David Hoey, the senior director of visual presentation at Bergdorf Goodman, was sitting in his “war room” the other day when his cellphone rang. Mr. Hoey begged a visitor’s pardon; the phrase “little crisis” was invoked.
“Are you kidding me?” Mr. Hoey said into the phone. “So where you’d go? All right. Let me call you back. Get the 16. How many do they have?”
Mr. Hoey pocketed the intrusive device and looked up apologetically. These were the final hours of an undertaking nearly a year in gestation: On Nov. 16, curtains on Fifth Avenue would drop, revealing Bergdorf’s holiday windows.
For the most important selling season of the year, the venerable department stores of New York have marshaled their resources for elaborate displays of festive cheer. These are a family tradition and a tourist destination, a spare-no-expense arms race for delighted gasps, bugged eyes and Instagram feeds.
“The competition is the most intense it is all year,” said Jamie Nordstrom, the president of stores for Nordstrom, which is already planning the windows for the seven-level, 320,000-square-foot women’s store the company will open on Broadway and 57th Street next fall. “We’re pulling out all the stops.”
Henri Bendel, which came to the area in 1913, will close in late January, after the holiday season. Its owner, L Brands, announced in September it would close all Bendel stores and e-commerce in order to focus on its larger brands, including Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works.
Lord & Taylor will soldier on, but its landmark Fifth Avenue flagship, which opened in 1914, will be sold. Hudson’s Bay to WeWork, Hudson’s Bay, which owns Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue, announced in October 2017 that the Fifth Avenue building would be sold to WeWork, though the deal has not closed yet. This year’s windows on Fifth, two down from the usual six, will be Lord & Taylor’s last and include a video montage on their history.
At Bendel’s window unveiling (a New York skyline as rendered by Izak Zenou, who has been doing illustrations for the store for 20 years, as well as a collaboration with the artist Shinji Murakami), hot chocolate was flowing, cake truffles were circulating, and executives were showing set-jaw bravery.
“We wanted it to feel really special for our customers,” said Jessica Dennis-Capiraso, Bendel’s vice president of marketing and e-commerce, standing in front of a 20-foot Christmas tree made out of 420 of Bendel’s brown-and-white striped gift boxes and hatboxes. “We’ve had such an outpouring from our customers since the announcement that we were closing. People have just been coming in and shopping like crazy.”
Even now, the faint hope of solutions floated in the air. Those striped hatboxes had been eliciting attention on Instagram. Ms. Dennis-Capiraso wondered if Bendel should have been selling hatboxes all along.
“I’m torn between joy and pain,” said Mr. Zenou, who was painting customer portraits for those who spent $400 or more. “It’s like getting divorced from someone you don’t want to get divorced with.”
Melissa Marrero, a Bendel superfan who, with two days’ notice, had flown in from Orlando, Fla., for the occasion, was waiting to have her portrait painted. How would she manage without her favorite store? “Let’s live in the present,” Ms. Marrero said, fluttering a hand dramatically upward to clutch her chest.
Going for Broke
Department stores, previously known as “dry goods palaces,” began in the middle of the 19th century and the window displays there gained widespread popularity near the end of the century, once plate-glass manufacturing became established in America and made windows much more affordable, said Debra Schmidt Bach, the curator of decorative arts at the New-York Historical Society.
Fine artists have also dabbled in windows. In 1939, Salvador Dalí spooked shoppers with a surreal presentation of a mannequin bathing in a lambskin-lined bathtub and another roasting on a bed of coals. The store tried to take it down, and Dalí broke a window in rage.
Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns all worked for Gene Moore, the doyen of 20th-century window display, who oversaw Bonwit Teller for a time and Tiffany & Co. for decades. (Bonwit’s store was razed in 1980 to make way for the site’s new occupant: Trump Tower.) Mr. Moore also occasionally showed his artists’ “serious work” in the windows, though he didn’t much care for it.
By the 1970s, displays were pushing limits as well as products: While Moore designed miniature dioramas that mixed the exquisite and the everyday for Tiffany’s, a younger generation of apostates was on the rise.
Candy Pratts Price made her mark at Charles Jourdan, then vaulted to Bloomingdale’s, where she designed theatrical displays with, some believed, lashings of sadomasochism.
“We wanted to be provocative,” said Ms. Pratts Price, who would go on to become a fixture at Vogue. “Those days we weren’t into Twitter or Instagram where someone could immediately react. My hope and dream was we would’ve had a mic outside to hear the chatter.”
Planning for Christmas began months in advance. “There were incredible dilemmas,” she said. “I favor holly” — which can be flammable — “and the fire department comes in. We once had a year where in 12 days we had to change Christmas because the fire department threw everything out.”
Provocation continued in the 1980s and 1990s with the arrival at Barneys of Simon Doonan, a holiday imp of the perverse, whose displays might feature Sigmund Freud as soon as Santa Claus, or a nativity scene that made references to Madonna the pop star rather than the biblical virgin. It was removed after protests organized by Catholic activists.
