The Fantasy of New York: Behind Bergdorf Goodman's Iconic Holiday Windows With David Hoey

The legendary designer discusses his rulebreaking inspirations and process.

Built on decades of accumulated history, Bergdorf Goodman epitomizes the ultimate fashion fantasy of New York City, and at no time is that fantasy more vivid than during the holiday season. A gentle stroll away from The Plaza Hotel and Central Park, the luxury goods department store’s holiday windows lure thousands of shoppers, tourists and locals to its 57th and 58th Street landmark on Fifth Avenue. The annual displays have been the subject of documentaries, including Matthew Miele’s acclaimed 2013 Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s, and have been a social media sensation with trending hashtags #BGwindows and #BGholiday.

This year’s installations pay tribute to icons of New York, so it’s fitting that the windows were creatively nurtured by a man who, himself, is a New York institution: Bergdorf’s senior director of visual presentation David Hoey.

As revealed by Berdorf fashion director Linda Fargo, this year’s installations had a distinct purpose. “This year, we created through our windows a love letter to New York,” says Fargo in an official video promoting the 2017 windows. This was subtle choice that captures the city’s love for the arts, and a de rigeur nod to the theatrics of style—the windows recognize seven of the New York’s cultural institutions: the American Museum of Natural History, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Museum of the Moving Image, New York Botanical Garden, New York Philharmonic and the New-York Historical Society.

2017 Holiday Windows | Bergdorf Goodman Windows

“To New York With Love” is as much a gift to the city as it is an interpretation of the institutions’ individual identity and iconography. Following the official unveiling on November 15, Clios went behind the scenes with Hoey, one of New York City’s most fêted creatives, to learn more about the partnerships and the rigorous craftsmanship that went into displaying this season’s fashions.

 

THE DESIGN PROCESS

“Holiday windows in New York have become a juggernaut,” says Hoey. About 10 years ago, luxury department stores like Bergdorf’s planned their holiday windows a few months in advance. Today, it takes him and his team of artists and artisans 10 months, and up to 70 percent of their resources to execute the designs. At 13 feet high, 4 feet deep, and 12 feet wide, the windows at the women’s store are some of the largest in the city, and so is their roster of loyal collaborators, which goes back 18 years.

Hoey, who’s been at Bergdorf’s for the last 21 years, and headed the holiday windows for the last 12, eschews the term “visual merchandiser.” Rather, he’s one of the great professional dabblers in the industry who describes his own work as “part industrial engineer, part cake designer.” It is at once a mix of theatre, fashion, advertising, professional storytelling and showmanship.

Having a theme is an integral part of the design process. It creates a visual narrative, and guides the progression from window to window, explains Hoey. “The windows are all different, like magazine layouts by different art directors,” he says, adding, “We want people to pick their favorite.”

Hoey draws inspiration from a tossable bag of ideas, which orbits between the familiar and the obscure: vintage post cards, trips to the National Museum, dioramas, 1920s vaudeville in New York City, the 1902 French film A Trip to the Moon, Judy Garland’s 1946 musical The Harvey Girls, a Diane Arbus photograph of twins. 

With New York as the recurring trope, a partnership with some of the city’s iconic cultural institutions dovetails well. Craftsmanship and attention to detail is equally crucial, and recurring collaborators are customary. For “To New York With Love,” Bergdorf’s commissioned work by Mark Gagnon and Brooklyn-based neon company, Light Bright Neon. Both helped create displays in 2014. “We like to think of ourselves as being extremely crafty. We are fascinated and obsessed by materials and craftsmanship and squeezing the most we can out of any medium,” Hoey says. Every year, at least one display is created using a single material or a single color. This year, the window for the American Museum of Natural History took the honor.

As for fashion, “It’s part of our style to have a fashion statement in the overall window,” Hoey says. “Our mannequins become characters in a theatrical sense and we look for just exactly the right garment for these characters to wear from designers we carry.” The looks are either from the current season or borrowed from spring. Occasionally, a designer they carry is commissioned to create a piece for clients to custom order. This year featured a dazzling, all-silver gown with shoulder cutouts by the London-based designer Michael Halpern.

 

THE HOLIDAY TRANSFORMATION

For each window/cultural institution, Hoey and his team strove to build the skeleton of an idea around objects and textures that related directly to the heart and soul of its subject.

American Museum of Natural History

With its arresting architecture, Corinthian columns and dinosaur skeletons, the Museum's Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall was given a Bergdorf-y rendition: The columns were recreated using antique mirrors, and seven fiberglass dinosaur skeletons (nota bene: velociraptors) were bejeweled with 1.5 million Swarovski crystals. Applying the rhinestones took an amazing 325 hours per dinosaur.

New York Historical Society

A potpourri of portraits, objects and sculptures from the museum’s collection was recreated in papier mâché by New York-based artist Mark Gagnon. “The window is at once scholarly and referential of the collection as it is psychedelic and whimsical,” says Hoey. The New-York Historical Society describes the display as an “I Spy” of their Museum, hiding in plain sight some of their most prized items, including a Tiffany lamp tucked away in the lower right corner.

New York Botanical Garden

“The tour de force of hand-crafted fibre art,” describes Hoey. Brooklyn-based artists Burke & Pryde used a variety of techniques from embroidery and needlepoint to quilting, felting and soft sculpture to create the display. The result is a botanist’s library, a high fantasy of flowers, trees and plants with their Latin names entwined.

New York Philharmonic

A neon spectacular inspired by the Philharmonic’s new red logo. The window was brought to life by the Brooklyn-based company Lite Bright Neon. The ruby red color is the most intense neon on the market, as well as the more expensive one too, Hoey quips.

Museum of the Moving Image

A kaleidoscope of visual references pays tribute to the history of filmmaking and classic Hollywood cinema. The window features icy film cameras, a montage of black-and-white film clips and bright vanity lights that radiate on its leading lady.

UrbanGlass

Four contemporary artists were commissioned to create signature glass objects from this Brooklyn-based glass studio that celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier in July. The artworks are available for purchase and on display in a special Bergdorf Goodman Shadowbox window.

Brooklyn Academy of Music

Across the street at the Men’s Store, men's visual director Shane Ruth created displays that represent the spirit and art forms associated with the Brooklyn Academy of Music which include music, dance, theater and film.

As a complement to its holiday windows, Bergdorf's commissioned limited edition products and experiences from the institutions and other fashion houses and designers carried in store. Think of cashmere Loro Piana scarves, glass art by UrbanGlass, a movie screening at the Museum of the Moving Image, headphones from the New York Philharmonic, and other pieces by Adam Lippes, Lorraine Schwartz and David Webb. 

Perhaps the best description of the holiday windows is one Hoey overheard years ago outside the store. As a little girl passed by, she told her mother that their “Windows had too much stuff in it.” The mother replied, “Honey they just got started and didn’t know when to stop.”