After the hundreds of jobs going poof and the thus-far inadequate discounts, the saddest thing about the closure of Barneys New York is that its signature naughty window displays will recede even further in collective memory.
A Hail Mary campaign earlier this year imploring shoppers to go inside even as the store declared bankruptcy (“STRUT STRUT STRUT STRUT STRUT STRUT”) was but a faint echo of the era when subversive tableaus of papier-mâché public figures, found objects, condoms on Christmas trees and the occasional scampering vermin mesmerised crowds, offended cardinals and even sold some clothes.
But “we’re in a post-window-display world,” said Simon Doonan, the Barneys O.G. window dresser, in a telephone interview, noting the “impenetrable facade” of Dover Street Market, heir apparent to the luxury avant-garde. Its New York entrance has only small, high apertures above pedestrian eye level.
“In the old days, window displays were the primary form of marketing—fashion was the same as butcher shops and fishmongers,” he said. “Now, if you’re waiting till someone walks past your store, you’ve lost the fight.”
Indeed, the bustling new Nordstrom on 57th Street dispenses with traditional boxed-in display windows entirely, replacing them with a shallow, wavy facade that John Bailey, a spokesman, assured would be festooned with red and white lights come Black Friday.
The facade is “an interactive viewing experience for customers walking by,” he wrote in an email, “connecting the shopping experience in store to the energy of the city.” (And the energy of customers’ phones.) A young employee at the central help desk said elliptically that “our windows are our customer service.”
Gather ’round, children, and let Auntie Alexandra tell of when department stores, now mostly glassy, anodyne places you go to exchange online purchases, used to put on a show. Sometimes more entertaining than the theater.
First, though, a quick gallop through what remains of New York’s holiday windows in 2019, and the hopeful cornucopias within.
At the doomed Barneys flagship on 61st Street, there was of course bubkes, just signs reading: “Everything Must Be Sold! Goodbuys, then Goodbye.” Inside on the fifth floor, female customers were listlessly flipping shoes to glance at the soles and calculate the markdown, as if with muscle memory from the much-lamented warehouse sale.
Four creaky flights up, the power lunch spot Fred’s, named for Fred Pressman, Barneys’ charismatic chairman who died in 1996, was full—even as a worker held a headless naked mannequin steady by her neck on a hand truck, waiting for the elevator to go down, down, down.
A few blocks away preens Bergdorf Goodman, the beautiful princess whose holding company, Neiman Marcus, muscled recently into the Hudson Yards, like a watchful mother-in-law moving into the guest cottage.
There are no old-school windows at the gleaming new Neiman, being that it’s high up off the dirty street in a mall (and incidentally charging kids $72 per head for breakfast with Santa). But at Bergdorf, David Hoey, the store’s senior director of visual presentation, and his team have gamely produced a concept called Bergdorf GoodTimes. Literally gamely. Like, filled with actual games.
One window was captioned “Queen’s Gambit” (chess); another, “Jackpot!” (pinball); another, “Winner Take All” (casino—perhaps a dry subconscious commentary on the high-stakes state of retail). Around the corner, a life-size board game, “Up the Down Escalator,” was dotted with fictional gift cards, coin of the online-shopping realm.
Hoey’s sophisticated, colorful creations did not seem intended for little ones—and anyway those were scampering around across the street, splashing in small pools and peering into mirror-glass “sky lenses” outside the Fifth Avenue Apple store. Paging Dr. Lacan!
Further east on 59th and Lexington Avenue, dear old Bloomingdale’s was flagrantly violating several of the decorative precepts set out by Doonan in his seminal 1998 book, Confessions of a Window Dresser: Tales From a Life in Fashion. Specifically: “do remember that technology is boring” and “don’t incorporate sex.”
If Bergdorf is rolling the dice on the future of the department store—eroded perhaps irrevocably by Amazon’s mighty, corrosive flow—Bloomie’s is searching the stars.
Not the celebrities whose daffy effigies used to populate Doonan’s windows, mostly with enthusiastic cooperation (Madonna, Magic Johnson, Norman Mailer, Prince, Queen Elizabeth), but a lavish commingling of astronomy and astrology titled Out of This World.
Robots were placing ornaments on a tree and sitting at a synthesizer ready to play the carol of your choice at the push of a button. Google Nest, a sponsor, was poised to turn on the tree, the lights; the fire. And astronauts were floating in a “3, 2, 1, Gift Off,” or was it a “GIF Off?”
Female mannequins embodying various figures of the zodiac were outfitted like go-go dancers, all pearls and feathers and curvature: propped up against each other on a pedestal as a recording played of John Legend singing, incongruously, “Christmas in New Orleans.”
Inside, on the main floor, one embodying Cancer the Crab hung upside down from the ceiling: eyes closed, suspended over a hoop, hand-claws splayed, rotating slowly. Her bared, inverted legs conjured less the #MeToo era than the infamous “meat grinder” photo of the June 1978 Hustler magazine that feminists used to protest on Manhattan sidewalks.
It’s hard to imagine, though not impossible, that department stores will remain important sites of commerce and culture much longer. But the largest one in the city is not about to go quietly. At Macy’s, which takes up an entire block, there is a jumble of every sort of window.
There are old-fashioned windows devoted to the story of Virginia O’Hanlon, the little girl who wrote to The New York Sun in 1897 asking if there was still a Santa Claus. Around the corner, there are high-tech windows giving voice to a little girl who wants to be Santa Claus. And around another corner: still other windows filled simply with giant Barbies.
Being female in the early 21st century is nothing if not a series of mixed messages, but this attempt to empower seemed already antiquated; if Doonan were still working on windows, surely he would have gone straight for Mx. Claus?
The ghost of Barneys yet to come is at Saks Fifth Avenue, which has licensed its former rival’s name, and where windows have been themed with glittering corporate efficiency to the international blockbuster “Frozen 2.”
This may delight the tourists, but city dwellers remembering the craft and chance and silliness of the old holiday extravaganzas—when the designers and the famous people and the window dressers were all sticking pins in each other, and the audiences crowded four-deep on the pavement for the free sideshow—will probably be left cold. © 2019 The New York Times