There will be no cosy photo op with a random stranger in a cotton-wool beard in Santa’s grotto this year. Nor any carol singers to soothe your frayed festive nerves. And even the most hardened bargain hunters are going to feel less than gung ho about bustling through crowds in search of the perfect gift. Pandemics have a way of sucking the joy out of most things – and Christmas shopping is no exception.
And yet: let there be light. All is not lost, because the Christmas store window, rich in tradition of pomp, pageantry and fever-pitch overexcitement, is making a last-minute attempt to bring some joy to the high street. Window dressing, an art form with a long and illustrious heritage that boasts Giorgio Armani, Andy Warhol and Salvador Dalí as alumni, is attempting to bring a happy ending for what has been an annus horribilis for retail.
On the corner of Sloane Street and Knightsbridge, Harvey Nichols’ window sells nothing more expensive than optimism. There are no products, just “BRING ON 2021” spelled out in fairground lights, alongside a disco ball and a couple of snowflakes.
Until last week, retailers did not know for certain if their stores would be able to open for in-person Christmas shopping. “This design needed to take us through being in lockdown or not,” says Lisa Clemenger, the visual concept manager for Liberty, where this year’s window theme is Peace, Love and Liberty. “We knew that, even if the shop was shut, people would love walking past it.” Selfridges, standing by the principles of its ambitious Project Earth sustainability pledge and taking inspiration from the time-honoured family tradition of bringing the same baubles down from the loft each year, raided its stockrooms for past-season decorations to hang on the trees that line its Oxford Street windows. The result is “slightly more homemade”, says Morag Hickmott of Selfridges, “but still with dazzle and glamour”.
Walking, being a safe and sanity-preserving activity, has had to do a lot of heavy lifting in the having-fun department this year. Now that autumn’s gorgeous fall of red-and-gold leaves is turning to mulch, nature is not at its most enticing. Fingers are firmly crossed for a white Christmas, naturally. But, until then, a socially distanced outing to admire some chic and glamorous retail theatre from the alfresco safety of a pavement could make a welcome alternative to the usual lap of the park.
“I’ve hardly been in any shops this year,” says the window display designer Petra Storrs, who has created festive displays for Hermès and Christian Louboutin in the past. “Walking around outside has become my main activity. In lockdown, at times where I might normally pop to the shops, I was doing loops of my area with no particular destination, just as a change of scene from working from home. So this year I have particularly appreciated the Christmas lights and window displays popping up.” For 2020, Storrs was commissioned by Facebook to create displays for three female-owned small businesses, to highlight troubling research showing female-owned businesses to have been hit hardest by the pandemic.
In Perth, Storrs created a surreal tartan “dumpling tree” in the window of Clootie McToot, a traditional Scottish dumpling shop run by Michelle Maddox. At Cinnamon Leaf, an organic food hall in Tottenham, north London co-owned by Kiera-Lorelle Rhomes, Storr used brightly coloured textiles to create fantasy vegetables in bauble-bright colours. While department stores tend to claim the festive spotlight, Britain has a long tradition of window-dressing on a small scale. The haberdashery store VV Rouleaux, in Marylebone and Bath, is an insiders’ favourite for a festive gawp. One year, brightly coloured ribbons grew all over the London store like rainbow ivy; another year, the Bath store was plastered in pine cones. (Sadly, the Bath branch closed this year, one of many retail victims of Covid.)
The primary aesthetic of the Christmas window is one of glorious cheese, rich but irresistible. The audience are rooted to the spot and seduced into oohs and aahs, as at a firework display. The visual jokes are panto-pitch, the colours candy-cane sweet, the lights waltzer-bright. In 2020, window displays are a gloriously festive counterpoint to a year in which shopping has been almost exclusively online. Marks & Spencer is planning to love-bomb the 40% of their customers who plan to do their Christmas gift shopping in store rather than online with festive fragrances at the in-store hand-sanitiser points – choose from apple and cinnamon, or gingerbread – and is putting 8,000 Christmas trees into stores.
New York’s holiday season windows are, in any other year except this, a major draw for the tourists who usually flock to the city in December. This year, the streets are quiet – but the windows are in full voice. Saks Fifth Avenue’s 2020 windows, which are a homage to “How We Celebrate Now” – a food truck outside an apartment building for a socially distanced festive dinner, for instance – are a reminder “of the greatness of this city”, its chief executive, Marc Metrick, told the New York Times last week.
Just don’t go pressing your nose up against the window.