Bergdorf Goodman – the Wealthiest Janitors in History and 5th Ave Haute Couture

The year was 1928 and Edwin Goodman was about to move his widely successful women’s clothing store to 5th Ave and 58th Street – the spot previously occupied by Cornelious Vanderbilt’s mansion, the largest single-family residence in New York. As commerce relentlessly marched up 5th Avenue, the palace-like Vanderbilt mansion was demolished to be replaced by a palace of fashion called Bergdorf Goodman.

The store was owned by Edwin Goodman who, having started as a humble tailor, became the first American couturier to offer prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear), effectively revolutionizing the American fashion industry.

Edwin Goodman grew up in upstate New York in a family of German-Jewish shopkeepers. He dropped out of high school to work for a local tailor – the first step in his spectacular transformation into one of the premier figures in haute couture. His passion for dressmaking took him to New York City, the world center of the garment industry. Here he met Herman Bergdorf and started working at his tailor shop on 5th Avenue and 19th street. Edwin Goodman, handsome and elegant, became popular with Bergdorf’s wealthy clientele. In 1901, at the age of 25, he partnered with Bergdorf to form the Bergdorf Goodman company. The aging Herman Bergdorf favored his leisure over toil, allowing the young and energetic Goodman to run his business. Eventually, Bergdorf retired to France, leaving the company in the capable hands of Edwin Goodman.

To maintain proximity to his clients, Goodman kept moving his salon further up 5th Avenue. In 1914, Bergdorf Goodman was located right across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It is in this location that Goodman opened his first ready-to-wear department. This move was as shocking as it was revolutionary since upper-class ladies were used to having their dresses made-to-measure by tailors. The timing of this decision was impeccable as 20th-century women were no longer interested in spending hours being measured, pinned, and fitted for every dress. Sensing the need for high-end fashion without the fuss, Goodman became the first American couturier to offer ready-to-wear.

A perfectionist, Goodman involved himself in every detail of his creations, ensuring the quality that made him a success. He worked with a team of designers creating perfect reproductions of the best Paris originals. Of course, ready-to-wear didn’t mean that dresses were displayed on the racks. Instead, they were individually presented by stylish, well-groomed saleswomen who greeted each madam at the door and presented every dress individually. Goodman never offered more than fifty dresses of any particular design and often sold some designs exclusively to just a few. Since the superb quality and meticulous attention to each customer were the trademarks of the store, Goodman never wanted to open a store branch in another location. By 1927, customers were dropping upwards of $100,000 a year shopping in Bergdorf Goodman.

Despite all the success, the store located across from St. Patrick’s had to be demolished to make way for the creation of Rockefeller Center. For the new Bergdorf Goodman, Edwin Goodman decided to buy a plot on 5th Ave between 57th and 58th Streets previously occupied by Cornelius and Alice Vanderbilt’s mansion. The location turned out to be perfect! Positioned at the intersection of upper Fifth Avenue and 58th Street, a connection to the wealthy enclaves on the East Side, the new Bergdorf Goodman became the epicenter of the shopping habitat of the affluent.

The nine-story Bergdorf Goodman was not just a store. It housed the workrooms for his designers on the 4th floor and a factory on the 5th. All the work was done on premises under Goodman’s close supervision. Originally Goodman made only women’s dresses but, as time progressed, the company went on to design every accessory for couture ensembles, ranging from furs to underwear. It was not unusual for a lady to require a matching purse, an umbrella, a scarf, and even a pet outfit to go with her Bergdorf Goodman dress.

Edwin Goodman, his wife, and their two children inhabited a 17-room penthouse on top of the building that had every imaginable convenience and allowed a spectacular view of Central Park. Technically, it was built on top of a factory, and, according to city regulations, nobody was allowed to live in industrial spaces except for janitors. With the blessings of New York’s dapper mayor Jimmy Walker, Edwin Goodman listed himself and his family as building’s custodians, thus carving their space in history as the wealthiest janitors in the world.

Edwin Goodman’s children were in business with their father, making the legendary Bergdorf Goodman family-owned until 1972. Now owned by Neiman Marcus, it still remains the only Bergdorf Goodman in the world.

The most unusual penthouse in the city now houses the John Barrett Hair Salon. The BG Restaurant on the 7th floor offers pricy refreshments to its weary shoppers. On the street level, Bergdorf Goodman offers some of the most creative and elaborate window displays in the city. The celebrated Bergdorf Goodman windows take 10 months to design and over two weeks to install, involving as many as 100 people.

Even though the Bergdorf Goodman’s prices may prevent some from experiencing the Bergdorf Goodman quality firsthand, the whimsical world of Bergdorf Goodman’s windows is thankfully available to all.

Bergdorf Goodman holiday window
Bergdorf Goodman holiday window
  • 1899: Edwin Goodman goes to work for tailor Herman Bergdorf.
  • 1901: Goodman buys into the business, forming Bergdorf Goodman.
  • 1903: Goodman buys out Bergdorf.
  • 1914: The business moves to the present-day site of Rockefeller Center.
  • 1928: Bergdorf Goodman moves to its current address.
  • 1953: Andrew Goodman takes over the business.
  • 1972: Bergdorf Goodman is sold to Carter Hawley Hale Stores.
  • 1987: Bergdorf Goodman is spun off as part of the Neiman Marcus Group.
  • 1990: Bergdorf Goodman Men opens across the street from the main store.



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