BEHIND THE SCENERY

If window dressing is an art, it reaches its apogee at Christmas. Veronica Horwell spends the day (and several nights) with the wizards who want to make you buy, buy, buy

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

LYMAN FRANK BAUM, the editor of the Show Window, a monthly journal for "merchants and professionals" first published in Chicago in 1897, was not by profession what was then called a "window trimmer". His lifelong passions were theatre production, at which he was a gifted failure; shopkeeping, at which he was a talented bankrupt; and the stage management of the seasonal family events—Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas—which became so important to American commerce in the 19th century, at which he was by all accounts very good. But he also had a genius for decoration; he was the magician who invented the machine for selling that is the modern shop-window display.

Baum believed that a window should "arouse in the observer cupidity and the longing to possess the goods". Before him, and the set-pieces he photographed for his magazine, most shopkeepers regarded their windows as simply places to cram with as much merchandise as possible. Baum, though—having lived, and performed on stage, by candle, oil lamp and gas jet—gloried in the potential of electric light, installed in many store windows after the high-voltage World’s Fair of 1893. And he understood that, in this new world of material plenty, goods alone had lost their primary appeal. A better idea would be to sell a powerfully lit, yet edited fantasy, every article of merchandise auditioned and few chosen—except at Christmas, when too much was never enough.

Great display directors were inspired by Baum—especially Edward Goldsman, whose sidewalk-stopping windows for the Marshall Field’s store in Chicago, completed in 1907, anticipated Hollywood: D.W. Griffith’s "Intolerance" is just a Goldsman spectacular without the price tags. When Harry Gordon Selfridge, who had been a merchant princeling at Marshall Field’s, opened a department store in London in 1909, he drew back the curtains on an epic sequence of electrically lit windows, designed by Goldsman.

And Baum? He had failed at theatre and retail, but his philosophy for a theatre of retail was a timely success. His magazine gained him recognition, income, and enough leisure to write children’s books: his third was a fantasy about a magic kingdom rich in goods, whose ruler fakes an impressive show with theatrical props and a dazzle of light. Baum called it "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz", and bowed out of windows. 
 
SELFRIDGES, EARLY OCTOBER 2012. "The snow is coming today," says the production co-ordinator of the windows team, James Barnett, a droll man who can do anything with cardboard. It’s barely a month until the Christmas windows go in, and the team is meeting in its attic in the battered heights of the store to exchange updates and ask questions. Some are plain practical: have they booked enough lifters and shifters? Some are surreal: where are the giant walnut shells?

There are nine in the permanent windows team, a laid-back crew who all came into the job obliquely, from fashion or theatre backgrounds. They like to make their props in-house when they can, and sewing-machines and handsaws share desk space with their computers. What they can’t make, they find on eBay ("accounts complain we have a long tail of suppliers," says Erin Thompson, the overall boss of store decor), pillage from municipal tips, or contract out to specialist model-makers. The house style tends to the quirky, tapping the past of British film and music hall—novelty acts, early Ealing Studios. Christmas is their rousing finale, with just a touch of panto. He’s in front of you.

The team first thought about Christmas 2012 in spring 2011, although, according to Erin Thompson, the ideal time for thinking about next Christmas is this Christmas—when, she implies, the team realises what it doesn’t want to do again. Her own chief regret is the orange colour scheme of a few years back that she realised wasn’t a winner when a passer-by asked "Why are you making such a big effort for Hallowe’en?" Since then she has built each Christmas on a foundation of evergreens—Selfridges has a forest of bundled and bagged plastic pine trees and wreaths in a warehouse, ready to verdure its stores. Thompson strictly upholds Baum’s rule that minimal is not an option at Christmas. In those weekly meetings I attended, the team kept using the words "abundant", "generous", "plentiful". The question is always: "Is it Christmassy enough?"

