Mercedes Platz didn’t suspect anything.A friend, Matthew Ganes, had invited her to stroll the Avenues to view Manhattan’s renowned Christmas windows. He knew she was an interior designer who might relish the opportunity to view this remarkable world—and a charming chance for him to initiate a first date—and maybe ooohhh and aaahhh together as they strolled arm in arm under the auspices of warming her chilly hands, and finally finishing off with a steaming cup of hot chocolate. It was very New York, very Christmas, and it turned out to be very memorable. She is now Mercedes Platz Ganes.
Though it can’t always guarantee conjugal bliss, a holiday jaunt through the world’s most fascinating and arresting Christmas windows will always reward one tenfold. And the stroll will be even kinder on one’s pocketbook, because other than an LIRR ticket or bus fare, it’s free!
By starting at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, heading past Saks Fifth Avenue and farther up Fifth, there is definitely a world of A-list window dressing on display this year.
The animal kingdom seems to be the inspiration of the moment—either filmed in motion, flocked, upholstered or gilded. Armani’s silver gilded stags’ heads transform into striking trophies for the display of garments and trinkets. Cartier’s diamond-encrusted snow leopard, inspired by the stealth feline stalking prey beneath the blue bowl of a gigantic moon, is ominously elegant. The segmented videos parceled out between showcase windows is riveting. In the next window, life-sized steel zebras and giraffes (Where do they get those things? Think about it!) meander gracefully behind the glass; their necks, backs and ears swathed with fashionable purple pocketbooks and coin purses. It’s a metallic safari gone slightly awry in a luxury handbag shop.
This year, Henri Bendel celebrates the special talents of legendary illustrator Al Hirschfeld by transforming his most famous two-dimensional caricatures into three-dimensional sculptures. These boisterous, vibrant caricatures, including a self-satisfied Charlie Chaplin relaxing in a malachite tree, reminded me of the Simon Doonan-dressed Barney’s windows of yore.
Bendel’s be-feathered ostriches, whose long necks were choking in thick strands of pearls, have a flirty charm. Especially as they are presented next to stacks of teeth-clenching Nutcrackers, suited up in Yuletide glitter.
Prada has eschewed theme windows and has chosen to simply to display its wares—as did many retailers this year. There seems to be more of an emphasis on actual merchandising, versus the usual dazzling display of window witch magic. Prada’s peacock blue and lavender luggage was displayed with gray clothing—a window you may certainly bypass.
Holiday showmanship has crept out beyond the showcase windows to the building façades, as witnessed by Tiffany’s miniature Edwardian streetscapes, which are littered with outsized gems and tiny wrapped gift boxes and telescoped onto the building’s massive granite façade. White linear architectural cartoons, in the manner of Italian sgraffito, sweep up the walls of this immovable monument. This lighthearted Dickensian architecture, punctuated with Tiffany blue boxes, lends a nostalgic sweetness to the otherwise venerable fortress.
And, of course, one only need to veer slightly to the north of Van Cleef & Arpels to discover Mecca’s holy grail of holiday window display—Bergdorf Goodman. With almost a gratuitous theme of “Holiday on Ice,” this year, Bergdorf’s designers riff on Arbor Day, Fourth of July, Halloween, Valentine’s Day and April Fool’s Day—where the entire window is upside down!
If weather permits, stand in these resourceful, intricate, witty and profoundly creative worlds, where imagination and craft are entwined to thrill you to the core. The best time to observe them is at night when their theatrical lighting draws you inward.
Arbor Day celebrates the enchanted forest with a pearlescent, lacquered ice tree hosting rare and exotic owls, cockatoos, doves and pterodactyls. On the pale, grassy forest floor, turtles, iguanas and giant slugs crawl toward an Alexander McQueen dress trimmed in bohemian splendor. Observe the detail as a pale straw dragonfly alights on the sculpted shell of a tortoise.
Fourth of July is celebrated with transparent banners, 18th-century paneling and a glorious American Eagle, all of which are covered in transparent ice. Here, our national holiday, reimagined in ice, has smatterings of red, white and blue reworked in lacquered patent-leather vestments.
April Fool’s Day’s topsy-turvy world introduces a menagerie of crystalline circus animals hoof-deep in snow as a graceful doyenne peers quizzically outward to Fifth Avenue.
Valentine’s Day pulls Bergdorf’s trademark collagists’ fantasies into pink heaven. Stacks of decorated cakes, frosted to confectioner’s perfection and glazed with icicles, stand appetizingly prominent before a sumptuous wall of full-throated blooms of roses, dahlias, lilies, orchids and mums. Every imaginable shade of pink crowds the crystalline secretary at which a be-muffed showgirl powders her décolletage while a fully loaded crystal chandelier drips icicles dangerously above her cotton candy bouffant.
Moving along, and over to Madison Avenue, Crate & Barrel delights with its usual graphic celebration. Calvin Klein’s tuxedoed model emerges out of an austere birch forest. And across the street, the DoDo Boutique makes its façade into a clever design emblem.
At Barney’s, gone are the days of Doonan, which have been replaced by a visually numbing faceted starburst art piece. A rubber carbuncle, reminiscent of a car wash, attaches itself to the storefront, which when awkwardly entered reveals a disappointing display. Without Simon, Barney’s is still finding its way, though kudos for trying!
Hermès is worth the stop. There, a fractured mountaintop sporting slalom gates is stretched with scarves. If only the real world was like this.
The wonder of Manhattan’s windows is the reward of intelligence, creativity, attention to detail and the skill and craftsmanship that they emanate. While walking the Avenues, one is struck by the melting pot of approaches and insights.
Within these few blocks of retail stores, definitive, contradictory and harmonious points of view are all on display. So remarkably New York and so essentially American, the holiday windows are a wellspring of inspiration and an astonishing assortment of design ideas. And who knows, perhaps an evening stroll ending with hot chocolate may be a perfect first date or renewal of romance.