By Josh Patner for TIME
Linda Fargo is in the market. That’s retail parlance for visiting designers’ showrooms, looking for the next hot thing to buy. As senior vice president of the fashion office and store presentation at Bergdorf Goodman, she is the luxury department store’s chief trend spotter, ambiance master and gatekeeper of style. She is wearing a black Oscar de la Renta dress decorated with small bands of color. “It reminds me of a computer chip,” she says. Fargo has luxury tech on her mind.
What Fargo has on her mind affects millions of dollars in revenues for Bergdorf’s, the mythic fashion emporium at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 58th Street in New York City that is the $500 million jewel in the crown of the Neiman Marcus Group.
“I am a collagist at heart. I wanted to make these little worlds.”
– Linda Fargo
Before major orders are placed, before the $48,500 Verdura bracelet is advertised in the seasonal jewelry catalog or the $2,595 Stella McCartney coat appears in the store’s coveted Fifth Avenue windows, Fargo must give her approval. That makes her one of the most powerful women in the fashion business.
Fargo spends her days reviewing the latest offerings of high-end designers like Giorgio Armani and Christian Dior. She recently suggested to renowned Paris jeweler Joel Rosenthal that he design a pair of earrings based on a flower she saw in a bouquet at Hôtel Ritz in Paris.
Fargo’s quest for the best also takes her to less glamorous territory. Not long ago, she went scouting for new talent at Greg Mills Ltd., a showroom for emerging brands in New York’s gritty garment district. There she met Angel Chang, a 29-year-old who began her label four seasons ago. “Is tech something you always build into your clothes?” Fargo asked, trying on the designer’s gray parka with speakers and wiring in the hood and an iPod-size pocket. “Is it an obsession for you?”
Chang responded by pressing her hand into one of her dresses, leaving behind an imprint made by her touch. “The dress changes color with the heat of your body,” Chang said. “It’s a mood dress,” Fargo said with a smile, before briefly explaining why the clothes weren’t right for the store.
Such antics are all in a day’s work for Fargo. “It’s hard to talk to new designers,” she says. “I don’t want to discourage them, but I don’t want to lead them on or give them a false impression. Everyone wants to be in Bergdorf Goodman. It’s like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”
Fargo holds the seal. Her influence can be seen in the clothing and accessory selections that make it from the runways to the store. Her position is a vital link in the chain that connects ceo Jim Gold with the offices of merchandising, advertising, marketing, visual display and communications.
“She’s very visual and tactile and sensitive. She’s not the run-of-the-mill merchant. She really looks. She’s open-minded,” says Greg Mills, owner of the eponymous showroom, who calls Fargo “the eyes of Bergdorf Goodman.”
For Fargo, who grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, creativity and eclecticism have always come naturally. “I was a huge costume-box kid,” she remembers, “always dressing everyone else and arranging the roles and scenes and playing it out once we put costumes on. I remember stiletto sandals with a rhinestone buckle. They were the big glamour piece.”
As a teenager, she began making small collage boxes after the artist Joseph Cornell. “I am a collagist at heart. I wanted to make these little worlds,” she says of her early artistic impulse. After completing her B.F.A., Fargo went to New York City and landed a job as a window dresser at Macy’s 34th Street flagship. “I got into retail because I wanted something to do that combined my artistic abilities with a way to make a living,” she says.
Eleven years later, she was visual director of the 1 million-sq.-ft.-plus (93,000 sq m) store. She then moved on to visual merchandising for I. Magnin, the now defunct luxury chain, and Gap. “I wanted to try the mass-market world,” she says. “It had become about mass, and Gap was a leader. That experience crystallized what I needed. For me, it had to be about the elegance, the theater.” She was hired to do the visuals at Bergdorf’s in 1996 and has been promoted twice since.
Fargo works like a fashion editor, culling trends from the detailed notes she takes at fashion shows, sifting down to the specific items and looks she feels should be emphasized in the store. But unlike an editor’s job, hers does not stop with the fantasy. “The difference between magazines and a store is they don’t have to sell what they love,” she says. “We do.”
Fargo decides on the physical structure of the store too and expanding one boutique or re-designing an entire floor cost millions of dollars. “Changes are expensive,” Fargo says, “as a retailer, you have to anticipate and justify your moves. There’s a lot of risk in all of this.” For Fargo, it’s all one high-stakes, luxury collage.
February 8, 2016