Originally, the team’s idea for what would be Christmassy enough in 2012 was a winter voyage around the world. Then Selfridges’ creative director, Alannah Weston, hired the fashion photographer Bruce Weber for its Christmas print ad campaign, built around the idea of a sleepover in a department store. It was shot one night in the summer, with the professionally glamorous—a ballerina, a plumed showgirl, gorgeous male models—and selected "real people" larking about in the vast classical interior. The ballerina twirled beneath the arch of a mighty silver stiletto in the shoe department. The male models hunkered down, bare-chested, to eat pizza in a tent tacked together from ballgowns. Shetland ponies trotted through the aisles, snorting and shitting. After that, the plan for the Christmas windows mutated—just in time to allow for the usual eight-week preparation period—into a still-life recreation of Weber’s shoot. Alannah Weston believes that windows are like the "front cover of a magazine", a seduction to entice you inside. Erin Thompson calculates they "have three seconds to catch your attention".

Back in the 1900s, Baum’s window trimmers had noticed that passers-by seldom register anything much above their eyeline, which is why Selfridges’ windows are only room-height, as well as being very shallow. To give an impression of depth, the team decided to use photos of Selfridges’ lofty halls as backdrops, and added a dark parquet floor, to be baubled, snow-drifted and possibly ("is it Christmassy enough?") glitter-strewn. A floor’s colour and material sets a window’s tone, another Baum revelation. With only three seconds to sell the story, even the ground under the mannequin’s feet has to be part of the plot. 

Above a workman removes vinyl film covering the winter window displays at Selfridges in London

IF SELFRIDGES' CHRISTMAS windows are an Ealing comedy, those at Printemps, on the Boulevard Haussmann in Paris, are a Vincente Minnelli musical. Minnelli’s first job was dressing the windows of Marshall Field’s, and that experience of telling a story through mise-en-scène permeates his films. The critic Manny Farber, who teased Minnelli that every second of his pictures was crammed with selling points, may have been thinking of "Meet Me in St Louis"(1944), which is almost a dramatised mail-order catalogue—every object ready for its close-up.

Baum approved of movement in a window—to catch the eye—though he was wary of clockwork contraptions, which were too repetitive. But he did like puppets, and would have loved the only decoration in the otherwise utilitarian office of Frank Banchet, Printemps’ artistic director: a marionette of Karl Lagerfeld. Puppet-Karl performed in the store’s Chanel-themed windows last Christmas, and Banchet keeps it as a reminder of Printemps’ compact with the million visitors to Paris who come to see its midwinter show. The petit guignol motorised marionettes, a store tradition since the 1970s, are made by Jean-Claude Dehix. Baum would have enjoyed the fluid ease of Dehix’s figures, the way they cheat the repeats.

Many Parisian couture windows now have video screens that run loops of catwalk sashaying: there’s movement, but it’s dully repetitive. Screens "don’t turn your head," Banchet says. "They’re everywhere. And not as much fun for us. If you’re going to do movement as entertainment, there’s more art in using technology to animate in new ways." His windows team is tiny—just David Molière, an architect by training, and a couple of assistants, who contract out the manufacture of the elaborate, hand-painted scenery and props. Printemps has a slow, ordered process for Christmas: its four animated windows demand a year-long schedule, as the puppets’ movements have to be choreographed and gestures tested.

For 2012, Printemps collaborated with Christian Dior on scenes of a wintry Paris under Utrillo snow, with mannequins in couture beneath a low, scarlet sun: very Minnelli, very "An American in Paris". In the animated windows, puppet skaters, waltzers and Montgolfier balloonists move smoothly, wearing hand-sewn miniatures of outfits from the Dior archive. This serious, ethereal fantasy is unloaded from pantechnicons, and crews of roadies hammer through the small hours for a fortnight to stage it in time for the gala premiere. The original sketches for the windows were so beautiful, and completed so early in the schedule, that Dior had them printed on scarves and shoes, and published as a picture book.

The storyboards that the Selfridges team puts together using Photoshop are just suggestions. And the team happily takes things to the wire: its styling manager, Hannah Emslie, briefs a knitter to cast on yards of scarf for a "magic wardrobe" window only days before the display is set up. Selfridges does have a fixed schedule for large constructions—the wardrobe, with drawers that open of their own accord, must be delivered to the minute, though in a £29-an-hour rented van, rather than a pantechnicon. But the approach is more like Christmas preparations at home: pulling bits and pieces in, squirrelling them in piles in the attic. "Ah," says Molière when we talk about this, "but London has more fun." 

