‘Tis The Season

The Incredible Art of Christmas Windows

From classic holiday tunes to sculpture, the big New York stores hope their beautifully designed Christmas windows will attract millions of onlookers and customers.

11.24.14 10:45 AM ET

Every year for about six weeks—from mid-November until early January—the Christmas windows of New York’s most famous stores attract millions of visitors and New Yorkers—and for a very good reason. They are striking, incredibly elaborate, and they showcase the work of some of the most gifted artists in the world. And, of course, they are filled with stunning merchandise.

Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany & Co., Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdale’s, for decades (and some for over a century), all these stores have consistently produced the most beautiful, innovative and beloved holiday windows in New York.

However, if until a few years ago attractively decorated holiday displays were enough to draw the attention of both customers and the press, in more recent times due mostly to the increased competition in the retail landscape, the design of the holiday windows has morphed into a year-long race which involves hundreds of people, interactive, shoppable and social media-friendly displays and a decadent, press-worthy “windows reveal” grand finale.

Last week Lord & Taylor revealed its “enchanted mansion”-inspired holiday windows while pop-star Nick Jonas sang a medley of Christmas carols and tunes from his last record to hundreds of excited fans in front of the flagship store; it was a double celebration because the store’s Fifth Avenue building was also turning 100 years old. Lord & Taylor’s windows also feature video wall technology and are the only department store windows on hydraulics.

The holiday season is a relatively short one, but in terms of sales, these weeks are crucial for the retail industry. For most of the year (it takes between nine and eleven months on average for a store to design its holiday windows) department stores keep their holiday windows theme and the details of their “unveil event” secret in the effort of beating the competition and avoid being copied.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 13:  A general view of atmosphere during Barneys New York "Baz Dazzled" holiday window unveiling at Barneys New York on November 13, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Andrew Toth/Getty Images)

Andrew Toth/Getty

But New York stores don’t only want to win the attention of local customers: tourists also make up a large portion of the shoppers they’re trying to attract. The crowds come in their multitudes. Saks get 500,000 windows onlookers per day—a total of 25 million for the entire season. Lord & Taylor gets 250,000 windows onlookers per day and 8 million customers visit the store during the holiday season.

Barneys enlisted Catherine Martin and Baz Luhrmann—the Oscar-winning costume designer and her husband director—to create the visionary “Baz Dazzled” windows (as well as a selected array of holiday merchandise). Barneys’ displays feature live performances and the work of famous artists—the “Freedom” window features a small ice-skating rink where the character Celestina skates live twice every hour (when I went to see the windows there was a line of excited children waiting to see her). Inside the “Love” window Elphresh the contortionist elf dances in from of a gold boom-box and 9-foot chrome mushrooms.

In the “Beauty” window (my favorite) artist Anthony Howe installed a series of handmade kinetic sculptures that move with the help of wind machines. In the last window, inspired by “Truth,” an 8-foot-tall, animated brass owl speaks his words of wisdom which are the lyrics of Madonna’s “Holiday.”

Barneys’ unveiling event last week included closing off Madison Avenue, a performance by the a cappella group Pentatonix, ice skaters, and opera singers followed by a VIP dinner at the Central Park Zoo.

Bergdorf Goodman—whose windows are famous for their opulence and intricacy of details—surprised the crowds that gathered to admire its legendary holiday windows with fireworks on the store’s rooftop, as well as the lighting of the iconic UNICEF snowflake on 57th Street.

This year the store’s windows’ theme is “Inspired”. Each window is dedicated to one of “The Arts” (Literature, Photography, Music, Theatre, Film, Sculpture, etc.) and is made of a specific material.

The “Literature” window is a collection of famous writers’ needlepoint portraits in different shades of red; the “Theatre” window features a mannequin wearing a stunning beaded gold gown on a backdrop of colorful neon lights designed to resemble Broadway’s billboards lights.

Bergdorf Goodman employed over one hundred artists under the creative direction of David Hoey, the store’s Sr. Director of Visual Presentation, who worked for over eleven months to design the majority of the objects that are in the holiday windows. A few blocks away, Harry Connick Jr. is expected to play a live concert with his sixteen-piece band on the Third Avenue side of Bloomingdale’s. The store’s holiday windows will showcase vignettes inspired by the lyrics of classic holiday tunes.

Saks Fifth Avenue promises to wow New Yorkers and visitors alike with “An Enchanted Experience”: lightshows, performances by the Rockettes, fireworks, and fairytale-inspired windows rendered in Art Deco style.

Tiffany & Co., in line with its classy and traditional image, is featuring a delightful collection of windows depicting vignettes inspired by The New Yorker’s 50s and 60s covers, featuring New York’s most famous landmarks.

The brand’s 5th Avenue flagship store is also featuring a crystal light show projected on the sides of its legendary art deco building and inspired by the display created for the famous Tiffany Diamond at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Something tells me Holly Golightly would have thoroughly approved.