Each winter, New York City’s holiday windows blend the latest technology with timeless themes, crafting a magical scene that’s enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.
By Bria Balliet
Come wintertime, there is a tangible feeling of anticipation in the air. People of all ages have something to look forward to during the holidays, whether it’s a fun-filled family reunion, the first snowfall of the season or the unwrapping of gifts. But perhaps even more highly anticipated (by both children and adults alike) is the feeling of joy that comes with seeing surroundings illuminated with twinkling lights and colorful decorations. That magic is captured each year in one of the most famous displays of festive extravagance and holiday spirit worldwide: New York City’s holiday window displays.
Originally used as a simple way to alert the public of new merchandise, the tradition of the holiday window display has evolved over the years. Windows are now a source of entertainment—simply filling a window with product will not do. Visual teams use stunning video displays, animatronic puppets and advanced technology, working tirelessly for nearly a year to complete their vision, all in the name of holiday merriment. Stretching for blocks across downtown Manhattan, the glittering displays offer shoppers and sightseers a glimpse of holiday cheer amid the hustle and bustle of city life.
Crafting the Scene
It all begins with an idea. The first step in any creation is inspiration, and as Denis Frenette—the senior vice president of merchandise presentation for Lord & Taylor—says, “[Inspiration] comes from anywhere and anything.”
There are rules, however, that each creative team must abide by. As each retailer aims to stand out from the competition, many businesses have thematic guidelines to which they must adhere when conceptualizing the displays.
“[Determining the theme] varies every year,” explains Paul Olszewski, director of windows and interior flagship marketing for Macy’s. “A couple of years we have tied [the theme] into our marketing campaign of the year; others we have thought up ourselves with our crazy imaginations. We always convey the Macy’s message of Christmas, though: Believe.”
Similarly, Lord & Taylor’s team aims to preserve tradition and holiday magic by excluding product from their windows altogether. “Our mandates are always the same,” Frenette explains. “A hundred years ago when we opened our first windows, Lord & Taylor was the first retailer to open windows without selling product … So this is still our mandate. This is something we carry on every year so the windows are pure entertainment.”
Taking these factors into consideration, the visual team creates a theme or vision for the displays that will awe onlookers as well as reflect the brand. “We begin our process through a series of collaborative meetings between our marketing and creative window teams,” explains John Klimkowski, national director of visual merchandising for Bloomingdale’s. “Taking our cue from the season’s campaign, a series of ideas are brought to the table and thoughtfully worked and reworked, focused on an enchanting experience with a Bloomingdale’s twist.”
From the Ground Up
Once the theme is decided, the labor-intensive construction process begins. Featuring characters, multiple settings, moving parts and technical aspects all requiring expert construction and maintenance, the vignettes are often likened to Broadway show sets. It’s an accurate comparison; Olszewski explains that the team at Macy’s has worked with companies like PRG Scenic Technologies, who typically create pieces for Broadway and off-Broadway productions.
While the conception and planning process can take as long as four to five months, the actual construction can take even longer. “Building the windows starts in late spring or early summer at an off-site location,” Olszewski says. “We build right up to the time we open them [the week before Thanksgiving]. … There are so many people working to get the windows done between the animators, engineers, hair and makeup designers, costume designers, set designers, various types of artists, composers and musicians, copywriters. … It’s mind boggling.”
Lord & Taylor works with a smaller team and shorter timeline; planning and building clocks in at around nine months. According to Frenette, those involved aim to give themselves just enough time to complete everything, but within a short enough timeframe that their ideas and concepts are relevant in our fast-moving, social media-driven world. “We really need to reduce the timeline to make sure that we can capture the runway, the trends … what is going to be hot and relevant for customers this year,” Frenette shares. “And we always react to change and breaking news.”
Tradition Meets Tech
Since ornamented windows are steeped in tradition, one ongoing challenge for their creators is to marry nostalgia and artistry with ever-changing modern technology. While children at the turn of the last century were thrilled with colorful moving puppets, the advanced technology that permeates everyday life and entertainment has made for a more savvy audience that is increasingly difficult to impress.
In turn, visual directors have adapted, thinking even further outside the box. For instance, Bloomingdale’s and other retailers have made the audience a part of the show by engaging them via social media. “Tapping into social media and technology has been exciting,” Klimkowski shares. “We have used social media applications and digital interfaces to engage onlookers and share the window experience with friends and followers. The ‘Bloomingdale’s @ 59th & Lex’ app allows guests to experience life inside the windows and enter the story we are telling, as well as the opportunity to capture and share the moment via email and social media.”
Several years ago, Macy’s used technology to excite the masses by offering personalized ornaments that could be created through an interactive touch screen. “We like to use the latest technologies every year, but not have it compete with the artistry and craftsmanship of the windows,” Olszewski explains. “It’s important to me that the viewer become part of the experience rather than just see it.”
Frenette agrees, noting the importance of a healthy balance of tradition and technology. “Like everyone, we need to stay on top [and] relevant,” he says. “This year we are going to integrate a bit [of] new technology in our windows with video.”
In the end, Frenette notes that the ultimate goal for the windows is the same as it’s always been: to bring happiness to New York City. “We have a mission. [The windows are] a gift to New York. We need to stay traditional, and we need to keep it pure for every child and the child inside every adult.”
Unwrapping the Gift
Come November, it’s nearly time to unveil the productions that have been under construction for months. For the visual teams, that means the work pace hastens in order to assure that everything—down to the last detail— is done in time for the big reveal.
When opening day finally arrives, there’s no time for the celebration or congratulatory remarks. Each team is working around the clock, touching up details, sometimes finishing actual construction and other times just doing damage control related to “unexpected surprises” that are all too familiar for many window display veterans. For the team at Lord & Taylor, that means hours upon hours spent in the store’s lower level, designed specifically for crafting window displays.
“During the unveiling, everything stops in our New York building,” Frenette says. “The entire visual and merchandising team [is] in the lower level working on detail. … It could be an 18- to 20-hour shift.”
Though at times the workload seems overwhelming, every team concurs that one priceless moment makes it all worthwhile: seeing the reaction of the people in the crowd. “You see tears every year,” Frenette shares. “The best souvenir that I have every year is the number of fingerprints and nose prints [on the glass] at the end of the day. That is just amazing.”
Holiday Windows Worldwide
New York has long been considered a trendsetter in all things fashion and retail. It only makes sense that though the tradition of elaborate holiday window displays began in New York City, the practice has since spread to all corners of the globe. Stores the world over are now trying their hand at ornately decorated feature windows, oftentimes with breathtaking results.
Harrods stunned shoppers with its 2013 “Harrods Express”-themed holiday display. Dressing each window as a train car, the mannequins inside were draped in vintage-inspired designer duds offering a romantic look into the past while displaying the season’s best-selling merchandise.
Hudson’s Bay Company, Toronto
As one of the only “traditional” department stores in Toronto, Hudson’s Bay Company tends to keep holiday displays in line with tradition as well. Displays frequently feature moving characters and depict familiar holiday scenes such as visiting Santa, decorating the tree or family camping, all with a sophisticated edge.
Galeries Lafayette, Paris
For a 2013 display, the Galeries Lafayette used five of its 17 feature windows to depict stunning scenes from the French film version of “Beauty and the Beast,” including an interactive touch screen that offered viewers a look into a “secret” destination.
Macy’s, Chicago A must-see for anyone in the Windy City during the holidays, the Macy’s store on State Street is recognized as a historic landmark and also boasts one of the best holiday window displays around. The store also offers a holiday traditions-themed tour during November and December for guests to learn about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, its window displays and towering Christmas tree.