Like many morose sybarites before me, my guilty pleasure is looking at photographs of the interior of the Titanic. I know they’re real, but the scale of their luxury is almost impossible to believe. There was a wood-paneled gym with steel columns fancier than any Equinox; gold crown moldings in every first-class room; that giant staircase; hand-tufted rugs and jacquard wall upholstery; and weirdly, 3,000 pounds of garlic bread—on a boat.
I thought of those images over the last week while reading about the glory days of Neiman Marcus, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Thursday morning. There are photographs of Oscar de la Renta and Emanuel Ungaro, then kings of international fashion, staging shows in its Newport Beach and Beverly Hills stores in the 1990s and 2000s.
There is the Christmas book: a bible of “bizarre offerings,” as former president Stanley Marcus described it in his 1974 memoir Minding the Store, that included outrageous ideas like an elephant, and His and Her gifts like Jaguars (a car for him and a coat for her)…
In 1999, the catalog included a $35 million Boeing Jet. There are photos of Coco Chanel at the Dallas airport embracing Stanley, the son of the founder. Interior images of the store show total splendor—gold, gleaming, thick, where women with red-lacquered talons peddle tweed ladies-who-lunch jackets—that seems too opulent to be true.
Like the Titanic photographs, these images seemed somehow difficult to believe—because instead of existing on a boat, they existed in a store in America.
Neiman Marcus stood for a uniquely Americana brand of luxury: it turned the department store into a gleaming temple to consumerism. Neiman Marcus made the aspirational feel attainable, often by simply putting it in front of you. Built on the spirit of the west and apocryphal family lore (there’s a nice whopperette about the family starting the store instead of investing in Coca-Cola), Neimans created a mythology of luxury shopping with the panache of retail auteurs, opening a chain of stores across western America where movie stars dropped by for fashion shows and one-of-a-kind runway clothes hung on the sales racks.