holiday store windows: metaphors for 2011 cultural trends

Each year I analyze the holiday window decorations along Fifth Avenue NYC (namely, the extravagant windows of Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman department stores) because they tend to illustrate the cultural zeitgeist. The windows are essentially mirrors on society, reflecting what’s going on in culture, and what’s in the hearts and minds of consumers as we end the year.

Maybe I’m reading too much into the window decorations, but I find their themes to be a sign of the times, and this year is no different. In fact, I think the windows have perfectly summed up some major trends in America right now. (See my window analysis last year.)  The windows – like windows into the soul of America – symbolize the collective hopes and drivers of the nation as we start a new year.

I don’t know if this is the intention of the teams of window designers, who spend the entire year constructing the windows with mind boggling details at astronomical costs. But, from the benign store press releases launching the seasons’ windows, it doesn’t seem to be a conscious medium for social commentary. The retailers say it’s purely a branding exercise in extravagance, escapism and entertainment. You decide…

There’s another fascinating aspect of the windows worth keeping tabs on; every year the ante is upped in the competition for window gazers with the use of emerging technologies and story-building to bring the stories to life. Retailers understand that in this technologically wired age, static 2D window decorations don’t cut it anymore. They need to be interactive, moving, 3D, connected and extend into social media.  Foot traffic needs to curry Internet traffic, and vice versa (which is true for all retailers today). Thus, the creative teams behind the windows are not merely window dressers, but rather multi-media story-builders. The windows are merely one portal into their stories.

saks fifth ave: the land of the bubble makers

For the second year Saks Fifth Avenue has glommed onto the visual themes of snowflakes and bubbles – symbols of joy and hope. This year, Saks commissioned the writing and illustration of a bespoke children’s book, titled “Who Makes the Snow.” The storyline, set in Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship store, centers on two hidden, magical worlds that collide: the under-world that makes bubbles, and the upper-world that makes snow. The book is sold exclusively at Saks.

The windows reflect parts of the storyline, but focuses on The Bubble Makers. The Bubble Makers use Victorian styled mechanical contraptions to manufacture copious amounts of bubbles. The look is a throw-back to 1980s “steampunk” fashion. The bubble making machinery (pipes, gears, whirly gigs, etc.) look like a collaboration between Willy Wonka, Dr. Zeuss and Makerbot.

The light show: every 13 minutes a huge dramatic “sonne et lumier”  show is projected onto the façade of the store. The show features an animation of machines and gears producing snowflakes and bubbles, which dance, mingle and merge. The gears of a clock tick down the time much like a time bomb. Time – the ominous passing of time – is the main take-away. Separately, several promotional videos were produced (by Pentagram and Iris) and posted on the Internet to promote the storyline and create buzz; good examples of how a myth or brand story can be built across media channels. Thanks to technology, window gazers can also enjoy the 3D show at home;  They only need to scan QR codes on the windows which takes them to a YouTube video of the show.

Do you see the irony of celebrating Bubble Makers? We live in a Bubble Economy. Much of the woes of our society are attributed to this Bubble Economy. We’ve just come through a Recession caused by the bursting of the Real Estate Bubble. The Debt Bubble. The current Stock Market Bubble, where stock values are over-valued/inflated, is fuelled by IPOs, such as the overpriced $12.8b Groupon IPO. The new Bubble is driven by “the cloud” and “social commerce” hype. Are we due for another bubble burst in 2012?

Bubbles are also metaphors for jobs. Bubbles are ephemeral, changeable and highly responsive to slight changes in the breezes… just like employment today. The Recession, combined with new technologies, has forced America to fundamentally change the way it puts people to work. Our culture is becoming more transient as people commute longer distances for work. Americans today work multiple jobs and/or part-time jobs, sharing jobs with both humans and machines.

Further, manufacturing bubbles – which are essentially air – is how many Americans feel about their careers these days. On blogs Americans express frustration that they don’t contribute to society in a meaningful and tangible way, and they don’t see the fruits of their labors. America was built on manufacturing, but today most of the country’s production is out-sourced overseas. Today, Americans make and sell ideas, stock options and information. Not tangible “things.”

ABC News and Diane Sawyer declared Christmas 2011 as the “Great Made in America Christmas” asking shoppers to buy American. This promotion was designed to kick-start local job creation and celebrate American industriousness. While polls earlier this year showed that Americans cared little about “made in America” labels, a surge in nationalism and soci-economic concern seems to have reversed this trend. There are now hundreds of blogs, websites and FaceBook pages devoted to “Made in USA.”

bergdorf goodman: carnival of animals

Last year Bergdorf’s holiday windows were a tribute to the travel and adventure. This year the store claims it’s windows is a celebration of exotic fantastical places where mythical kingdoms of animals dwell. Indeed, each window is a unique animal habitat, which draws in and transports the viewer. We all want to travel to these places where the animals commune with humans and play together in harmony. Isn’t that an idyllic vision of peace on earth”?

