The history of fashion wouldn’t be the same without the development and rise of the department store. That 19th century dry-goods store helped evolve and reorganize the fashion system for a much greater audience.
When it comes to the ‘American Way’, think bigger and better, think I. Magnin! Yes, I. Magnin was indeed a luxury department store famous for its selection of high fashions and specialty goods, literally the stuff of dreams. It sold everything that was considered “exclusive” from beauty products to baby layettes, bridal-wear to Paris couture.
This San Francisco-based department store (or is it a specialty store?), founded by Mary Ann Magnin in 1876, who coincidentally named it after her husband Isaac, served as taste arbiter for decades, first in San Francisco, then to the entire West Coast, before taking a larger swipe of the American landscape in the second-half of the 20th century.
Its initial expansion in California was done through luxury hotels with satellite stores from Arizona to Washington, then full-standing stores, and its move Eastward to Chicago and Washington D.C. where the “luxe” sky was the limit.
Unlike many department stores popular today, I. Magnin seriously courted famed fashion designers and manufacturers to get their exclusive and luxurious creations directly to a refined clientele with well-developed taste and, of course, deep pockets.
But they were also unique for their focus on local vendors. According to Valli Zale, Vice President and General Manager of the San Francisco I. Magnin store, in the final years before closing,
“What made I. Magnin truly unique was the way they empowered local store management to customize the luxury shopping experience. We were encouraged to interject our creativity and personality into our stores through unique in-store events. And each store brought in local vendors in fashion and accessories that made for a truly unique shopping experience. The result was better customer service and personalization. Our clients became like an extended family….giving us a better sense of their taste and preferences and making our store a better resource for them.”
Then came the I. Magnin fur salon that also served as a destination from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Chicago or D.C. and was more often a phenomenon in its own right. Its Chicago branches, for example, were owned and operated by Carol and Irwin Ware for 40 years; this couple helped introduce new-generations of well-curated fur designs to its chic clientele (stay tuned; more on these two pioneers in an upcoming blog).
“Versus fur salons in other stores, the Wares brought a whole new sense of fun to fur,” according to Ms. Zale who had earlier served as Accessories Manager of the Michigan Ave. store in Chicago. “Fur was clearly their passion. Their knowledge of the product coupled with their incredible fashion sense allowed them to present the most exciting collections year after year. And because they were so well-liked they developed quite a following.”
As they say, all things come to an end. Changes in the fashion-model, fashion itself and purchasing patterns contributed to I. Magnin’s demise. But its romance is still very much alive.
Read The Fur Insider’s article on another great American department store icon, Bonwit Teller, here.
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