The retail industry may be under siege, but when it comes to the holidays, they are the mothership optically for nostalgia, sentimentality and remembrance of better things past. If you live in an urban area with sidewalk traffic, it is the retail stores that shape our childhood memories of the holidays. Gift mongering aside, retail stores are the stage sets for what dreams are made of. Walk into the few department stores still standing, and you’ll be dazzled by the holiday decorations and sentimental simulations of a happy, loving world. It is a welcome antidote to a dysfunctional global culture that is becoming increasingly fractured and hostile.
So, we decided to take a stroll down New York’s avenues and memory lanes to kick start the holidays. Amazingly, in a melting-pot city with the largest Jewish population in the world outside of Israel, the city is an unabashed celebration of Christmas, Santa and seriously Christmas-driven traditions. We started our research with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, which still redefines the notion of spectacular. The precision of the dancers is only equaled by the astonishing tech precision of the digital special effects, including dancing-light drones. The beloved, endangered department store plays a front-and-center role in the pageant. Those holiday windows, street decorations and the 57th Street suspended snowflake set the room tone in the 6015-seat theater. What would we do without holiday windows, brightening the boulevards with visual stories designed to bring out our better childlike selves? And what is more dramatic than 36 Raggedy Ann Rockettes rising magically from below the stage to tap dance their way out of the store window display into our hearts.
Retail stores and iconic hotels are the best places to get a dose of what the holidays look and feel like in a nostalgic world. The enclosed malls don’t have the same window dressing potential, and the mixed-use shopping centers have been transformed into holiday theme-park villages. Of course, there are also the best efforts of city plazas coast to coast. Beverly Hills does a crack-up job with festive holiday lights illuminating its municipal buildings. These theatrical stage sets capture a magic most households can’t match. Although the light displays in the front yards in selected neighborhoods across the country are becoming almost commercially-viable attractions, it’s the stores that have made us feel sentimental wonder and awe.
True confession, this theme has been seminal for me since I was a small child growing up in the suburbs of St. Louis where my mother would load my brothers and me into the station wagon and drive all the way downtown to see the windows, sit in Santa’s lap and chat about what we thought we deserved. What is it about this experience as a child that sticks with us as a bright beacon in an unforgiving world? Oddly, retail stores perform a public service recapturing the idea of a more innocent Christmas filled with giving. Ironically, the nostalgic décor is a veneer for price promotion and an almost greed-driven motivation for the spending spirit. Giving these days comes at 40 percent off, wrapped in brightly patterned paper and ribbon, not from the heart as the original intention suggests. And giving has been subterfuged by Black Friday and Cyber Monday. According to Vice, “The holiday season in America is one giant spending fest, as the months of November and December can account for 30 percent of a brand’s sales, according to the National Retail Federation. Between Black Friday deals and other pre-Christmas shopping, Americans will spend about $720 billion – and companies employ many time-tested tactics to ensure they do.” Sadly, the in-store experience usually doesn’t match the festive display aspirations, so there is a massive disconnect for customers who expect a genuine, nostalgic holiday journey.
I know this obsession with aesthetics sounds naively sentimental, but I say let’s thank the visual design teams at our iconic retail brands for keeping the spirit alive. To recapture the magic, we started uptown to visit the major New York stores and holiday window heroes to see how things look in 2018.
Always making a cultural statement, Barney’s got the millennial memo this year staging a major give-back promotion. The retailer is partnering with the Save the Children global humanitarian organization though the Barney’s New York Foundation, which further elevates the campaign to do-good consumerism. It comes with a complete program of public service messaging and a #centiments social-media campaign featuring “positive and inspirational holiday sentiments,” plus Barneys New York Foundation will donate $5 to Save the Children for every post. Taking a page from conceptual artist Jenny Holzer (using words in public places to make a statement) the Madison Avenue windows sedately proclaim, “Make Change, Change Counts” in a double entendre with bold letter stenciling on the window glass. Behind the message-laden words are walls of shiny pennies as glittering background, about $56 worth of pennies in each of the four widows to be exact. This partnership with Save the Children declares it’s “doing well by going good” holiday time at Barneys. Interior displays feature those highly-polished copper coins in cascades propping up trifles like Balenciaga $795 hot-pink party shoes and starry Jeffrey Levinson $4900 minaudières. The main-floor columns are shrouded with Make Change messaging and Save the Children reps are on site to tap into your inner gambler to play lotto with proceeds contributed to the cause. It’s a win-win for the luxury shopper; get a row on the lotto card and you could rush upstairs with a $3,000 gift certificate for Barney’s luxurious necessities. It’s all very sincere but, in all honestly, it comes across as a little self-serving. The cause is worthy, but isn’t the Barneys customer already this decade’s giving nobility that helps sustains our charitable organizations and foundations? There is a fundamental disconnect here. Making Change is more a display conceit than a powerful motivation to change the world, as the signage encourages and Barneys PR states, “even small change can have a big impact – all starting with a coin.” They get high marks for helping children in need, but pennies at Barneys is a real oxymoron when the message doesn’t match the environment or shopping experience. If you play the give-back card, you’ve got to be authentic. The next gen will sniff out a fake and you’ll lose more than you gain when they do.