However, the windows have individual themes worthy of discussion. There are four window themes which could be construed as marching orders for Americans in 2012: make, learn, explore and socialize. Those are my pithy summaries of the windows; the actual titles are “Artists and Models” (make), “Teacher’s Pets” (learn), “Testing the Waters” (explore), and “Breaking the Ice” (socialize).

MAKE – In the “Artists and Models” window, made entirely out of wood and leather, a menagerie of animals sit for the artist-cum-mannequin and help her to construct animals. In her animal infested atelier she produces tangible, useful items. In fact, utilitarian tools: horses. (Note: the Equine theme is prominent in fashion and décor trends right now.) This resonates with Americans who are finding ways to make stuff, driving the trend in “garage manufacturing.”  Websites like match designers with cottage manufacturers, and other sites, like facilitate sales. Consumers are learning how to make stuff in the media (think: Make Magazine, How It’s Made, HGTV). Kit-machinery, like Makerbot, and rental machinery from Lowes and Home Depot, offer the tools. Today, self-worth and social currency is summed up as “you are what you make.

LEARN –  The window titled “Teacher’s Pet”, depicts a library of zoological textboks, and thus is made entirely of paper. The paper bestiary is being enlightened by a Jean Brodie-esque mannequin. This classroom is a celebration of learning. Timely, as education is on everyone’s minds and lips these days. Education reform will be a major talking point in the 2012 elections. In New York City, the education system is in crisis: corrupt and bankrupt.  Education in America has been underfunded and under-tended for some time, with catastrophic social consequences. The Occupy Wall Street was a protest largely waged by new college graduates who have found themselves ill prepared for the American economy and blaming the “Education Bubble” (more bubbles!), which is the belief that college fees are inflated. The antidote to this is online education, which is one of the most important trends in America. Also, there is movement away from traditional education (i.e., college BA degrees and MBAs) towards skill-focussed education, which equip people with vocational skills so they can make and fix things. Whatever your political beliefs, the one thing we all agree on is that the future of America rests in an educated population. Learning is a priority. According to Yankelovich, 64% of Americans are prioritizing “stretching self to try new things.”

EXPLORE – A window made entirely of hand-cut Italian mosaic tile (and purported to be the most labor intensive and expensive single window in Bergdorf’s 112 year history), is aptly named “Testing the Waters.”  Here a “mer-mannequin” explores a rich underwater world. She appears to be holding the sea animals at bay as THEY explore her.  We are an “exploration nation” driven by our inherent heterogeneity and entrepreneurialism.  We satisfy our desire to explore cultures on the Internet, watching travel TV shows and sampling exotic tastes. According to Yankelovich, 62% of Americans say “satisfying a hunger for new experiences” is a priority. The number one reason Americans travel today is not leisure, but rather to “learn something new.”  And our mobile phones, equipped with Geo-Location, maps and Augmented Reality apps, enable us to explore and search like never before; cell phones are modern day gyroscopes.

SOCIALIZE –  The “Testing the Waters” window is a peek into an arctic cocktail party of guests of woolly and furry fauna family.  The hostess, who is the center of the conversation, appears to be tending to her guests. Isn’t this an obvious metaphor for our culture’s fixation with social networking? Everything in our lives today has some aspect of being online to be “social” and/or focused on “conversations.” According to Yankelovich, 84% of Americans go on line everyday!  Social is where “hi tech” converges with “hi touch.”  However, this real-time face-to-face party also mirrors another trend in society worth noting: rejecting FaceBook in favor of FaceTime. Increasingly Americans are opting out of virtual networks and digital dialogues, replacing them with human-to-human networks and meet-ups. Websites like are popping up to facilitate meetings and human interaction. Many of these meet-ups are focused on group crafts and production (think: knitting, cooking, pottery, quilting, scrapbooking, etc.). Socializing and social networking is moving away from networking and towards working.

2012 = MAKEXII

In conclusion, the window dressing themes this holiday season point to an important trend in America: renewed interest in manufacturing, industry and production. 2012 will be a year focussed on “making and producing,” not merely thinking, dreaming, conceiving.  Americans will seek out skills that will enable them to produce stuff and fix stuff. Skills will range from low-tech plumbing,  carpentry, cooking, etc. to hi-tech writing/programming software that drive technologies, such as home CNC and CAD tooling machines, embroidery and textile printing machines, etc. The focus will be on craftsmanship and processes. We will learn HOW to make things from a growing body of “how to” blogs, YouTube videos, books, magazines, TV shows and meeet-ups. Americans will satisfy their desire to make things with their own hands and ingenuity by moonlighting and starting up garage manufacturing ventures. Micro venture capital will erupt on funding websites like  The market will be flooded with Apps that help Americans to be more productive and make. So, let’s make the most of 2012!


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