Georgia Barretta-Whiteley, head of design at shopper marketing agency Saatchi & Saatchi X, casts her eye over the Christmas window displays of London’s biggest retailers.
At time of writing, the Christmas season is well (but not truly) upon us. Only in retail land has its glistening, cinnamon-tasting, sprayfrosted, white fur-lined grip really taken hold. The capital’s shopping districts now have their main arteries blocked by rubber-neckers from all over, walking into lamp posts, stepping backwards into traffic and spilling noxious toffeenut latte over oncoming, equally-as-distracted pedestrians. The Christmas store window extravaganza has begun, and what follows is an attempt to quantify the magic of the top seven heavy-hitters in central London.
The Queen said it first in 2008 when she awarded John Lewis with a Royal Warrant as “suppliers of haberdashery and household goods”. This window display is a feet of engineering genius. I couldn’t help but grin at the thought that perhaps grandmothers from around the country (who seem to make up the matinee crowd here) took the royal instruction as a brief, banded together, broke in and in an obsessive celebration of all things household, began to resourcefully bring to life all creatures bright and Christmassy. This utterly inclusive window unveils nothing less than a hoover reindeer, a chesterfield-slash-picnic-hamper grizzly bear, towelling turkeys, crockery squirrels, cutlery parrots, and a very lovely cleaning utensil bunny rabbit. ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’…. and ‘Never Knowingly Dull’.
When a store has a mission statement that declares; ‘…through a combination of product, innovation and eccentricity, we aim to provide every customer with a truly unforgettable experience in our quintessentially British environment…’ my expectations for what lay behind the Harrods Christmas glazing are high. Upon approach and judging by the elbowed jostle, this appeared a high real-estate piece ‘o’ pavement. And it was in fact sensational. To stroll from one end to the other is to leap between the carriages of the ‘Harrods Christmas Express’. It borrows directly from that same luxury vernacular Chanel No 5 got Jean-Pierre Jeunet to shoot and cut into an indulgent TV commercial, and one that in this instance, manages to hurtle us through the Swiss Alps, blast us through the urban terrain of somewhere that must be Shanghai, back to London, over to Paris, err, past the great wall of China, and then somewhere between the window sills four and five we must have crossed the Atlantic, we’re in New York – circling Central Park. All this via a series of blushingly voyeuristic internal carriage scenes, the passing scenery of flat-screen ’train-windows’ and the audio track chugchugging romantically onto the street. All aboard!
The boisterous hijinks exploding from the excesses of the Harvey Nicks window scene currently unfolding in Knightsbridge makes it seem as though our otherwise conscientious elves are throwing an X-rated delivery day after-party of thumping proportions somewhere inside the store. The hyped-up, brassy still-life set-ups seem to regard anything expected as simply a common affectation. It’s all here, whooping and hollering out at you, challenging you not to be impressed. Somehow the juxtaposition of the luxury and the gaudy works. This is a Christmas window display that smacks of extravagance, innovation, sophistication and eccentricity. At times like this, HN reflects a recent demographic and cultural change for the haute high street. A retail experience that may once have been dominated by the conservative home counties set has increasingly become a hobby for the young, moneyed, and restless. Inevitably it’s a specific kind of visual language that now holds sway. Perhaps a little over engineered, it all ends up being just a little exhausting. I arrived bushy-tailed; I left needing a cup of tea and a lie down.
Mr Selfridge understood that to make customers spend, you have to capture their imagination. A hundred years ago when he casually mentioned to the team that: “…the whole art of merchandising consists of appealing to the imagination. Once the imagination is moved, the hand goes naturally to the pocket”, I’m not sure if he realised that the ramifications of such a principle would be playing out as wonderfully as they currently are behind his set of panes this Christmas. It’s all a bit ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. Wonderfully oversized gifty-things dropped into snowy landscapes that are populated by various plastic ‘Lilliputian’ communities. Hundreds of little abseiling Santas inhabit one window, countless tuxedoed penguins in another and even improbably cute ‘Day of the Dead’ figurines are scattered about yet another. Amidst these ghostly little Mexicans, a ludicrously large Jose Cuervo is plonked humourlessly in the middle of one of their snow-peaked mountains. This one, along with the black tie penguins’ giant gold Champagne bottle, is getting the most flashes from passers by, shooting for the most ‘ironic Christmas snap’ and proceeding to socialise recklessly. What the window cleverly does in this way is present an exceptionally well-curated set of pressie ideas. Giant Beats headphones, a ginormous Kenzo sweater, the obvious bottles of plonk, a fantasy sized Play-Doh pottle, a lovely looking clutch, and even a humungous sneaker that you just know is placed to tap directly into everyone’s teenage nephew dilemma. And so, the hand goes in the pocket.
Fortnum and Mason
A ‘quintessentially English blend of Georgian style, elegance, graciousness, lightness of touch and (most importantly) wit’... Fortnum’s at Christmas, and the anticipation of that approach, has a lot to live up to given the standard of those windows at any other time of year. I have to say, in the end, my Christmas spirit was left a little damp. Christmassy ‘stuff’ framed all gold-gilded, cherubs, a melancholy Victorian Santa Claus, chocolate box dusty miniatures of families tucking into Christmas morning excess. One window even boasts a turkey-eating scene. Eww. I know Fortnum’s does food, and maybe it’s just me, but I never really appreciate seeing perishable things clear of their packaging and stuck in a window display. This particular Christmas effort – part jewellery box vintage charm, part chintzy tradition – ushered me quietly on…
A department store with a touch of the institutional to it; a haven for older people who enjoy flirting with the idea of Laura Ashley prints… Perhaps it’s because the Fenwicks from Newcastle who’ve owned the place since 1882 weren’t invited to the front row when European designer labels picked their retail partners and kick started the British department store revolution some 15 years ago. Fenwick’s seems to have responded like ‘old aunt Fenny’ who stubbornly refused to change. I would call the minimal, un-embellished window display conservative if it wasn’t for the fact that they only used big green polka dots everywhere… and not red ones too. Wild move aunt Fenny… perhaps I’ll just call it a little apathetic.
Christmas shopping at Liberty is a serious tradition without being a pompous one. Just as the stuff in store manage to speak knowingly to the aspirations of a vast and idiosyncratic customer base, so its festive windows manage to pack a punch of pop-culture with the broad brush strokes of understanding their multi-faced market. Lichtenstein-type maquettes in mirror and white card blast from behind the glass, framing otherwise unsurprising little arrangements of posh tat. Loud, but polite. Liberty’s window space is less than everyone else’s, and there’s a sense of the necessity that fuelled the invention. An explosive, dynamic invention. Kapow! This is where I’ll be completing the shopping this year. Now, then. January sales! Bring it!This article originally featured in the 22 November issue of The Drum which can be purchased from The Drum Store.
Photography by Julian Hanford