For visual merchandisers, Christmas tends to come in late October or early November. This is the time of year when those at the top of the festive tree compete to grab shoppers’ attention, both in-store and in the windows.
They do so with everything from variations on the traditional tree to schemes that, on the face of it, sometimes
seem to have little to do with Santa, elves, or anything remotely connected to tradition.
If you want to see the art of Christmas VM at its finest and probably with the biggest budgets thrown at it, look no further than the grand department stores that are found in the largest cities. From New York to Paris, London to Berlin, these are stores whose windows, for many, represent a seasonal trip in their own right and which will provide images that will fill the pages of many social media websites.
Whether they act as calls to shopping action has always been a moot point, but there can be little doubt that for festive glamour these stores are a pretty good place to start.
Galeries Lafayette, Boulevard Haussmann, Paris
As possibly the best-known shop in the French capital and one of the truly ‘grands magasins’ on the upscale Boulevard Haussmann, Galeries Lafayette has always drawn the Christmas crowds, as much for its interiors as for the windows.
One of the reasons is purely architectural. This is the store whose beauty hall has a stained glass cupola that stands as a beacon for tourists.
And it is beneath this that the department store business has opted to install a giant Christmas tree, stretching up towards the dome and visible from all of the cupola-surrounding balustrades on each floor.
Look up at the underside of the circular platform on which the tree is positioned and there is an analogue clock face sponsored by Swatch, with the numbers picked out in pink against a white background.
Outside there is a mildly Gothic feel to what has been done in the windows. Perhaps the visual merchandising team has been working with the ad team at Marks & Spencer on this side of the Channel.
Printemps, Boulevard Haussmann, Paris
The other, and debatably less celebrated department store on Boulevard Haussmann, although every bit as grand, is Printemps, cheek by jowl with Galeries Lafayette. The windows are the result of a collaboration with Prada and are about as festive as it gets. But this is festive with a twist. Santa takes off in a 16 metre-long sleigh, gliding along a red ribbon with the word Prada attached to it.
In one of the windows, there are more Santas, this time with the usual white beards and red hats, but sporting slick, black Italian suits and dark sunglasses. In the centre of this vista, one of the Santas is more traditionally attired, but the dominant theme is contemporary and modish. Other windows feature teddy bears and Christmas trees, all with the word Prada inserted at some point.
Step inside and the main atrium has been kitted out to look like a festive version of a Prada store, with the familiar black and white chequered floor taking centre stage. The walls take the form of advent calendars and the space is filled with Prada merchandise. Once more, a single brand dominates Christmas in this store. Sponsorship is certainly one way of dealing with high VM budget demands.
Selfridges, Oxford Street, London
Although the words ‘Destination Christmas’ are plastered above the door, Selfridges has, to a large degree, abandoned traditional Christmas in favour of something more bling.
In the many windows along the storefront there are Kenzo-branded tops with parachutes emerging from the necks, a giant gold bottle of champagne and an outsize bottle of perfume, among other things. This might be enough to remind the onlooker that this is the time of year when you are supposed to buy items for loved ones, and the seasonal element is provided by a backdrop of snowy, fir tree-covered hills. But if it is Santa that is sought, then look elsewhere.
Inside the store, the main atrium has giant glitter balls attached to long wires. They ascend and descend - offering an amusing spectacle for those who are having a cuppa in the cafe underneath.
In spite of this being a less overtly traditional Christmas, there was no shortage of crowds outside the windows taking pictures on their phones and cameras.
Barneys and Bloomingdale’s, New York
The Big Apple has always been known for its ‘Holiday’ windows and this year two of the most impressive schemes can be found at department stores Bloomingdale’s and Barneys. At Bloomingdale’s a series of country-specific windows are aimed at “celebrating holiday shopping around the world”. China, Italy, France and the UK are all represented, as well as New York City.
Rather than physical vignettes, Barneys, by contrast, has opted to install experiential windows that rely on digital technology to merge the virtual with the real.
Among the most compelling is the BNY NYC Sleigh Ride. This features a rotating cast of improvisational performers outfitted in futuristic Santa costumes who take children on a virtual ‘sleigh ride’, using large digital screens, through an abstracted New York City.
KaDeWe, Tauentzienstraße, Berlin
Berlin’s leading department store is a tourist attraction and its windows add to its appeal at this time of year. The whole of the frontage is themed around ‘Sternstunden’ (magical moments) and the circus serves as the inspiration and starting point for what has been done.
Practically, this means ballerinas, bedecked horses, acrobats and carousels - everything that might readily be associated with Christmas and festivity without going too far along the Santa and Rudolf route. That said, the KaDeWe approach is traditional and smacks a little of Christmas Past in feel. It is also devoid of a sponsor name plastered across the windows, giving it a mildly less commercial feel than its Paris equivalents.
Unlike Paris there is less competition in terms of department store visual merchandising in Berlin, meaning that there is a sense that, while this is good, it is still pipped by stores in the French capital.