When the Fifth Avenue department stores describe their annual holiday window displays as their gift to the city, a timeless gift-giving question comes to mind: What do you get the city that has everything? The major department stores have each developed signature please-all solutions over the course of this holiday tradition, which dates back to the 1920s. Macys and Lord and Taylor typically gear their windows toward the kids, featuring moving trains, mechanical dummies, and classic holiday narratives. On the high-end side, Barneys, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bergdorf Goodman take no-holds-barred approaches, competing with each other to wow pedestrian audiences and creating windows like mini-galleries that blur the line between commercial and high art.
Bergdorf Goodman on 59th Street and Fifth Avenue typically holds down the most impressive display in terms of sheer opulence. Designed by creative director, David Hoey, this years windows show scenes of fantastical travel rendered in a steam-punk style. A rider in Alexander McQueen is mounted on a winged horse; Aexplorers board a balloon-drawn carriage manned by wooden monkeys; a mannequin peers over antique maps at emerald turtles and diamond beetles.
The windows remind us that to be in New York is to marvel at the opulence of others. Bergdorfs unapologetic celebration of this reality makes it pleasurable instead of maddening. Whatever feelings the display evokes, envy is not one of them since the fantastical luxury depicted behind the glass is no more accessible to The Donald than the intern. For department stores that carry a wide variety of brands and goods, the challenge is not to attract any specific target market but to represent that which is common to all their wares: luxury and indulgence. At Bergdorf, the effect looks something like the Platonic ideal of luxury, distilled to its purest form.
This democratic effect is not true further uptown at the Ralph Lauren store on 72nd Street. This shop, well worth the trip, emanates an elegance we associate with a specific lifestyle. To be sure, the lifestyle appears in an idealized form, but it is attainable to the few who can afford it. Elitism aside, the space is beautiful and therefore a beautiful way to indulge in material envy.
Barneys is another department store that sides with art over retail during the holidays. In the tradition of artists like Andy Warhol, Salvator Dali, and Robert Rauschenburg, all of whom had hands in the New York window display business, creative director Simon Doonan makes frequent use of irony and social commentary in his displays. This year, he chose a food theme, crafting paper mache figures of celebrity chefs rising from a stew, frozen in the middle of a food fight, feasting together around a roast beast in the shape of Mario Batalis head. In some ways, this display also undermines the elitism of high-end department stores. You can buy all the Le Creuset in the world and still not secure a reservation at any one of the featured chefs restaurants.
Even if you plan to shop online this year, a stroll down Fifth Avenue in the coming months is a spectacle with no cyber counterpart. The celebration of materiality is well worth your physical presence, whether or not you buy it. Also check out the whimsical windows at Saks Fifth Avenue, the cool teenager-of-the-MTV-age display at Diesel, the zen garden of Donna Karren and the live music at McKensie Childs.