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Haute History - Bonwit Teller

Haute History - Bonwit Teller

What do Salvador Dali, Christian Dior, and Donald Trump all have in common? They all have a connection (scandalous, prosperous, and disastrous) to the iconic New York City Landmark Department Store, Bonwit Teller!

A Bonwit Teller ad from 1952.


Bonwit Teller was officially founded in 1897 after Paul Bonwit closed his failed millinery business and paired up with Edmund D. Teller to create an upscale women’s store that carried high-end European designers, custom-made clothing, and quality American designers. After moving locations a couple of times, Bonwit Teller found its home at Fifth Avenue & 56th Street in an Art Deco behemoth of a building that was originally Stewart & Company. In 1930, Bonwit Teller stripped the building of its gaudy, overly decorated interior in favor of minimalist, severe, unornamented limestone. This location remained the flagship store for nearly 50 years. 

Women window-shopping in front of the flagship Bonwit Teller on Fifth Avenue & 56th Street in New York  City.


Over the course of those years, Bonwit Teller was a fashion institution. Unlike its rivals, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue, Bonwit Teller provided an upscale shopping experience without the stuffy atmosphere. They pioneered the boutique within a boutique concept and were known for carrying the next, exciting, up-and-coming designers. They were the first to carry Christian Dior’s signature line and launched the career of Calvin Klein. They were also a cultural institution, hiring artists to dress their windows, including a 1939 window display by Salvador Dali that resulted in the artist throwing a bathtub through the window when his vision was altered for modesty. Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauchenberg were other notable artists that worked as window dressers. 

 Window display created by Andy Warhol in April 1961. 

Bonwit Teller changed hands a couple of times over the years. Shortly after financier Floyd Odlum’s Atlas Corporation took over, Odlum’s wife, Hortense, became the first female president of a major department store in the US.  The company started expanding in 1935, with a “season branch” Palm Beach. By the 1960’s, there were 6 branch stores, including Boston, Chicago, and Cleveland. By the mid-1980’s, there were another 8 branches around the country. 

Views inside different Bonwit Teller stores. 


In 1979, the flagship Bonwit Teller store in Manhattan was purchased by Donald Trump to be demolished for the building of Trump Tower. After promising to save the 15-foot limestone bas-relief sculptures depicting nude women dancing with scarves and the famously decadent art-deco grillwork from above the doors to the Metropolitan Museum, New Yorkers were shocked and enraged when jackhammers destroyed the facade on June 5, 1980. The grillwork went missing, as Trump defended his actions, saying that the pieces had “no artistic merit”.

The destroyed bas-relief sculptures and missing grillwork of the Flagship Bonwit Teller Store.


The 1980’s saw the decline of this institution. The department store chain changed hands a couple more times and was put on the auction block after its owner filed for bankruptcy in 1987. Some stores were purchased by the Pyramid Company and kept alive until they filed bankruptcy in 2000 and the final store was closed. The rights of the brand have been bought and sold since, with rumors of bringing the historical fashion mainstay back, but we have yet to see movement on that front. 

Despite the rocky endings of Bonwit Teller, it will always be remembered for its high-quality, high-fashion, innovative additions to the history of department stores. We always keep an eye out for vintage fashions with the Bonwit Teller tags, because even if the designer's name has faded into obscurity, we know that the garment was at the pinnacle of quality and style when it was originally sold. Here are some items in store that were originally purchased from Bonwit Teller:

1960's La Mendola pleated silk chiffon gown (available now).

1960's Ben Zuckerman corduroy and satin suit with gold chain buttons. 

1970's Ernst Strauss skirt suit with fox fur collar. 


For more information on these garments, email us at


Want to learn more? Here are some further reading/sources:

"Bonwit Teller" - Vintage Fashion Guild

"Bonwit Teller” - Wikipedia

"When Salvador Dali Dress and Destroyed a Department Store Window in New York City (1939) - Open Culture

"How Donald Trump Took Down Bonwit Teller, A Fifth Avenue Landmark” - Forbes

"History of Bonwit Teller Department Store”- Classic New York History


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