This is the power corner on Fifth Avenue: Bulgari, Tiffany, Louis Vuitton and Van Cleef & Arpels/Bergdorf Goodman anchored by the 57th Street holiday star. Bergdorf has always elevated holiday windows to an art form, typically bypassing any major current cultural conversations (the windows are planned years in advance). This year they are having a referential sugar plum attack with a series of over-the-top windows focused on one form or another of candy, bonbons, cookies, macarons, ice cream – anything tempting and sweet. Spun sugar, crystalized sugar, peppermints, hard candies, gingerbread, all of it. Coincidentally, a giant vintage robot is also featured at Tiffany and appears here in crystalized sugar. As always, extraordinary designer clothes are tucked away in these fantasy vignettes. Although it’s disarming to see male mannequins across the street at the men’s store with English Toffee or Peeps bird heads, creating a strange Hieronymus Bosch-esque holiday tableau. Devotees study the windows detail by detail — the craftsmanship is well documented in the fascinating documentary “The Bergdorf Windows.” As for the interior, luxury takes the restrained route with a greige tonal suite of leafy arbor entryways and portals, off-white-on-off-white deer roaming the horizon above the display cases and a whiter shade of pale tree decorated, oddly, with guitars, a swan diving and a deer rising on its ascent to the summit. It’s all a little strange visually and coldly impersonal, but perhaps it soothes the harried affluent customer in its colorless upscale way.
For a store that prides itself on appealing to the upscale tastes and desires of its customers, focusing on the Grinch is an interesting holiday strategy. The theme extends to its 135-page holiday catalog, as well as the windows and other promotions. It’s a clever concept, but Bloomingdale’s is not the first place you think of when you consider buying toys for children or getting advice from the Grinch. Nonetheless, the six Lexington Avenue flagship windows have a whimsical feeling with plenty of interactive karaoke, digital portraits, play-me buttons and Grinch excerpt videos to entice the kids.
The storyline is so high concept it may float over the heads of most viewers. The windows are stuffed with sparkling, crystal-embedded, bejeweled clothes and props in a fantasy interpretation of Whoville. None of it really makes much sense but is dazzling to the eye. The interior has lots of floating silver, golden and crystal spheres, creating sort of a holiday ballroom effect. Overdressed acrobatic mannequins perform on aerial hoops. It’s all pretty, but the interior seems to be more a dressed-up Cirque de Soleil than the Grinch. It’s hard to figure out the narrative and the overall effect is just a stage set, neither personally engaging nor inspiring.
Tiffany is so clearly trying to change its image to make its desirable jewels and luxury gifts accessible to a more modern, decidedly younger customer to replace the Social Register set that kept the brand vital and thriving in the past. The small windows feature high-tech digital effects combined with the clever display of sensational jewels with everyday objects.
Tiffany takes a page from Louis Marx and Company’s toy robots produced in Japan in the 60s, originally created to captivate space and robot fans when the U.S. was in the space race with the then-Soviet Union. The in-store Tiffany-blue brigade of these giant versions of the coveted robot toys make a signature statement. These vintage robots are charming but probably only recognizable to the Boomer parents of millennial customers Tiffany is courting. It looks like the retailer is betting on its signature blue as the bridge to the next generation; blue-box wreaths hang over head, little blue gift boxes are sprinkled liberally throughout the store and all the props are painted blue. Prerequisite huge flat screens with vibrant imagery flank the famous elevators, still run by helpful human operators. Retro is the prevailing theme, and Tiffany-blue displays of vintage electronics evoke Korean-American mixed-media artist Nam Juin Paik who made the assemblage of stacked TV sets an avant-garde art form. The most interesting holiday innovation is a large Apple store-like glass box set center stage on the main selling floor. Artisans are busy at work crafting Tiffany jewelry and you can watch them, enhanced by mirrors placed above them like a cooking demonstration. This is a brilliant move to make the elusive quality of handcrafted significant jewelry more accessible. Tiffany wins the congeniality award of the most friendly, sincere greeters (on every floor) who are genuinely helpful. They immediately engender trust and confidence for first-time visitors. They make the entire experience exactly what the holiday spirit is supposed to be: personal and real.
