“How Do You Show Handbags?”
Every merchandiser in the world is confronted with the same quasi-existential question. In the words of Linda Fargo, Bergdorf Goodman’s SVP of women’s fashion and store presentation: “We’re always like, ‘How do you show handbags?’ “
If you’re Fargo and her visuals deputy, David Hoey, BG’s senior director of visual presentation, you construct a Dalí-esque woman with a nine-foot arm and load her down with a closet’s worth of bags. Or put a sparkling evening bag on the arm of a prehistoric dinosaur. Or bisect a Bottega Veneta-clad mannequin, in trippy, M.C. Escher style, with a pile of intrecciato purses. Or any of the many eye-popping ways Fargo and Hoey have dreamed up for their Fifth Avenue windows over the decade-plus that they’ve been working together. They’ve helped make Bergdorf’s windows some of the best in the business, and in tribute, Assouline is publishing an enormous tome—less coffee-table book than coffee table—chronicling the best of their efforts, with appreciative commentary from the likes of Alber Elbaz, George Lois, Bette Midler, and Lynn Yaeger. On the occasion of the new book, available this January, and the unveiling of their latest holiday windows at Bergdorf Goodman, Style.com spoke with the duo about the good, the great, and the overstuffed in the art of fine window dressing. The proof of success? “Definitely people come in and are so inspired, they’ll have to buy a gown,” Fargo says with a laugh. “Sometimes it’s a little bit tricky for us, because we’ll have something very embedded in the window. We try to get them to wait until the window comes out.” A condensed and edited version of our chat is below, with a few of our favorite windows from days gone by.
OK, to start with, the unavoidable question: Which is your favorite window that you’ve done?
Linda Fargo: Don’t even ask me about a favorite. I knew you were going to say that. We produce about 300 to 350 designs a year. You can only imagine how many images there are…it’s a bit of playing Sophie’s Choice.
Really honestly, I don’t have favorites. Each one has a production story, each one has an aha moment that you recall. They each have some anecdote about them which endears them to you. I have a little bit of a favorite in there—it’s the foldout [in the book], the kind of Salvador Dalí figure with the ultra-long arm. That was one that David [Hoey] designed. We have a certain type of window which is extra-wide, versus our Fifth Avenue windows, which are extra-tall. And I think it was this ingenious use of the space—to come up with this woman with this eight-foot, nine-foot-long arm, resting like Salvador Dalí and that little cane, a crutch really, at the end of the arm. We were invited by the Cooper-Hewitt to put that in their design triennial, so David completely reinstalled that at the Cooper-Hewitt. So that one, I’m very fond of. [But] there’s really so many.
David Hoey: We tend to play with extremes. We deliberately overstuff the window…there are several examples in the book, the page of the book can barely contain even the sheer quantity of stuff. I’ll collect things in certain categories, and turn a window out of it. And we don’t quit when we’re ahead—we keep going. My favorite windows are the extreme ones, either unbelievably overstuffed, or it’s one where you hardly do anything, but it’s startling nevertheless.
David, you have a great line in the book: “What we avoid is mediumism.”
DH: Steer clear of the middle. Also, don’t even out your budgets. Do extravaganzas and then do something very simple. The whole point of everything is surprise. We’re sort of in the surprise business. If you’re gonna get somebody’s attention you can’t be beige-y.
Do you have any kind of design philosophy you keep coming back to?
LF: I think that David and I have a long-running obsession with Alice in Wonderland—”Drink Me.” We’ve done windows where they’re literally upside down and they’re basically standing on the ceiling. We have ones where we’re looking from a bird’s-eye view and they’re all mounted on the wall.
And Glenda Bailey has a great quote in the book: “In Bergdorf’s window Wonderland, everyone is Alice.”
LF: She came up with that, really unprompted. And that’s one of my favorite quotes in the book. Because that’s very much, I think, how we often feel as we’re digging into design. You know, there’s a level of surrealism, a level of fantasy. I have a little bit of a favorite [line I wrote] from the foreword in the book…
“It always fascinates me that the everyday and the fantastic can be separated by a mere sheet of glass.”
LF: That’s the one. For me, in essence, that ends up becoming what windows are about. You know, we have our everyday life that happens on the sidewalk and all the time. And somehow there’s something very magical about this sheet of glass that separates you from this fantasy world that exists on the other side. We fill it, empty it, it becomes a white, blank canvas again, and therein is the challenge. [Our holiday windows] are being unveiled now, and already we’re seeing people stopping. That’s the ultimate sign that we think we’ve done our job. You know how fast we all walk in New York, and we’re all very purposeful—we’re all on a mission. When we manage to actually arrest people and get them to stop, not just people who are here purposely to stroll, not just tourists, [but] everyday New Yorkers, then we feel we’ve hit our mark.
How long do the windows take to put together, from conception to execution?
DH: A particular window can take anywhere from 20 years in the making, from ideas that you have that you build up, to five minutes. [It’s] our little niche of show business—we like to pretend we’re in show business. The windows are always open, and the show must go on. Every now and then you’ve gotta pull out the stops and put on a very quick dog and pony show. So the display department shelves are almost always bursting with old feathers, old display stuff, old props to grab. And the neater the display department behind the scenes, the duller the windows are gonna be, because sometimes you gotta go and grab and create something. And I mean every time. We can’t just put a mannequin in the window with a vase of silk flowers. There always has to be some story, or some twist, some surprise element, every single time, no matter how simple the window. Otherwise we don’t do it. And so the conception of the window—sometimes it’s a few minutes, though we usually work a couple months in advance. I have a stack of informal idea files several feet high in my cluttered office. I don’t even often go through there to try to find ideas, [though]. Ideas are the easy part.
You’re unveiling your new holiday windows with a cocktail party tonight. What can we expect?
DH: I had an idea that the theme could be something about traveling. So we’re calling it “Wish You Were Here.” A simple, rather nostalgic title, it immediately sets up the idea of holiday—you’re in a faraway place. But we take that and twist it. It’s definitely not Christmas around the world. That’s another display cliché, an idea that you’d reject for Christmas. If you’re talking about what are we doing for holiday, somebody will say always say, “How about Christmas around the world?”
This is kind of our version of that. But we’re going to far-flung, surprising places by way of unusual conveyances. So we have a train window and we have a train—pretty traditional. And then we have a nautical window—it took a year to collect model antiques—and we have a trip to the moon. It’s sort of a nineteenth-century idea of a trip to the moon. That moon window was inspired by something very specific: There’s a 1902 film called A Trip to the Moon, or in French Un Voyage dans la Lune, that was made by Georges Méliès—it’s considered the first science fiction film. The whole thing looks like a lunar primordial landscape. We have crocodiles, and octopus, and a pterodactyl. And we used for that window two tons of crystals, mostly quartz crystals that I had shipped up from a mine in Arkansas. In that film, people have gone to the moon, nobody’s wearing space helmets—they took a daytrip to the moon. They’re very casual about it. So our window is, too.