12 ene. 2009

The New York Post: The war of the window dressers..












The War of the Window Dressers'Tis the season to enjoy the city's holiday department store windows. But for rivals Simon Doonan and Linda Fargo, the brains behind the winter wonderland displays at Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodman, there's a cold war for the spotlight—and the sales traffic.
By Annie Karni
An explosion of neon and flower power in Barneys' windows reflects Simon's bawdy spirit.
Walking up Fifth Avenue toward Central Park during the weeks leading up to Christmas, you would be hard-pressed to see any signs of financial crisis. A mammoth glittering snowflake hangs above the intersection at 57th Street in front of Louis Vuitton, and Tiffany & Co. is dressed in a wraparound wreath so large you might forget there's a store underneath. A half-naked Tyson Beckford look-alike poses for pictures with a group of tweens outside Abercrombie & Fitch, and Salvation Army bell-ringers cheerfully remind shoppers to remember the less fortunate.
But at Bergdorf Goodman, the high-end department store on Fifth Avenue at 58th Street, which defines a lifestyle for ladies who lunch, even jaded New Yorkers slow their gait and mingle with the tourists. In front of a window featuring a female mannequin playing the accordion next to a tuxedoed wolf jamming on a tuba, foot traffic halts.
"We're doing Macy's and Lord & Taylor after this," says a thirtysomething dad, dressed in khakis and white sneakers, visiting from Alaska. His two preschool-age daughters cling to his hands as they warily approach the glass that separates them from a giant bird dressed in a Giambattista Valli wedding dress. Asked if Barneys New York is also on the family's to-do list, he replies, "I didn't know they even did holiday windows." This innocent comment might please the Bergdorf brass, but at the Barneys flagship store just blocks away, those are fighting words.
For Simon Doonan, creative director at Barneys, and Linda Fargo, senior vice president of Fashion Office & Store Presentation at Bergdorf, Christmas isn't a time to think lovingly of thy neighbor. With money, ego and reputation on the line, these Upper East Side shopping titans have been duking it out for the title of best windows in town for over a decade.
But this year counts more than ever. With department store sales down by 13.3 percent last month when compared with 2007, luring shoppers is more critical this holiday season. "I'm determined that ours be the most talked-about windows of the season," says Simon, 56, who has overseen his store's displays since 1986. With his cheeky bons mots and impish looks, Simon is a rebel—or, at least, a bit like Santa's most mischievous elf. "Believe me, I'd be lobbing things at [Bergdorf's] windows if they looked anything like ours. We're in New York, and it's a competitive place. And these are the most important windows of the year. Linda will say, 'No, no, it's not a competition,' but of course it is!"
Indeed, Linda—the regal ice queen to Simon's naughty prankster, complete with a flawless silver bob and impervious gaze—says, "Honestly, everyone likes to think it's a windows contest, but I try to focus on competing with my own past windows. And I think we've done a decent job if we can hold people's attention for more than five minutes." Adds the woman who has overseen the store's window displays for 12 years, "Any window worth its glass is an expression of the personality and ego of its respective store."
And, perhaps, of the creative mind behind it. This year's display of eerie human-size birds dressed in Marchesa and Dolce & Gabbana wedding gowns casts Bergdorf as the icy and aloof "cool" girl—not unlike Linda herself. Graceful, flowing white gowns by designers Naeem Kahn, Proenza Schouler and Oscar de la Renta have inspired fairy tale–like tableaux of flora, fauna and fowl that look lifted straight out of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. One of the store's 35 ethereal dreamscapes showcases a mannequin dressed in white feathers turning coyly away from a huge ostrich. Get closer and you'll see hundreds of smaller white porcelain roosters, peacocks, toucans and other birds that took Linda's team two years to acquire.
The winter wonderland tableaux at Bergdorf are icy, aloof and cool—not
Meanwhile, the windows at Barneys, which overlook Madison Avenue at 61st Street, are a loud explosion of neon color, flower power and groovy newspaper collages that reflect Simon's bawdy spirit. Rainbow-hued portraits pay tribute to "ladies of the counterculture," including Janis Joplin and Grace Slick. Suits made from sustainable materials are on display next to a Ralph Lauren gown, and a granny pillow with the message "Make Love, Not War" balances precariously on a mannequin's head. One text-heavy display outlines a history of the peace sign, in honor of the symbol's 50th anniversary. "The windows came out right after the election—we knew that whatever happened, people wanted peace," Simon says. That may be true for shoppers—but for NYC department stores, the holidays can turn into an all-out war.
The success of these windows, which can cost millions of dollars in planning and execution, directly affects a store's profits, says Christine Whittemore, who studies consumer trends for manufacturers. "Store windows start that romance between the potential shopper and the product within," she adds. Many retailers stock the same merchandise, and reaction to the windows can determine which store shoppers decide to spend their money at. "The more the windows appeal to the senses, the more successful they are at making people become purchasers."
