It was the week before Thanksgiving when Dante Ferretti had his first holiday nightmare. Waking in a panic in his bed at the Lowell hotel, the Oscar-winning Italian production designer and art director was certain his latest project would miss its deadline.
“I dreamed the windows were empty,” Mr. Ferretti said on a recent morning, concern still creasing his brow.
He was referring to the circus-themed Christmas window displays he’d been commissioned to create for the Madison Avenue flagship of the Italian luxury shoemaker Tod’s.
“At 5 o’clock in the morning, I was going to run over to the store in my bathrobe,” Mr. Ferretti said. “Then I thought to myself, ‘Maybe is better if I make a phone call first.’ ”
Happily, an assistant on the other end of the line assured Mr. Ferretti that the period dummy boards he had designed in the shapes of aerialists, contortionists, lion tamers and other tanbark performers — but no clowns: “I hate clowns”— were up and ready, well in advance of the V.I.P. opening and the expected holiday hordes.
“But then, I said to myself, ‘I hope is enough,’ ” said Mr. Ferretti, a genial neurotic whose list of collaborators includes Federico Fellini, Franco Zeffirelli, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Tim Burton. “I hope is good. I hope people don’t go to other stores to find the shoes.”
Data from a surprisingly robust Black Friday weekend suggests that shoppers did in fact go to Tod’s to find the shoes. What is more, they did not do all of their shopping online.
True, 44 percent of consumers surveyed across the country said they had taken to the internet for their early Christmas purchases, while 40 percent shopped in stores, according to the National Retail Federation.
Yet while brick-and-mortar retailers have come to play more of what Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with the NPD Group, calls a “supporting role” in the landscape of peak holiday season, a longing appears to persist for social dimensions of consuming and for something more fulfilling than a series of solitary scroll-and-click transactions on a hand-held device.
In that urge to participate in something collective can be found a reassuring counterpoint to a nightmare many retailers have awakened to in recent holiday seasons, one portending their own demise. Despite low unemployment levels, buoyant consumer confidence and, by many measures, a robust economy, analysts increasingly suggest a future is not far off when people will do nearly all their shopping online, visiting brick-and-mortar retailers mainly for comparison pricing and to partake of shopping spectacle.
Even at that, a cold bottom-line calculus has diminished the efforts many retailers put into creating entertainment for holiday shoppers. Of the scores of seasonal window displays once gracing the city’s great retailing corridors, only a few sturdy stalwarts remain.
To walk Fifth Avenue north from 34th Street to Central Park this season is to discover a startling paucity of merchants making more than a token nod to the holidays in their window displays. Never mind elves or Santa or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Barely a snowflake is to be found at mass-market retailers like Zara, the North Face, Urban Outfitters, Uniqlo, Fossil, Tommy Bahama, Oakley, Guess, Desigual, Sephora or H&M.
This stark absence underscores both a shift in consumer patterns and the precious anachronism of what few holiday windows remain. Extravagant, giddy, gaudy, mechanized, jewel-like, politically pointed or merely kitsch, the windows staged each year by Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys New York, Tiffany & Company and Bloomingdale’s have long been among New York’s treasures.
“They’re a great gift to the city,” said Sheryll Bellman, the author of “Through the Shopping Glass: A Century of New York Christmas Windows.” “Window-shopping is still one of the great free things you can do in New York and one of the few you can participate in without being judged,” Ms. Bellman added of a tradition said to have been pioneered locally by Macy’s as early as the 1870s.
Whether an average consumer would actually be brave enough to cross the threshold of department stores selling stuff like a $3,500 Sylvie bag from Gucci or $800 suede Alexander Wang Tia pumps, any pedestrian can press nose to windowpane. And on peak days, as many as half a million people have been counted making their way past the holiday windows at Saks Fifth Avenue.
“It’s theater without tickets,” Ms. Bellman said.
A similar point was made over a century ago by L. Frank Baum, who in 1900 — the same year “The Wizard of Oz” came out — published a lesser-known volume titled “The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows and Interiors.”
It represented the accumulated window-display lore acquired across the years by the onetime proprietor of Baum’s Bazaar in Aberdeen, S.D. And in some ways as startling as the Oz-like technological innovations Baum advocated in creating “illusion windows” — incandescent globes, revolving stairs or a bust of a “Vanishing Lady” that periodically dropped below a pedestal, only to reappear in 10 minutes wearing a new hat — is how many similar effects are still in use.
Consider the “Land of 1000 Delights” that Saks Fifth Avenue unveiled on Nov. 21 (and is live-streaming on its website). Framed by nearly 13,000 feet of linear garland outlining the facade of the blockwide Fifth Avenue flagship is a series of six windows in which whimsical, and symbolically charged, characters from “The Nutcracker Suite” disport themselves amid landscapes composed of whirling, spinning cookies and candies tinted in lysergic-acid hues.
