WWD First Look: The Return of Century 21
With a pared-down flagship, a new logo and a family owner with a will to persist, Century 21, the off-price institution, is back in business.
Century 21 went bankrupt in September 2020 and closed its 13 stores, claiming its insurance wrongly failed to cover the loss of business due to the pandemic. Other retailers were also pushed into bankruptcy due to the pandemic, but Century 21’s filing came as a surprise considering how consistently popular and productive the off-price store had been, particularly at its lower Manhattan flagship, at 22 Cortlandt Street, across from the World Trade Center.
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That’s precisely where the store reopened — again — on Tuesday.
It is the second reopening of the Century 21 flagship — the site was destroyed during the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, but rebuilt.
“It’s surreal. I’m feeling the goosebumps,” said IG Gindi, who serves as co-chief executive officer of the off-price retailer, along with his brother Raymond. “It’s very emotional. My dad Al and my uncle Sonny started this business 62 years ago. So this is about rebuilding [and] keeping their legacy going.”
“My point is just like New York City is resilient, Century 21 is a resilient company. We have been through a lot,” Gindi said during a tour of the store on Monday.
“Before, the stores were called Century 21 Department Stores. Now we renamed the company Century 21 NYC. We feel we’re part of this community,” added Judy Duzich, Century 21’s vice president of merchandising. “We’ve been here before and we are building back.”
WWD, in May 2022, broke the news that Century 21 would make a New York City comeback in spring 2023.
On Tuesday, shoppers discovered a pared-down flagship, at 100,000 square feet over four floors instead of the previous 250,000 square feet over seven floors. Yet there’s elbow room, landings on the selling floors to help shoppers get their bearings, and cleaner, organized merchandising, so each category is contained to a single floor.
“It’s more curated, elevated and relevant. There’s more fashion, more luxury, more trend,” said Gindi.
“It’s definitely differentiated from the other off-price stores,” added Duzich.
She said that over half of the vendors previously carried didn’t make it back on the selling floors. As a result, the overall aura of the assortment is that it’s trendier, younger and weighted toward designer, young contemporary, fast fashion and streetwear. “We really want to bring in a younger customer,” said Duzich. “It’s not juniors. It’s designer and young contemporary and reasonably priced.”
The executives preferred not to discuss brands, but a walk-through of the store revealed an assortment of among other brands and labels, pre-owned Chanel, Gucci and Celine handbags, and Michael Aram and Barefoot Dream home decor. In women’s, items from Stella McCartney, Moschino, Victoria Beckham, Akris, Save the Queen, Theory and Love Shack Fancy were spotted among other labels. Swimwear included looks from Kate Spade, Jonathan Simkhai, Robin Piccone and Beach Riot.
In menswear, there was plenty of streetwear and brands such as Celine, Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana and Dior.
Prices range from as high as YSL and Gucci handbags in the $1,400 to $2,200 range and Canali men’s suits priced at $999, and go as low as a $1.99 for 17-oz. bottle of Century 21-labeled water.
The store also sells a healthy assortment of contemporary and premium jeans, as well as childrenswear, outerwear, luggage, basics, footwear, fragrances and some beauty.
Discounts are still at 40 to 65 percent off, like they were before the bankruptcy.
There’s also a tailor on site, and central checkouts on each floor, self-checkouts and larger, brighter fitting rooms for greater convenience. Next door to Century 21, the retailer is in a joint venture for an immersive, digital museum with Cayre Family, seen opening sometime next fall.
“One of the biggest changes you’re going to see is with the merchandising. It’s by brand. It’s by style,” said Duzich. “There is more of a boutique focus. We don’t just throw things on racks. It’s not as jammed up,” compared to the old flagship experience. “Even after we start to sell down there will still be merchandise.”
Opening with just one flagship, rather than the 13 stores operating pre-bankruptcy, means there’s less buying power for the Century 21 team. But when asked if Century 21 can still pull together an extensive assortment of top labels, Gindi responded: “Thank God that because of our credibility, because of the vendor relationships we have had, every vendor that we went back to — and Judy could attest to it — were all so supportive. I’m grateful to the vendor community because they’re here for us in our relaunch, because of the creditability we have built over our 62-year history.”
A smaller footprint, and because of the city’s diminished office and tourist population, also means less business is to be expected. Since COVID-19, many people continue to work from home at least a few days a week.
Asked about that, Gindi said, “Our timing on the opening is great. Essentially, there’s been a huge change in foot traffic,” said Gindi, adding that a year ago would have been a different story.
Citing statistics from The Downtown Alliance, the Century 21 executives said downtown visitor traffic is at 87 percent of pre-COVID-19 levels, and that European and Latin American international visitors have come back in pre-pandemic numbers, though visitors from Asia-Pacific countries are still not back in full strength. Neither is the office worker population, which the Century 21 executives suggested was roughly about two-thirds of what it was pre-pandemic.
During the bankruptcy process, the Gindi family, which owned, operated and founded the famous off-price chain, bought back the intellectual property for $9 million, together with a silent partner who is no longer part of the business. The company is now entirely owned by the co-CEOs as well as their two cousins, Eddie and Isaac Gindi.
Asked if the bankruptcy could have been blamed in part on overexpansion, Gindi replied, “The stores we had were good. But our future is not in the suburbs anymore. We have decided our growth will be more metro. That’s where Legends comes in,” the retail operator helping the Gindi’s run the Century 21 flagship. “We feel we have a runway of great growth with Legends because they’re already in Miami, L.A., Dallas, San Francisco. They’re already in major cities, so that’s our formula.”
A second location would represent a “phase two,” Gindi said. For now, however, “We are only focused on phase one. Our growth will be much different. It will be laser-focused on metro cities,” said Gindi. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. This is the cookie cutter,” for the future. “We want to get it right,” before opening in another city.
E-commerce is expected to launch in the fall. “Will everything be there? Definitely not,” said Duzich. “The store will have probably more treasures. But there’ll be great treasures online as well. What we don’t have the space for here in the store, we can carry online,” Duzich said, citing ladies intimates as an example.
She said the strengths in the merchandising is with designer and contemporary brands. “Designer we grew but we grew contemporary a lot,” for the relaunch, Duzich said. “There is also a component of fast fashion that maybe we didn’t do perfectly in the past.”
While Gindi wouldn’t reveal a projected volume for the flagship, he expects productivity will be higher than in the past due the higher AUR (average unit retail price) on items in the assortment. There will be merchandise deliveries on a weekly basis.
Century 21 tapped NYC-based artist Timothy Goodman to create three large murals using objects and words that accentuate Century 21’s place in the city’s fashion scene. Goodman took cues from the city’s boroughs, landmarks, fashion, bridges, subways, taxis, food and Century 21 shopping bags, the three murals highlight.
The flagship’s grand reopening for the public happened at noon on Tuesday — VIP customers were let in after the 10 a.m. ribbon cutting — and was celebrated with prizes, a runway-inspired photo booth, a personalization station for city-themed patches and pins, and fashion illustrations from artist Izak Zenou.
“Although the past three years have proven a difficult time for all, New Yorkers will always endure,” said Raymond Gindi in a statement. He added that since announcing last year the return of Century 21, there’s been plenty of “love, passion and excitement” bringing new energy to downtown Manhattan.
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