Saks Fifth Avenue: “a Guarantee of High Style”

The original Saks Fifth Avenue was not located on Fifth Avenue—and for that reason was not called “Saks Fifth Avenue.”

Saks & Company opened its first department store in New York in 1902 at Sixth Avenue and 34th Street, calling it Saks & Co. Another retail giant, Gimbel’s, was located in the same area across Herald Square. Instead of competing, the two companies decided to merge, and looking for a higher class of clientele, opened the upscale Saks Fifth Avenue store on Fifth Avenue. The store, managed by Bernard Gimbel and Horace Saks, found its home on Fifth Ave between 49th and 50th Streets in 1924, becoming the first retailer to enter the residential realm of the super wealthy.

The store opening was highly anticipated and fueled by a rumor that the Prince of Wales himself would make an appearance. Even though the British royal never showed up, the place was still mobbed by Gatsby-era fashionistas.

The store that carries the name of Saks was ironically not managed by Saks. Horace Saks died suddenly in 1926, leaving the operation in the capable hands of the Gimbels. It was Adam Gimbel, Horace’s assistant and Bernard’s cousin, who was named president of Saks Fifth Avenue and made it into a legendary outpost of luxury goods.

Adam Gimbel was responsible for the innovations that made Saks Fifth Avenue worthy of Great Gatsby’s interest. The store pioneered personal shopping services, home delivery, and the concept of branch stores. The latter was one of the era’s boldest innovations, as Adam Gimbel figured that wealthy people should be able to get their hands on his luxury goods regardless of their location. The first Saks Fifth Ave branch store opened in Palm Beach in 1926. From then on, Saks Fifth Ave luxury goods department stores sprouted all over the US.

Adam Gimbel stocked the shop with exclusive merchandise—with the bulk of it being specialty items only found at Saks Fifth Ave. Inspired by his visit to the 1925 Paris Exposition, he redecorated the Fifth Avenue store in a striking Art Moderne style. He broke up the 10-story giant, which spans a whole city block, into small boutiques that offered exclusive, often custom-made, merchandise. The shoe shop, occupying the entire eighth-floor, was so huge that it was assigned its own zip code: 10022-SHOE. Besides goods, the store offered services, making it a one-stop luxury experience. The Saks hair salon famously introduced the “bob” to the nation—the haircut that defined the roaring 20s hairstyle. More amazingly, the store built an indoor ski slope where Scandinavian instructors gave skiing lessons to customers and a golf course where Scottish pros taught golf to the American public.

One of the biggest attractions of Saks Fifth Avenue was its Salon Moderne—an exclusive haute couture boutique run by Sophie Gimbel, a fashion designer, and Adam’s wife. In the Salon Moderne, Sofie introduced European design brands to her clientele in addition to her own creations custom-made on premises. Her elegant designs landed her on the cover of Time Magazine, making her the first American designer to have that honor. It was Sophie Gimbel of Saks Fifth Avenue who designed the dress that Lady Bird Johnson wore for LBJ’s inauguration. Exclusive yet cozy, the Salon Moderne also became the setting for Sofie’s private fashion shows, where fashionable ladies came to see the newest styles.

Saks Fifth Avenue, which in Adam Gimbel’s words provided “a Guarantee of High Style,” still stands as one of the most famous luxury retailers in the world and is synonymous with class and elegance.

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