I. Magnin on Union Square - San Francisco
For years, I. Magnin & Company was the leading high fashion/luxury goods chain in the West serving the ‘carriage trade’ customer with exclusive fashion from leading designers. It earned these exclusive relationships by providing a facility and customer service that showcased the brands. She became known for bringing the latest fashions from Paris.
Magnin & Company was started in 1876 by Mary Ann Magnin and she named the company after her husband, Isaac Magnin. She came from the Netherlands and he from England. Her first store carried lotions and high-end clothing for infants. She then expanded into bridal. Her first store was located on Market Street. She later moved to 918-922 Market Street, right across from the Emporium. The new store was 10,000 square feet, two stories, and renowned for its elegant ladies room. In 1906 the company had a second location under construction on Grant Street but it never opened. The earthquake and fire destroyed both the Market Street store and the incipient one. Mrs. Magnin built a new store at the corner of Stockton and Geary Street. In 1948 that building was replaced with a new flagship store, dubbed the ‘White Marble Palace’ by Christian Dior.
Three of the Magnin’s sons (John, Grover, and Sam) joined the company. The fourth son, Joseph Magnin started his own company, J. Magnin.
In 1910, I. Magnin’s began opening boutique shops in luxury hotels in California. Eventually, there were six of these shops. In 1939, the company expanded into Southern California with its first store on Wilshire Boulevard, a block from the Bullock’s Wilshire store.
In 1944, Bullock’s Department Stores bought I. Magnin & Company and formed Bullock’s-I.Magnin. This partnership funded the new I.Magnin flagship store opened in 1948. It also led to the expansion of I. Magnin & Company to Santa Ana, Sherman Oaks, and Del Amo.
In 1964, Bullock’s-I.Magnin was acquired by Federated Department Stores in a hostile takeover. As a result, Bullock’s and I.Magnin’s became separate divisions of Federated. Federated did fund the expansion in the 1970’s of I. Magnin & Co into Chicago and Washington, D.C.
In the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s, Federated Department Stores realized that I. Magnin’s customer base was shrinking as the ‘carriage trade’ passed. The company realized that the younger customers were not shopping at I. Magnin’s. Management changes were made to attract the younger customer. These strategies did not provide the expected results and in fact, often resulted in offending the older customers. Sales continued to decline. High end boutiques were doing a better job of attracting the young and wealthy.
In 1988, Federated was taken over by real estate developer Campeau Corporation. In a settlement with the R. H. Macy Company which was also a bidder, Campeau sold the Bullock’s and I. Magnin’s divisions to Macy’s. The following year, Macy’s combined the Bullock’s Wilshire and I.Magnin’s divisions and started shuttering stores. The 1992 Rodney King riot in Los Angeles made it easy for the original Bullock’s Wilshire store to be closed.
The secret sauce for I. Magnin’s was creating an environment to showcase high fashion and luxury goods. Everyone who visited the San Francisco flagship I. Magnin store will tell you stories about the store, especially the marble ladies room with the gold plated fixtures. The store and all its facilities were elegant. Designers preferred to have their goods showcased at I. Magnin’s versus other retailers. And this set the company apart from all other department stores. In addition, the sales associates developed strong relationships with all the carriage trade customers and would call them to let them know about new goods and would hold those goods until the customer visited the store.
For a while, Rose Marie Bravo ran I. Magnin’s and she set plans in place to rebuild the chain’s image. After she left, the business again lost merchandising direction. In 1994, Federated Department Stores reached an agreement with the creditors of the R. H. Macy Company to buy it out of bankruptcy. Before the deal closed, they shuttered the remainder of the I. Magnin’s stores. Many of the stores were converted to Macy’s. The upper floors of the San Francisco flagship were converted to Macy’s; the lower floors became a duty free store.
What happened????…. For years the I Magnin & Company served the high end customers well. This was while the family was heavily involved in the business. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the company continued to cater to the carriage trade but missed the growth of the baby boom generation. The company’s executives did not change their strategies, they just focused on the same for far too long until the high end and luxury specialty retailers had captured the younger wealthy customer. By the time Federated Department Stores recognized this, it was too late. I. Magnin & Company was seen by the customers as a store for the past generation. The company had lost its cache. Rose Marie Bravo did implement good strategies, but it was simply too late and the return on a turnaround simply was not a good investment. Many retailers fall into this trap. Federated put in an executive to reduce costs. This executive did not understand the importance of the sales people in the store. He implemented a plan to reduce full-time employees and add more part-time employees. This nearly resulted in the employee’s joining the union and definitely led to the departure of some of the best sales people and a serious decline in morale and customer service.
I knew I. Magnin & Company too well. Harriet, the aunt of a good friend of mine, worked in the candy department on the first floor at the Kearny Street entrance. She would tell us how it was her responsibility to let the management know when someone famous or a well-known customer would come in the door so they could be met and given individual service. Harriet showed us all around the store, including the ladies’ restroom.
Later, when I worked at Bullock’s, I shopped I. Magnin’s at the various stores. I had visited all except the store in Washington D.C. The stores were well maintained, elegant, and the customer service was exemplary. It was evident that the store in Chicago did not get the exclusive designer goods that were in the big stores in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Many of smaller stores (Del Amo, Sherman Oaks) also lacked the breadth of merchandise. At that time it was clear that the younger customer was not going to feel comfortable in that environment.
I had a great relationship with one of I. Magnin’s most delightful carriage trade customers. Mazie Donovan had inherited vast sums. Because she was virtually blind and lived near me, I used to do bookkeeping for her every week. She maintained strong relationships with the San Francisco flagship store even though she lived in Hermosa Beach. Ms. Jolly from the fur department would always call Mazie when she had some fur item she wanted Mazie to consider. I can remember the Russian Sable Bolero that Ms. Jolly sent to Mazie on approval which Mazie purchased. Within a week after a call from Ms. Jolly, Mazie would arrange a trip to San Francisco to see what was being held for her. I knew each trip would end with a new jacket or coat.
I have shared my memories. I trust you will too. Please leave them in the comments section below.
I. Magnin & Co. Union Square -San Francisco - mid 1950's
I. Magnin & Co Collector's Stamp 1930's
I. Magnin & Co -Union Square San Francisco 1950's - Macy's Expanding
I. Magnin & Co Calendar 1912
The following postcards depict the store in Los Angeles at Wilshire Boulevard and New Hampshire, near Bullock’s Wilshire. This store had access to the affluent Hancock Park neighborhood.
Please keep in mind that these postcards are part of the Plummer & Associates collection. Please do not copy or reproduce any of these postcards without permission.