He and a team of assemblers had worked late in the night to mount a display with gingerbread wolves and an allover patina of cinnamon (real cinnamon, for its particular texture); a Viennese-style patisserie window; and the licorice window, with a rearing steed in a dizzying mosaic of licorice twists.
Part of the challenge every year is finding the right materials: The layers of Mr. Hoey’s napoleon cakes are actually plaster, resin and podiatry foam, and much of the licorice is hand-braided polymer clay or caulk. Only three candies are tough enough to withstand the window treatment: jelly beans, a studded gummy called Champagne Bubbles and a heart-shaped SweeTart-like candy.
Going for broke is not necessarily the expected course when fellow stores are going broke. But Darcy Penick, the new president of Bergdorf Goodman, who arrived in September from the online retailer Shopbop, said displays like the holiday windows were exactly where she would prefer to invest.
“At a time when retail ebbs and flows in all directions, I think there is a natural orientation to pull back on things,” Ms. Penick said. “From my perspective, that’s not what drives customer love for your brand. You keep investing in the things that your customers love.”
Nostalgia — and Numbers
The ascendance of online shopping and a growing preference, especially among younger customers, for experiences over items have spelled doom for some department stores but opportunity for others.
“Retail has actually been healthy,” said Steve Sadove, the former chief executive of Saks Fifth Avenue, who is now a senior adviser to Mastercard. “What you’ve seen is a lot of winners and losers.”
Mastercard’s SpendingPulse, which tracks consumer spending across all payment types in markets around the world, is predicting a 5 percent growth in total retail sales (and a 20 percent growth in e-commerce sales) over last year. Mr. Sadove, who oversaw holiday windows for years at Saks, said such investments are “critical.”
On Monday, Saks shut down Fifth Avenue for a dancing spectacular of Broadway hoofers and a fireworks show, sponsored by Mastercard and benefiting Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. The theme of its holiday windows is “Theater of Dreams,” its windows filled with preening starlets, usherettes and a poodle in hair curlers. After the show, pedestrians flocked to take it all in. “She looks like Elsa,” said a young “Frozen” fan about a silver-gowned mannequin.
Like all of the retailers surveyed, Mr. Metrick would not say how much the windows cost to produce. Holiday displays, though, are typically the single largest visuals expense of the year. “This is where all the eyeballs are going to be,” he said.
Half a mile north and a few blocks east, at Bloomingdale’s, the windows on Lexington Avenue have been given over to a holiday partnership with the Grinch, whose new film is in theaters. Passers-by can have their photos snapped by in-window cameras, which then beam their images into displays, or karaoke their favorite Christmas carols, into microphones jutting out onto the sidewalk.
“We track how many people are taking their photographs and sharing them back out,” said Frank Berman, an executive vice president and the chief marketing officer of Bloomingdale’s. “We also have methods in place to track how many people are passing by the windows, stopping and engaging. We also track the amount of traffic coming into the store and the conversion rates. We’re up in terms of traffic this holiday season.”
For generations of families, locals and tourists alike, such holiday windows were a regular pilgrimage, as much a holiday requisite as the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. “You had millions of people who were visiting New York,” said Mr. Sadove of his time at Saks. “I’d listen to stories about, ‘My mother or my father took me to see the windows at Saks or at Bergdorf’s.’”
At stores like Macy’s, where snowmen dot the windows alongside Sunny the Snowpal — a plucky snowgirl — and a fox (her best friend), and Santa is seen piloting his sleigh, this tradition continues much as it always has, albeit now with LED screens and interactive games alongside the usual animatronic puppets.
But at Barneys, Matthew Mazzucca, the creative director, is thinking smaller than he has for bonanzas past like Lady Gaga’s Workshop.
Through a partnership with Save the Children, Barneys has funneled off a portion of its annual window budget for a donation. Themed “Make Change,” windows will feature displays created from thousands of pennies — 40,000 in the Madison Avenue windows of the New York flagship. The display effectively reduced material costs and freed up resources for the donation, while raising, it is hoped, social consciousness during the seasonal shop-a-thon.
And at least one younger retailer expressed respect for tradition but also a willingness to flout it.
“I remember my parents bringing me to the big department store windows, where all the toys were animated — it was fantastic,” said Laure Heriard Dubreuil, the founder and chief executive of the Webster, which has stores in Miami, Houston, New York and Costa Mesa, Calif. “So I like the magic of Christmas and all these beautiful windows.”
But for her own New York City department store, which opened on Greene Street in 2017, Ms. Dubreuil rejected the standard holiday trimmings.
“Usually you think holidays, you think snow, you think green and red,” she said. “But we thought glitter and pink. Santa Claus might be a Barbie doll.” In lieu of a traditional holiday display, the Webster’s New York store chose a theme of luxurious escape. Two full floors will be given over to an enormous installation by Chanel, inspired by the enormous cruise ship the brand erected in the Grand Palais in Paris to show the 2019 cruise collection.
As for windows, they are passed over altogether, for one very good reason: The Webster doesn’t have any.