Barneys is Bankrupt: Can Massive Type, Vulnerability + Wit Help?

It’s mid-August, you’re on your holidays. Barneys New York has just filed for bankruptcy, with reports of the high-fashion store going up for sale with debts of up to $500 million everywhere. Game over right? Well, no. The show must go on; and Richard Turley found himself as one of the cast helping it do so, in a very public way.

“It seemed so silly to try and pretend this stuff wasn’t going on, and much more interesting to put your biggest perceived weakness front and center.

Turley is a designer best known for transforming Bloomberg Businessweek from a dry financial rag to a design-forward title replete with bizarre stock imagery, internet humor, and a vast swathe of wit amid the global financial crisis; as well as his bright, brash, Tumblr-esque memeification of MTV’s on and off-screen visuals. Now Wieden + Kennedy New York’s global creative director, Turley also works on the broadsheet newspaper Civilization with Lucas Mascatello and filmmaker Mia Kerin.

We described the paper as loose and casual—with a tone of voice that “feels like real people are talking to you.” And that’s exactly the approach Turley went for in his project for Barneys, which asked him and Highsnobiety editor-in-chief Thom Bettridge to create some window designs for NY Fashion Week this month. Again, this was just after Barneys had issued its statement on its financial struggles. “It seemed so silly to try and pretend this stuff wasn’t going on, and much more interesting to put your biggest perceived weakness front and center, have a little fun at your own expense. It’s harder for people to have a pop at you if you’ve already had a pop at yourself,” Turley tells us.

“Everything was blended into this soup of words and instructions and notifications and inner monologues writ large all over the store.”

So that’s exactly what he did, creating a playful, typographically led set of window designs that Turley describes as a “bit vulnerable,” and deliberately not shying away from what was going on at the company. “They wanted words. They wanted some attitude,” Turley says. The idea was to “have fun” while also being transparent about the situation. Of the many issues they face, the one we were given to solve for was the perception that the stores have shuttered. Our job was to make sure people know that those are still very much open for business,” says Turley. “Writing NOT CLOSED on the front of the building in really big letters felt like a good fix for that.” So, too, was to write WE STILL HAVE CLOTHES in giant letters on the building.

The client was almost instantly into the solution; which was both a confrontation of the money question and a more standard fashion store brief—to create effective but engaging store wayfinding that conveyed the brand’s messaging. “[We wanted it] spoken in that ‘you must buy stuff’ voice,” says Turley. “Everything being blended into this soup of words and instructions and notifications and inner monologues writ large all over the store.”

“I wanted something shocking for a high end store. And that font is so weird and beautiful and basic all at the same time.”

Turkey worked with font designer and Commercial Type partner Christian Schwartz to create a bespoke typeface for the campaign, all done and dusted in a single weekend. The typeface, Proxy, was designed simply because the one Turley had in mind for the project didn’t exist—“or at least, I didn’t have time to hunt around for it.” He says, “I wanted something shocking for a high end store. And that font is so weird and beautiful and basic all at the same time. I love it.”

If anything is clear about this brief from a designer’s perspective, it’s that this was far from an easy task. It was even trickier for Turley, who says he “can honestly say I have never been aware that Fashion Week windows were even a thing until approximately four weeks ago.” In fact, to hear Turley tell it, the way fashion marketing usually works is entirely antithetical to his own approach. “That kind of pulverizing high production/low concept photo-led landfill that costs the earth seems to serve no-one—client or consumer. Which is tragic,” he says. “[Fashion] should be a place where you can fuck about and play, right? Instead of a gravy train for the same group of old friends to rinse another load of cash out of Prada.”

“[Fashion] should be a place where you can fuck about and play, right?…The world is so fucking stupid.”

He adds, “But it’s still either that or, like, what’s that basics brand where you have to queue outside to get in even when there’s no one in the store? Everlane. Another of those new brands where all the sex and fun has been washed out of it for fear of offending anyone. Like fucking Chobani for overpriced, mediocre jeans. The world is so fucking stupid.”