Jay Bell

At Barneys New York, Jay Bell oversees the coolest selection of menswear around. His formal title is a mouthful: VP and Division Merchandise Manager (DMM) of Designer Collections and Contemporary Sportswear. His job is to scour the world of fashion, buying collections from the industry’s most famous talents, while also discovering next season’s must-have, rising stars. But it’s not all fashion shows and champagne, and he admits to spending the vast majority of his time dealing with spreadsheets, working with Excel and feeding stray cats near his home in Harlem.

For fashion savvy men, Barneys New York isn’t just a department store. Rather, it’s a showcase of international style, mixing both established lines and edgy collections. Where other department stores are restrained and conservative, Barneys is hip and fun. Where other stores rely on proven trends, Barneys will take a chance and set the trend. And still, the nine flagships around the US are able to offer tried-and-true classics, basic staples that more traditional shoppers can embrace.

It’s a balancing act overseen by Bell for the past decade. He confesses, “Basics, such as blue, black and charcoal, make up 80% of business.” While playing with proportion and color stories make for fun editorial, most guys stick with familiar staples. So Bell adjusts the designer mix for different city types: the fashionable New York shopper varies dramatically from the businessman in Chicago, or the executive in LA. There’s no single client archetype. Younger clients might save up for a single, designer piece each season, while tourists expect the peak of US style; and then there is everyone in between.

When asked how he identifies new designers, Bell says bluntly, “You can smell it. There’s a certain level of quality and design acumen that doesn’t exist.” So while he estimates that young designers are only about 25% of his sales floor, they are often the attention grabbers who draw shoppers in. Plus, rather than simply watching a new brand develop, Bell gets to guide the growth. Bell can recall when Scott Sternberg showed up at his office with a “little tray of skinny ties and oxford shirts.” Only a few years later, Band of Outsiders has grown into a formidable brand.

Escoe (Jay) Bell, Jr. was born in Boston, MA. After graduating from high school, he moved to Philadelphia and attended the University of Pennsylvania, graduating with a degree in art history. In the early ’90s, Bell followed his future wife to Singapore, and worked for Christina Ong’s Club 21. There, he helped build the Club 21 retail empire, opening flagship stores in Asia and Australia for the likes of Prada, Issey Miyake and Paul Smith. After seven years, Ong introduced Bell to Jil Sander, and he returned stateside as the buyer for Sanders’ own boutiques. Upon hearing of a vacancy at Barneys New York, Bell reached out to current General Merchandise Manager Tom Kalenderian (whose own career at Barneys started as a temp salesman in 1979), and talked his way into the buyer job.

Bell cites his earliest inspiration toward fashion as Rei Kawakubo, Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano, Claude Montana and Kansai Yamamoto; and he is fond of plenty of modern day innovators like Nicolas Ghesquière of Balenciaga, Rick Owens, and Stefano Pilati of YSL. Of course, he notes, “Kawakubo is still around and equally inspirational.”

Of his job, Bell says, “Work is so much fun and creative.” Having matured under mentorships with Kalenderian and Ong, he feels an obligation to return the favor. He sits on the judging panel for Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation, helping divvy out $25,000 awards for new designers to produce shows during New York Fashion Week. He also does guest lectures at Parsons The New School for Design. Bell says, “The best part is helping young people. I will give everything to see people grow.”

– Michael Cohen
photography Sergio Kurhajec