Bruno Bettelheim, the psychologist, might have had a field day with scenes of Clara battling and “whipping” an army of marshmallow mice or of a pair of harlequin gingerbread “crumbs” dancing out from beneath the folds of the parted skirt of Mother Ginger.
“Last year, the theme was icy white, and we decided to go in the completely opposite direction,” said Mark Briggs, the creative force behind the windows and an executive vice president at Hudson’s Bay Company, which owns Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor, on a recent behind-the-scenes tour of the Saks windows.
Reached by way of doors concealed from view on the store’s main sales floor, the windows were, at less than four feet, surprisingly shallow for all their weird allusive depths.
It is perhaps not remarkable that psychology plays a role in the creation of holiday windows. As if by unspoken agreement, windows at almost every one of the major department stores this season featured themes of nature both innocent and imperiled.
At Lord & Taylor, a sidewalk bower of illuminated greenery acts as an enchanted tunnel. Through it, pedestrians are conducted past five windows portraying bunnies seen from a bird’s-eye vantage as they ice-skate on a forest pond; a mother owl nestling three newly hatched owlets with bobble heads; a bear buried in a snowbank; a gaggle of dancing geese; and a brace of foxes slumbering in an underground den as aboveground raccoons attempt to awaken them.
At Bloomingdale’s, a group of visual artists commissioned to create individual chandeliers on the general theme of “light” came up with sculptural fixtures evoking the moon, the stars, a human face in neon and a sprightly octopus with light bulbs at the tips of its tentacles.
“There used to be so much more holiday display around, but now it’s down to the five or so big department stores,” said Jack Hruska, executive vice president for creative services at Bloomingdale’s. “I’ve been here 25 years, and in my experience, our desire is not to sell merchandise so much as to be part of the New York experience.”
New York being the frenetic city it is, communicating the “New York experience” — whatever that may be — demands of most window designers that they put their holiday message across efficiently enough to be understood on the run. “We tried some complex things and realized we were asking people to stand too long in the cold,” Mr. Hruska said.
Given that sidewalks on Lexington Avenue, where Bloomingdale’s stands, are narrower than those on Fifth, a retail consultant had to be called in to devise a solution for pileups caused when frenzied holiday shoppers barreled into those who paused at the windows to gawp. “He advised us to put up planters with trees” in order for people to step out of the flow and avoid what the consultant termed “butt rush,” Mr. Hruska said. “And that worked.”
Butt rush, alas, is hardly the challenge confronting the artists responsible for the gemlike miniature dioramas installed in the windows at Tiffany & Company. Pedestrians attempting to pass through the maze of Jersey barriers (now slipcovered in Tiffany blue) outside the jeweler’s neighbor, Trump Tower, are routinely stopped for bag searches at guarded checkpoints by officials charged with protecting the high-rise home of the president-elect.
It is no worry, either, outside Barneys New York on Madison Avenue, where the Love Peace Joy Project brought together artists like Nick Cave, Ebony G. Patterson and Rob Pruitt, the design collective Studio Job, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone of Comedy Central’s “South Park.” Barneys gave them individual windows in which to riff — brilliantly in each case — on qualities that in the current climate seem in short supply.
And happily, there is nothing to impede the pedestrian throngs that stand transfixed outside the Fifth Avenue windows of Bergdorf Goodman, where, as it has for decades, the specialty retailer has again installed a series of window displays as creatively unhindered as they are opulent.
David Hoey, the senior director for visual presentation — aided by a roster of over 100 craftspeople drawn from the ranks of the city’s freelancers — has once again produced a suite of windows that would do L. Frank Baum proud.
“They let the kite out with us creatively,” Mr. Hoey recently said, without exaggeration, of the Dallas-based Neiman Marcus Group, which owns the specialty retailer.
No one who experienced them will soon forget the baroque marvels Mr. Hoey and his cohort have conjured over the last two decades, windows filled with such things as Victorian fainting couches, albino peacocks, hundreds of specially commissioned needlepoint portraits of literary figures, scores of ventriloquist dummies, transistor radios, Snoopy figures, vintage toasters and anything and everything material that might, as he said, “spoil your senses.”
Like many of the other holiday windows in town, Bergdorf’s this season have a Mother Nature theme, as observed perhaps on an acid-tinged road trip titled “Destination Extraordinary.” Delirious remakes of natural history museum dioramas, Mr. Hoey’s all-green windows recreate jungle, desert and lagoon, and pack them with more details than it is possible to take in at any one time.
Even in a screen-obsessed culture, as Linda Fargo, the senior vice president of Bergdorf Goodman recently noted, there are still few delights that can compare with what she termed “real-time eye candy six inches away from you behind a plate of glass.”