the fabric of our collective cultural memory, transforming our approach to visual expression.
The flagship’s limestone facade, with its 25-foot-tall nickel-plated grille. Sigurd Fischer/Museum of the City of New York