In 1826, English immigrant Samuel Lord opened a dry goods store in New York City. Lord later brought his wife's cousin George Washington Taylor into the business, which they dubbed "Lord & Taylor."
With some ups and downs, the business thrived, writ large in the intricate Italianate architecture and lavish interior of its Fifth Avenue flagship, its home as of 1914. In the 20th century, under the direction of Dorothy Shaver, who after two decades working there would rise in 1945 to be the first woman to lead a major department store, Lord & Taylor grew famous for fashionable dresses. As its clientele — stylish women of the middle class — moved into the suburbs, so did Lord & Taylor. That, too, the retailer did with style, bringing sleek mid-century design inside and out, according to Bruce Kopytek, an architect and historian who studies department stores.
By 1986, when The May Company took over, efficiency was in vogue, and merchandising operations became streamlined and impersonal. In 2005, Macy's bought May, and, eager to trim its portfolio, unloaded Lord & Taylor to real estate mogul Richard Baker for the relative bargain of $1.2 billion, launching his retail career. Two years later he bought Canadian department store company Hudson's Bay, then Saks Fifth Avenue, always with an eye on the value of the real estate, less so retail imperatives.
That focus on property would mean selling more iconic Lord & Taylor locations, culminating, at last, in coworking startup WeWork's purchase last year of the Fifth Avenue store. By the time HBC sold Lord & Taylor to apparel rental site Le Tote later in 2019 (while keeping some interest in its underlying real estate), Lord & Taylor would end up with 38 stores — 19 of which are closing now as part of Le Tote's bankruptcy.
For nearly two centuries the country's oldest department store came through wars, depressions, pandemics and changing styles — establishing itself as a chic destination for the middle class. As the "for sale" sign is tacked on to it once again, a pandemic is ongoing, a recession has taken hold, "fashionable dresses" are cherished by many fewer people, and the middle class is shrinking.
"They still care about merchandising at Lord and Taylor, and they still care about the customer experience," retail analyst and consultant Sanford Stein, author of "Retail Schmetail," once told Retail Dive. Now its future depends on whether a new owner will care about Lord & Taylor. Here's a look back at how the storied retailer got here.