Press commentary on the closure of legacy retailer Henri Bendel. Read the full article

On the evolution of Henri Bendel after its 1985 acquisition by L Brands:

L Brands struggled to find an identity for the once-prestigious retailer as it was outclassed by competitors like Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue on the brick-and-mortar front, and digital fashion retailers like Net-A-Porter. Unfortunately, Henri Bendel was not able to change with the times and adapt quick enough, as some of its fellow older brands were able to.

“A lot of these older brands have this problem,” said Richie Siegel, founder and lead analyst of consumer advisory firm Loose Threads. “What does the modern version of them mean? Brands like Louis Vuitton are doing all kinds of cool modern stuff. It might be slow, but they are moving. But the business model has been roughly the same for Henri throughout its life. They didn’t change enough.”

Changes were made, but even stopping the sale of apparel in 2009 to focus exclusively on its branded handbags and accessories, as Henri Bendel did in recent years, was not enough to stave off the inevitable.

According to Siegel, another one of the key mistakes Henri Bendel made was overexpansion,

For decades, the brand was just the single department store on Fifth Avenue, cultivating its identity as an iconic New York location while keeping the scale small and manageable. Once L Brands took over in 1985, the philosophy changed. The Henri Bendel brand grew from a single location to more than 20 over the next few decades. At the end of its life, the brand had 23 stores to manage, some of them outside of its native New York City.

“It was all happening during the general retail boom,” Siegel said. “They had a growth mindset. They had problems with product differentiation. They focused on shop-in-shops, but then the internet happened and threw everything into disarray.”

Henri Bendel’s product offerings grew indistinct over time. The retailer was neither as flashy nor did it have as prestigious a name as luxury brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, and it was too expensive to compete with fast-fashion retailers like H&M and Zara.

Instead, Henri Bendel existed in a vague middle area, with little to distinguish itself from comparable accessories brands like Kate Spade. L Brands seemed to have little idea what to do with the 123-year-old retailer as its sales slowly but surely slipped away.

While Henri Bendel may soon be dead and gone, with not even an attempt to sell it off from L Brands, its demise should send a strong message not just to comparable retailers but also to its owners: Stagnancy kills, and a brand with no distinct identity is destined to slip to the wayside.

L Brands needs to be careful that the rest of its brands do not go down the same road. Victoria’s Secret in particular is at risk as the holdings company’s flagship brand and one that has experienced its own sales slump recently, with in-store sales dropping 10 percent over the last two years.

“The positive angle is that they’re shedding something that isn’t working,” Siegel said. “But if they manage all of their brands that way, this should be a warning sign to the whole company.”