Fifth Avenue: Miracle Mile of Store Windows

NEW YORK, Jul 27, 1999/ CNS/ — The design for next week’s department store windows are top secret. Manoel Renha, Lord & Taylor’s art director, has blueprints and ideas of what the Fifth Avenue store will display on Monday morning, but he won’t share them. And, as with any artist, he often does not know exactly how he will arrange the window until he stands among the clutter of mannequins and props.

New York is the Miracle Mile of window designs. And today, what used to be purely a marketing strategy has risen to an art form. The competition is fierce. Each store has built up its staff in recent years; often, even the executives are professional architects. A lot of money is being spent by stores to create windows of the “must-see” variety.

None of the major Manhattan stores keep the same window display for longer than three weeks, and most change them as frequently as once a week. Window designers are inventing elaborate, abstract props, cutting walls and floors to create three-dimensional effects, and using antique pieces, from 19th century candelabras to specially made brass railings, for mannequins to lean against.

“Window displays used to be made for an `old carriage’ wealthy person, and the window space was designed as the interior of a wealthy person’s home,” said Randall Eryaw, production manager of Saks Fifth Avenue’s windows. “But today it’s become like a white canvas, arty and fantastical. We can do anything.”

Joy Alison Weiner, whose company provides shopping tours of New York, said that stores make all sorts of statements with their windows. “Barneys has tongue-in-cheek windows, making timely and political statements on subjects like AIDS,” she said. “Barneys takes a risk in its displays.”

Or it makes jokes. Simon Doonan, senior vice president of creative services at Barneys, recalled creating a window with a bird suspended from the ceiling; the bird was pulling off the businesslike mannequin’s wig.

Most times, it is the windows for women that are the most unusual. “It seems pointless to be ironic and funny with men,” Doonan said.

In one window at Barneys, a June Cleaver lookalike stands in an immaculate kitchen depicting the stereotypical 1950s mom. In the next window, a woman in a business suit holds a board with notes like “I must call the baby sitter” and has a gym bag strapped across her shoulder. “We need to get people’s attention quickly in New York, so we need a comic aspect to a window,” Doonan said.

The new approach at Saks is an appeal to the younger generation, to send the message that designer clothes are affordable, Eryaw said. A few years ago the store asked many top designers to create their own Santas, and Calvin Klein produced a cool St. Nick in a leather jacket sitting on a Harley Davidson motorcylce suspended from the ceiling.

Weiner said that some store windows appeal to a specific customer and have remained the same for years. “Bergdorf Goodman does it in a sumptuous way. They appeal with fine materials; you see the details in their clothes,” she said.

But Doonan of Barneys said that while the store attracts a certain customer, it wants everyone to enjoy its windows. “Windows are an ultimate forum of expression,” Doonan said. “If everybody can’t enjoy them then I haven’t done my job.”

When tourists come to the Big Apple, window shopping has always been as much an attraction as the Empire State Building. “Window shopping is part of a larger picture of New York,” said Jennifer McGuire, manager of media relations for the city’s Convention Visitors Bureau. “We tell them to go to Liberty Island, and to start at Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue and continue all the way up.”

Because “doing Fifth Avenue,” as it is referred to among tourists, is an official part of a tourist’s itinerary, McGuire said that the bureau has hired Weiner, a professional shopper who gives tours of stores, and knows what designers each store plans to display in any given season. Weiner said that one of the most evocative windows in New York in the spring are at Macy’s.

The quantity and arrangements of flowers all along Macy’s Broadway windows tell a flower story,” she said. The flower windows become minature greenhouses, leaving few windows for merchandise display. “The people who work on these are very intimate with the trends of the moment. The window is their palette. They bring the merchandise to life.”

Most window staff include full-time painters, electricians and carpenters. Lord & Taylor’s staff is busy custom-building natural wood benches for Renha’s upcoming Ralph Lauren window. Renha said he tries to keep with the designer’s natural safari-style look. “We need to keep in mind what the designer does in his ads,” Renha said, referring to the business end of the art.

He said that the store has been able to cut its budget, which has tightened over the last couple of years, by hiring outside help. The store borrows work by freelance artists and furniture from galleries for its windows. “It’s a trade – publicity for their props and windows for us,” Renha said.

Spokespeople for the stores will not disclose what is spent on window displays. They said that Christmas windows have an entirely separate budget, in which they can do more elaborate displays. The window budgets do not include the salaries of the staffs.

Bill Viets, vice president of visual marketing at Saks, estimated that Macy’s spends up to $1,500 per window per week, and Bloomingdale’s on Lexington Avenue spends $500-$1,000 per window per week. “We can’t spend that kind of money,” Viets said. “We’re using our advertising money to increase window exposure.” He added that the store’s executives believe that enhancing its windows is most effective because it reaches travelers who stroll down Fifth Avenue.

“I don’t believe big budgets create great windows,” Doonan said. “It’s all about understanding how windows provide creative forum.”

By: Temima Goldberg