It's not only a store's bottom line that's at stake—seasonal windows affect the city's economy too. "Tourism is a huge business, and a big part of that is the Christmas windows," says Donald Albrecht, adjunct curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York. And while Macy's remains beloved for the traditional displays the store has been producing for over a century, Linda and Simon have transformed window-shopping from a diversion for children into street art for adults. "Bergdorf and Barneys challenge the selves to be more creative and artistic," says Izzy Grinspan, editor of the fashion industry blog Racked .com. "People want Macy's to show the traditional fat Santa, but they want to be surprised by Barneys and Bergdorf."
Holiday windows didn't always bring out the claws. According to Donald, in the 1900s stores used the space to stock extra merchandise. "Over the years they evolved into dioramas that fetishize what's behind the window," he says. Donald credits Simon for "bringing the window as illusion back" to Manhattan in the 1980s.
Simon was hired in 1986 by former Barneys owner Gene Pressman to create the most-gossiped-about window displays. "My mandate was to make everyone talk about our windows, and to be quirky and subversive. Before me, the Barneys windows were chic and swanky," Simon recalls. Gene had been impressed with Simon's work at the boutique Maxfield in L.A., where he had created tableaux with female mannequins lying in coffins. In 1990, Barneys became infamous for Simon's window showing British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dressed as a dominatrix. In 1994, Simon was forced to remove displays because of complaints—Roman Catholic groups protested a nativity scene, which featured Hello Kitty, Bart Simpson and a leather-clad Madonna—but he says being in the papers boosted interest in the store: "There's no downside to getting loads of juicy press. It only helps the bottom line."
While Barneys became known for its burgeoning weirdness, Linda began to distinguish her department store by creating dreamlike vistas. "In the 1980s, Bergdorf [pursued] a more straightforward approach to its windows," says Linda, who started working there in 1996. "Today our characters embark on trips to phantasmagorical destinations and the fashion is often the inspiration."
After more than a decade of competition, Simon says he's "more focused on communicating a specific theme, while Linda is more about creating a dream or a mirage." In a time of downsizing, they're even competing about who has done more with less. Says Linda, "We [did] a lot of scavenging on eBay throughout the year. We store[d] fragments of ideas and snippets of odd materials in files all year long." Meanwhile, Simon brags, "Everything at Barneys is [made with] spit and chicken wire and papier-mâché. Slick windows look alienating."
The combination of traditional windows and displays for kids of all ages draws an astounding average of 7,000 viewers an hour at Macy's.
Tor Caracappa, head of visuals for John Varvatos, used to work with Linda. Of his former boss and Simon he says, "[Their rivalry] is competitive on the level of execution and concept. They're both bringing their A-game to outdo the other guy so people come to their store, but they're different in their aesthetic."
If, as Linda says, windows are an expression of a store's personality, then the windows at Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue—with their traditional Nutcrackers, sleigh bells and elves—are reliable old friends. "Lord & Taylor is a classic store, and our windows take a traditional approach," says Manoel Renha, vice president and creative director at Lord & Taylor. "Simon's windows are more whimsical, but I identify with what Linda does because she has a classic background."
But not every window dresser is a diplomat. "When you look at how far we've come in technology, you have to ask why Macy's is still doing those animatronic guys," says one former Bergdorf window designer of the Santas in the Macy's display. "Those windows look like they could have been installed 30 years ago. They spend so much money, people come from all over the world—and for what? They have a tie-in with Disney? Oh, it's Mickey Mouse, I get it. It's disappointing." Paul Olszewski, director of windows at Macy's, argues that any tie-ins are subtle: "We don't put any merchandise in our windows on Broadway. It's a gift to the city, it's not to sell anything."
It may not please window snobs, but the holiday display at Macy's remains the premiere destination for tourists, drawing an average of 7,000 visitors per hour. In addition to the old-fashioned dioramas that tell the story of Miracle on 34th Street, neon-colored machines make Christmas snow, stars and tinsel, in a scene reminiscent of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.
And while these displays look like fun and games, windows are a serious business, with plans cloaked in secrecy for months and stores like Bergdorf and Lord & Taylor keeping their windows covered by somber drapes right up until their official pre-Thanksgiving unveilings. Paul classifies his entire holiday operation at Macy's as "top secret. Everyone I work with [including musicians who write original scores and an audio and lighting production team] has to sign a confidentiality agreement." Although he keeps his own plans close to his vest, Paul admits he's often tempted to spy on his former employer. "Some of the Bergdorf windows are built at the same space as ours on 54th Street. I'm not allowed to peek, but there's always a huge amount of curiosity about what they're going to do."
Barneys, always the rebel, charts a different course. "I tell everyone what we're doing because I don't want them to do it," says Simon, who builds his sets in plain view of passersby. "I put my dibs on the idea [early] so that if [another] store was dumb enough to follow us, it'll look really stupid. I'll tell you right now that next year we're doing a 'Witty Holiday' and building the window around humor."
It sounds merry, but make no mistake: When it comes to the NYC shopping scene, Christmas displays are the battleground for the coldest war of all.

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