I. Magnin and Company: A History April 19 2022

If you are from the East Coast like me, you may have never heard of the I. Magnin clothing and department stores that were popular on the West Coast from the late nineteenth century until the company’s closing in the mid-1990s.  Although the company was based in San Francisco, there were stores in Southern California, Arizona, Washington, and Oregon, and eventually the Chicago and Washington, D.C. metropolitan areas.

Dutch-born Mary Ann Magnin began selling lotions and high-end infant clothing in a San Francisco store named after her English husband Isaac (who, in turn, peddled his wife’s wares from place to place) in 1876.  I. Magnin and Company soon branched out to bridal wear, and eventually became so popular with the upper class population of San Francisco that the brand moved to a bigger location and Mary Ann and Isaac’s four sons joined the business.  One of those sons, Joseph, would start Joseph Magnin Company, a store in the same vein.

I. Magnin & Co. Bridal Ad 1940

The 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire leveled the company’s original location on Market Street, but the Magnin family continued to sell goods out of their home until the store was rebuilt in a new location in 1912.  In that decade, the company opened stores in six high-end hotels around California, and I. Magnin and Company quickly became recognized as the forerunner in high fashion, luxury department stores.  A floor listing for the Union Square location listed boutiques for specific designers (Louis Vuitton , Hermes, Fendi, Saint Laurent), a restaurant (featuring candies and pastries), gifts, linens, an “elegant grocery,” art gallery, beauty salon, American and European designer sportswear, bridal salon, “after-five dress collection,” and a children’s shop, among others.

In 1944 the I. Magnin chain was bought by the Bullock’s department store chain, which funded the new flagship store in San Francisco on the corner of Stockton and Geary Streets in 1948.  Christian Dior, upon visiting this store shortly after it opened, called it the “White Marble Palace.”

Nearly twenty years later, the Bullocks and I. Magnin stores merged with and became divisions of the Federated Department Stores.  In 1988 a real estate development company called the Campeau Corporation engaged in a heated battle with Macy’s to take over the Federated Department Stores; Campeau Corporation won that dispute, but as part of the settlement Macy’s bought the Bullock’s, Bullock’s Wilshire, and I. Magnin divisions of the company.    By that time, the I. Magnin customer base was shrinking, and the store was not attracting the younger customer base it needed in order to survive.  As part of a realignment of divisions by Macy in 1992, the newly created Macy’s West/Bullock’s division declared bankruptcy that same year; this proved a fatal blow for I. Magnin stores, and over the course of the next two years eleven stores were closed.  The 1992 Rodney King riot led to the closure of the company’s flagship store that Dior was so enamored of.  In 1994 the Federated Department Stores reached an agreement with RH Macy’s creditors to buy the company out of bankruptcy, and the remainder of the I. Magnin and Company stores were closed.

Not all about I. Magnin was lost to history, though.  In October of 2006 Macy’s started using the I. Magnin name on their house brand labels for ladies apparel.

Vintage 70’s I. Magnin Caftan at Rice and Beans Vintage
written by Heather Cox for Rice and Beans Vintage