Behind the curtain of NYC department stores’ holiday window displays

“If you’re in the window-display business in New York, you’re in the holiday business,” Bergdorf Goodman’s David Hoey told us.
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Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Macy’s Inc.

· 5 min read

When you think of classic New York City Christmas traditions, the lit Rockefeller Christmas tree or a Rockettes’ kickline might come to mind. But there’s another institution that pre-dates even these nearly century-old customs: the holiday window displays adorning the city’s iconic department stores.

These festive feats of visual merchandising, including everything from family-friendly animatronics to high-fashion mannequins surrounded by elaborate sets, date all the way back to 1874, when Macy’s founder R.H. Macy is said to have debuted the city’s first holiday window display back when its flagship department store sat on 14th Street. Fast forward to 2022, and department stores like Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bloomingdale’s continue to celebrate the season with impressive window displays.

To see some of this year’s displays for ourselves, we headed to holiday-window unveilings at two iconic New York City department stores—Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square and Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue—to talk to the creative minds behind the glass.

Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Macy's Inc.

The “Give Love. Give Style.” Campaign at Macy’s

In 1883, Macy’s introduced its first steam-powered windows featuring mechanical figures, and this year, it’s producing a slew of mechanical holiday exhibits with the theme of “Give Love. Give Style.”

Manny Urquizo, Macy’s director of storewide visual campaigns and windows, led the creation; this is his third year working on Macy’s holiday windows. The full process from design conception to building the set takes about eight to nine months, Urquizo told Retail Brew. It takes hundreds of people to produce, he noted, including artisans, graphic designers, carpenters, electricians, lighting technicians, and—of course—puppeteers.

“Macy’s holiday windows are really a gift to…our customers and to New York City,” he said.

The campaign was headlined by Tiptoe the Reindeer, the holiday mascot it debuted last year, and each window is centered around a singular material, like flannel pajamas on animatronic foxes and yarn scarves wrapped around polar bears.

“As a creative person, you always want to reinvent and evolve, experiment with different materials…mixing the traditional artistry with more recent technology,” Urquizo said.

Urquizo also worked on Macy’s fashion windows and the Toys R Us factory windows. The Macy’s flagship is home to the largest of the 400+ Toys R Us shop-in-shops that debuted in the department store’s locations this year. The windows included brands like Pokémon and Melissa & Doug, and even looped in the metaverse with digital avatar doll maker Avastars.

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The 34th Street-facing windows require a little less time than the “iconic” animated ones, with the team starting around August, Urquizo said. The biggest challenge for these, Urquizo noted, is ensuring the window concepts connect to the campaigns in stores.

Ricky Zehavi

There’s “Magic in the Making” at Bergdorf Goodman

Bergdorf’s is known for its elaborate displays, in the past collaborating with other New York City institutions like the American Museum of Natural History and New York Historical Society for its 2017 “To New York With Love” campaign.

  • The 2013 documentary Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s features a behind-the-scenes look at the making of its holiday window displays, featuring David Hoey, its senior director of visual presentation who’s worked on its windows for 20+ years.

This year, Bergdorf’s pulled back the curtain on its seven windows with the theme “Magic in the Making” featuring designers like Prabal Gurung, Carolina Herrera, and Marc Jacobs. Bergdorf’s, too, was focused on materials, with each window highlighting crafts like woodworking, papier-mache, dressmaking, scrapbooking, metal, and paper sculpture.

For Bergdorf’s, the windows take 10,000 hours over about 10 months to create. The only month off, ironically, is December, but not if the windows require any type of maintenance, Hoey shared.

“If you’re in the window display business in New York, you’re in the holiday business,” Hoey said. “Believe it or not, it never stops. We're either conceptualizing or producing or installing or revealing them.”

Hoey said he likes to think of the window creation as costume design, so finding the right fashion “is as much a part of the production as anything else.” That said, the looks are not picked until the last minute; he said he and his team “scour” the runways for designers carried by the retailer to feature on mannequins once other elements are designed.

The hardest part? Getting the windows installed. The sets are built in different studios and assembled in the last two and a half weeks before opening, Hoey told us, which means crossing one’s fingers that the measurements are correct and everything fits just right.

When the windows are finished and revealed, Hoey said Bergdorf’s merchandising ultimately has the same goal as an 82-foot Christmas tree or a festive performance at Radio City: “To entertain people, period.”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.