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Lord & Taylor Returns to New York — Sort of!

The new Lord & Taylor isn’t on Fifth Avenue. It doesn’t have towering ceilings, glossy beauty counters or zigzagging escalators; there are no racks of sensible shirts hung on plastic hangers, nor any other hallmarks of the American department store.

That’s because the new Lord & Taylor is not a department store. It’s a pop-up shop in SoHo, selling a limited collection of inoffensive holiday gifts to last-minute shoppers.

Almost a year ago, Lord & Taylor left New York City, vacating the 11-story building it had occupied for more than a century. The company’s sales had been declining for years. While a few dozen locations in the eastern United States remained open, the Manhattan flagship closure signaled the beginning of the end.

Then, a plot twist: In August, Lord & Taylor’s parent company announced it would sell the brand to Le Tote, a clothing rental start-up. In November, the $100 million, first-of-its-kind deal officially closed. A little-known tech company in San Francisco now owned a brick-and-mortar chain with no presence west of Schaumburg, Ill.

Under this new and unusual management, Lord & Taylor’s future wasn’t immediately clear. Would it become a rental service? Would its 38 remaining locations stay open? (And would the 4,000 employees of those stores keep their jobs?) Was Lord & Taylor just going out of business?

Brett Northart, a co-founder of Le Tote, recoiled at the question whenever he was asked.

“That’s something you never want to be associated with your brand,” he said.

In returning Lord & Taylor to New York City, albeit temporarily, Mr. Northart and his co-founder Rakesh Tondon hope to clarify a few things.

“We’re here to stay. We want to grow the Lord & Taylor brand,” Mr. Northart said. “We’re not going to rip it apart or turn it into a rental thing.”

Yet the new owners have also been promoting their pop-up shop as a symbol of “change and flexibility and newness that we’re bringing to the brand,” Mr. Northart said. This isn’t your grandmother’s Lord & Taylor — though she’s still welcome.

It’s a difficult tone to strike. But that’s the challenge a young company faces when it tries to buy itself a legacy.

Twenty-four hours before opening, the store should have been nearly ready. Instead, there were more power tools in sight than merchandise.

Display fixtures were still being constructed. A fake Christmas tree was waiting to be assembled. Cardboard boxes hadn’t been unpacked, including one large plank-shaped box bearing a helpful “fragile” warning: “Item is mirror!!!”

Sixteen hours before opening, things were coming together. The mirrors were up, and the tree was fully decorated. The checkout counter was done, though the gold-paneled selfie nook near the dressing rooms was still a work in progress.

Company history was highlighted here and there, as if reminding shoppers where they were. A small red book, “The History of Lord & Taylor, 1826 to 2001,” was laid on a glass coffee table. Framed vintage Lord & Taylor ads were waiting to be hung on bright white walls.

The street-facing windows would provide the most significant nod to the Lord & Taylor of yore, gleaming with an elaborate 3D-printed snowy village. At least that was the plan — by the evening before the shop’s Dec. 11 opening, workers had barely begun to decorate the darkened windows.

But most of the goods were on display: a lot of cashmere sweaters and Ugg slippers, plus Kiehl’s skin care sets, Betsey Johnson jewelry, and ornaments that celebrated breast-cancer survivors, the best teachers ever, good dogs and loving New York.

On the note of loving New York, Mr. Northart said the brand is working on plans to permanently return to the city. But not everyone buys into Lord & Taylor’s homecoming narrative.

“I don’t think anyone’s been hoping and praying someone would do this,” said Mark A. Cohen, the director of retail studies at Columbia University. “A pop-up can work if it’s different and distinctive and you can’t find it anywhere else — something brand-new and edgy. If, at the end of the day, it’s just a lot of stuff with a formerly famous name attached to it, it’s not going to fly.”

Some products at the pop-up aren’t for sale, including a rack of clothes selected from Le Tote’s inventory. The dresses and tops are meant to show customers what they could rent if they signed up for a subscription plan.

When Le Tote acquired Lord & Taylor, this was one of the first cross-pollination strategies it deployed: installing rental stations in a handful of brick-and-mortar stores.

Le Tote and Lord & Taylor carried many of the same brands, Mr. Northart said, but their customer demographics didn’t overlap. The company wanted Le Tote customers — city-dwelling women in their late 30s, renting clothes primarily to wear to work — to visit Lord & Taylor in person. It wanted Lord & Taylor customers — suburban women around 50, shopping for their whole families — to try renting through Le Tote.

Next year, Mr. Northart said the company will try opening smaller, more focused Lord & Taylor stores across the country, like a Lord & Taylor beauty boutique. (Under terms of the sale, Le Tote doesn’t have to pay rent for three years on any Lord & Taylor location, allowing for this kind of experimentation — and allowing the company to delay any decisions around closing existing stores.)

Lord & Taylor will also continue to try to attract younger customers, livening up a brand “that’s quite frankly gotten stale,” Mr. Northart said.

That’s why the pop-up opened in SoHo, a neighborhood that “tends to draw a different customer” than the brand’s native Midtown, he said. The storefront is wedged between Mansur Gavriel and Nanushka, two brands oriented toward cool, city-dwelling, Instagram-having women.

“We did want to make sure that our core customer felt like they could still recognize this as Lord & Taylor,” said Benjamin Hayes, a project manager who helped design the pop-up. “SoHo is a younger area, but it’s cool and hip, and Lord & Taylor is not the old person’s brand that people, I think, associate us with.”

So in SoHo, the company is trying to shed the image of its typical customer, without actually shedding her.

Earlier this year, Lord & Taylor attempted a similar kind of rebrand through getting rid of its famous handwritten script logo. The new design was unrecognizable, minimalist and sans-serif, all boxed in yellow. It had a tagline: “A smarter way to shop.” The redesign was intended to draw in new, more digitally savvy customers, Mr. Northart said. People hated it.

“Change is tough,” he said. “A lot of people are averse to this brand that they’ve known and loved for generations wholesale changing.”

So the logo reverted back to a classic bold script, an “olive branch to employees and customers” who felt uncertain about the acquisition, Mr. Northart said. (The modern version is still visible on Lord & Taylor’s website; it’s being gradually phased out.)

So, a lesson was learned. Lord & Taylor’s customers and employees value tradition. “Which is something that tech companies just don’t have,” Mr. Northart said.

Is that worth $100 million to an emerging company — loyalty from customers who’ve been customers for generations, or employees who’ve been around for decades?

“Building a brand is something that takes a long time,” Mr. Northart said. “It’s very costly and time consuming.” For Le Tote, buying one was quicker.

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