MAYBE BY "FUN" he meant the excitement of taking part. At Selfridges, the get-in takes seven days and nights at the end of October; it involves the whole team, plus a gaggle of freelancers. And, for this year at least, me—a childhood dream come true. I watch as Hannah Emslie treks the store, choosing merchandise, logging it in a hand-held computer, then stuffing it into bin bags like a teen leaving home in a huff.

In one afternoon, she gathers £100,000 of borrowed stock; later she edits this down to a mere £60,000-worth, returning every discard in its packaging, ready for sale. Below her, in a dark basement space that can only be reached through a back-alley hatch, hired hands—happy art-school Munchkins—run an assembly line. Some dust giant stars with red glitter, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, pulverised. Others tie ribbons round hundreds of pre-wrapped, flat-packed boxes, building piles of unfulfillable promises.

The installation has to be executed in a precise sequence, because access to the windows is so difficult. Whole enfilades of them have just one door—often narrow, oddly angled, and hidden behind the mirrored back walls of grand concession boutiques, such as Hermès and Fendi. So each window must be set up in reverse order, working from the farthest back towards the door. First the parquet goes in, then the backdrop, flanked by red velvet curtains. Then comes "hanging night", when the team wobbles on ladders, dangling stars, glitterballs and chandeliers from overhead racks like old-fashioned laundry airers. They know from experience what Baum first discovered, that window space above the eyeline needs something amusing to fill it. It might not sell anything, but it couldn’t, mustn’t be left empty.

Through the third night, blokes in shorts haul real tree trunks through those weeny doors, and the artificial firs are unleashed. We’re just halfway through, yet the space already seems too full. Vinyl film covers the outside of the windows (I can hear faint scuffling coming from the pavement, where they’re fluffing up the outdoor wreaths), so it’s hard to judge the overall effect. Unlike Printemps, which peels back the wrap for interim assessments, Selfridges never peeks. Hannah Emslie says the team "always knows when it’s too much". Which is seldom. 

Night by night the windows become less navigable, like the homes of hoarders. Someone has the idea that trees should be decorated with single wax crayons, each hanging perfectly vertical. This means fixing tiny ribbon bands and bows to hundreds of Crayolas, in the small hours of the morning, on a deadline. Dressers need tranquil temperaments as well as the improvisational capabilities of military engineers. Size-three feet also help, because there is now hardly any parquet left to stand on. An unconsidered twist of my hip topples an hour of Hannah’s work.

On the last, long night, three windows are waiting for the final delivery: a "gingerbread" replica of the Selfridges building, and a pair of model Shetland ponies, delayed by coiffure problems: their coats were "too much like velour tracksuits" and needed to be shagged up. The stylists work silently and very fast, hands always in motion, candy-caning trees, filling and stacking hampers, sustained by sandwiches scavenged from the Food Hall. Pudding is spare chocolate coins edited out of an otherwise plastic feast.

They tow mannequins down from the attics in wheeled cages, and lug a pack of awkward fibreglass corgis into position. Up and back, up and back they go in ponderous goods lifts, fetching enormous cartons of "medium-grade" fake snowflakes. In the dark hours before dawn, the shielding vinyl is ripped off, window by window. Outside, drunks and buses pass by. Inside, there is a last plumping-up and patting down, an urgent search for the bucket for the ponies’ oats, the crew strewing baubles or snow as they retreat to the door. They clean the boutiques they’ve slummed up, retrieve plaster Brussels sprouts from among Gucci handbags, and vacuum their snowy footprints from the carpet in the Louis Vuitton stand. A few minutes later, at nine o’clock, the store opens. 

Red-eyed and yawning, the team walks in a crocodile along the pavement, seeing their windows properly for the first time. They make a snag list of things to rectify later. Not much. A ballerina mannequin shows too much of the wrong sort of knicker; a floor has baubles when it should have snow. Some of the team go straight home to bed, others go for a celebratory bacon butty in an early-opening pub.

Later that day, as the wintry dark comes down, the pavement fills with people jostling to be photographed before the windows’ glowing profusion. Not in Kansas any more. 

Above at Printemps in Paris, the window display is filled with dancing marionettes dressed in miniature versions of Dior

Veronica Horwell has written for Vogue and the International Journal of Naval History. She has also been a sub-editor and obituarist for the Guardian

Photography Daniel Swallow