Stylish but with his own unique backstory, Neiman Marcus Austin GM Chris Hendel knows how to translate luxury for a city that prides itself on not being Dallas.
“It is important that I keep challenging and developing myself,” says Chris Hendel.
At just 32, Chris Hendel leads the legendary luxury institution that is Neiman Marcus Austin as vice president /general manager. A man of many interests (he grew up flying single-engine planes with his dad, went to college on an athletic scholarship, and toured with a rock band in his early 20s), Hendel parlayed his unique experiences into the job of leading all business functions and operations in the equally individualistic Austin market. His comrades and contemporaries describe him as someone who is quick to introduce himself, be part of the conversation, and listen to those around him. But what’s really special for Hendel is the opportunity not only to represent the distinct fabric of Austin for the world-renowned department store, but also to help customers in the art of self-representation. “Think about art in your home— the only people who get to see that are people you invite [over],” Hendel says. “But with fashion, you get to share [your style] with the world. It’s an expression of yourself.”
Drawn to Fashion
“I grew up in Southern California, where my friends could tell you who every movie star was, while I could tell you a lot about the history of Yves Saint Laurent or Halston,” Hendel recalls. “I found [the designers’] ability to express themselves through their creativity a lot more interesting [than celebrities].”
Inspired in part by his Italian mother, for whom style came naturally, Hendel spent as much time as a kid thumbing through Vogue as he did developing his tennis game (which eventually earned him a scholarship to Ohio State University, where he played for two years before finishing his college career at San Diego State University). It’s this unique fusion of an early appreciation for style and self-determination that primed Hendel for a leadership role within the fashion industry.
On the Road
“It is important that I keep challenging and developing myself,” he says. “One of the things that makes me a better leader is [that I] embrace change. And not just embrace it, but run toward it, especially when something makes me uncomfortable.” One such formative experience came in his early 20s, when he worked as a roadie for a blues band made up of men 25 to 30 years his senior. Each night in a new city, he’d set up amps, tune guitars, and, ultimately, work the crowd that had assembled to see the musicians. “Music brings together all walks of life,” he reflects. “That was probably one of the best, most fun jobs I’ve ever had. It was a real education about relating to people and understanding them.” He loved the music scene so much, he joined a punk rock band that toured the western US, a leap for someone who grew up listening to opera (and still is an aficionado of the musical form).
Even though he has now hosted luncheons with Anna Wintour (whom he calls “incredibly gracious and witty”) and shared evening cocktails with Oscar de La Renta, that crash course in interpersonal relationships more than a decade ago is something that he looks back on fondly. In fact, Hendel says, the touring-witha- band experience is not that far from what he’s tasked to do as a Neiman Marcus GM: “What motivates me [today, as it did 10 years ago] is consistently exceeding customers’ expectations.”
Austin’s Evolving Style
“Austin definitely has its own style; but it’s [constantly] changing,” he says. “If you had asked me two years ago what it was, I would have told you something different than I’d tell you today. Just like the entire face of the city is changing.” What he sees now from the front lines of Neiman’s outpost at The Domain is what he describes as “Austin chic.” “Many of our clients dress for a casual lifestyle during the day but love to dress up at night,” he says, citing Brunello Cucinelli as one designer whose clothes align with Austin’s dress code.
Although Hendel comes to face to face with “new” Austin every day as more people move here, he cares about the city’s heart and heritage. He continues the Neiman Marcus tradition of supporting local organizations like the Seton Breast Care Cancer Center, and he is a passionate patron of such performing arts organizations as Austin Opera and Ballet Austin, as well as Preservation Austin.
A huge fan of historic architecture, Hendel joined Preservation Austin to ensure the city maintains some semblance of identity while it undergoes such extreme development. “It’s important that we save [the architecture] because it’s the DNA around which Austin was formed,” he says. “The organization has done great work keeping the [iconic structures] around for the next generation. Otherwise, we’d just become some modern city [whose history would be] wiped out.” He adds: “I didn’t just want to work for Neiman’s; I wanted to work for Neiman’s in Austin.”