Saks is also playing the giveback card, similar to Barneys, by partnering with Broadway Cares. Opening night featured 124 dancers and an extravagant light show to unveil its windows. You can sponsor a lightbulb on the facade of Saks with all proceeds going to Broadway Cares and Saks guarantees that the minimum donation will be at least $150,000. The red-themed Theater of Dreams Fifth Avenue windows are the best example of making you feel you want one of everything. As are the six windows facing Rockefeller Promenade, each an act in the Theater of Dreams. The visual is fabulous with fantasy videos as backdrops to each vignette of a beautifully-dressed mannequin with her poodle channeling a luxe holiday. Encased in a snow globe sans snow, each of the six acts are riveting. Sadly, for Saks the main floor is being renovated and shoppers are tunneled into a makeshift red-carpet cattle shoot, buffeted by Loro Piana cashmere on the way to the elevator bank. You have to be a committed shopper to shuffle along in line to reach the prize. After such a rich exterior display that promises an equally spectacular experience in the store, your entry is a real let-down. Upstairs, the refurbished floors are airy and filled with racks of expensive clothes all at 40 percent off.
Rockefeller Center – Bonus Points
This year’s 75-year-old tress is a 72-foot, 12-ton Norway spruce from Wallkill, New York, about 80 miles north of the City. A mind-boggling five miles of intensely colored LED lights wrap around the tree topped with a new star made of thee million Swarovski crystals. It stands sentinel to the ice skaters and tourists who flock to the Center to be immersed in 1930’s architectural wonder. Those angels are back in the Promenade playing their trumpets in stasis, subjects of never-ending selfies and group iPhone shots.
Poor, sad Lord & Taylor. Its Fifth Avenue windows are blaring the fact it is going out of business. This will no doubt appeal to the holiday shopper looking for deals; the main floor looks like a giant warehouse sale once you move past the beauty counters. No amount of decorative cheer is going to disguise the fact that this brand ran itself into the ground by not paying attention to what consumers want in a retail experience. In the end, Lord & Taylor stood for nothing – no personality, no perspective, no reason to visit. Holiday windows proclaiming 30% off may be the most honest holiday message for a dysfunctional retail industry in its existential race to the bottom.
The clever people at Macy’s latched onto the women’s movement featuring Sunny, the can-do snow-space cadette who is buzzing around solving problems. The six Herald Square windows present a narrative of Sunny and her white fox pal saving Santa’s sleigh, all against the backdrop of Star Wars-worthy digital special effects. It is the perfect fusion of the art and science of narrative. There’s lots of interactivity with play-me buttons and joysticks for the kids. It is a virtuoso job of storytelling mixed with all the visual tricks and cues expected by Gen Z. Interior Macy’s wins the wonder and awe award for 2018, hands down. It definitely helps to have soaring ceilings and a majestic interior space. Customers bump into each other looking upward, taking selfies and iPhone shots of the sentimental, breathtaking display of a forest canopy of evergreen boughs, crystal balls and dazzling white lights. Vignettes placed in open spherical ornaments float overhead, the columns are transformed into glittery tree trunks complete with moving squirrels and owls and vitrines showcase mini statues of the 1924 Thanksgiving Parade balloon favorites Harold the fireman and policeman and those charming elves. Huge digital flat screens tell romantic beauty and fragrance stories and thematic floor displays mix and match product à la STORY – it is truly wonder, awe and temptation for children of all ages. Macy’s will definitely get you out of the house, off the screens, away from the phone and into the land of “believe in the wonder of giving” – materialistically and otherwise. This is the real-deal theatrical environment that brings the giving spirit alive – and Amazon hasn’t got a prayer to be able to provide this level of experience. Macy’s does a public service by instilling goodwill, trust and a sense of community for families and customers from around the world. It is the only retailer smart enough to tap into what the whole holiday experience is supposed to be about: unlocking the imagination of a child.