It’s an unseasonably warm November day in New York. The sky is a resplendent blue and folks strolling past Macy’s in Herald Square seem to be walking a bit slower than usual — to get a peek at the retailer’s holiday window display in its final stages of completion.
Inside, oblivious to both the weather and gawkers, a crew of artisans, designers and engineers work busily in and around each of the six windows. Climbing over boxes and glittery embellishments, they squeeze past one another with apologies in an impossibly cramped passage.
A technician lies on his stomach beneath a labyrinth of electrical cords, while another is focused on wiring an overhead computer. A woman wedged between Santa and Mrs. Claus touches up the paint on a golden control panel, and further down someone else is glue-gunning string lights.
“You’re kidding me,” groans an artist under her breath after a passerby outside of the window she’s working on gestures for a picture. But she obliges before returning to her task.
With merely 24 hours to go before the big reveal at the W. 34th St. mammoth store on Nov. 18, there’s not a whole lot of time for photo ops. In fact, most of the team members will work around the clock putting the finishing touches on the iconic windows and few, if any, will sleep.
“We were pretty much here all last night and we’ll be here tonight,” said Roya Sullivan, national director of window presentation for Macy’s. “There are a lot of animatronics and electronics that are involved and lighting that we can only do when it’s dark, so we’ll be doing that tonight. We’ll be ready.”
Creating the window displays that draw millions of visitors from around the world each year takes far more than just a few sleepless nights. Planning begins months before the actual reveal as Sullivan and her team begin discussing ideas almost as soon as the current season’s display concludes.
“It starts about a year in advance, pushing ideas around, first-run, second-run, third-run renderings, and then hopefully we end up at an idea,” she said.
In the process, they consider what’s been done in the past, along with current trends in fashion, music, media, as well as occasionally connecting the theme to notable events like the 50th anniversary of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which played out in last year’s windows.
“It all comes together with what’s trending and what will bring an emotion out for our customer.”
The theme for this year’s windows is “Believe.”
Once decisions for scenes in the windows have been made, they are brought to life at a studio located in Red Hook, Brooklyn, with the help of Standard Transmission, a design, fabrication, and technology company.
Overlooking the Hudson River and offering an impressive view of the Statue of Liberty, the non-descript, brick building houses a team of carpenters, artists, costumers, animatronics experts and other specialists that begin crafting them mid-summer, culminating in a flurry of frenetic activity by late October.
It Takes A Village
After months of work, the completed designs are boxed up and trucked over to 34th Street, where they are installed and assembled in the three weeks leading up to the reveal.
“It’s a huge process,” said Douglas Fowler who has served as the Herald Square director of windows for the last 21 years. “But it’s really great to see everything come from the studio over to the store.
“You get to see all the stuff you’ve been working on so hard for eight months to a year, suddenly start to come to fruition. Things that may never have been in the same space will arrive and it’s really magical.”
Creating that magic is what it’s all about, and Sullivan said that, beginning back in the 1870s, when R.H. Macy first decorated the windows of the original 14th Street store for Christmas, the tradition has always been to represent something other than goods for sale.
“They were always stories; either Christmas or some kind of story that had nothing to do with selling merchandise,” said Sullivan. “We’ve obviously kept that up and other retailers have joined us as well, so we’re pretty proud of that moment in time that we began this.”
And each year, artists strive to make the display more innovative and inspiring than the year before.
“As we come up with our grandiose plans early in the year, we always have to top ourselves,” said Fowler. “Every year is more challenging; and we do that to ourselves. We love that.”
The theme for this year according to Sullivan is meant to encompass qualities that exemplify the spirit of the season and is also a nod to Macy’s “Believe” campaign, which raises funds for Make-A-Wish.
Each window represents one of six holiday motifs, including “Celebrate,” a window where the audience can celebrate New York City holiday experiences via an interactive pinball machine; “Giving,” which boasts to an enormous, gold-leaf reindeer with moving elves nestled among its jeweled antlers; and “Santa,” a glimpse into the jolly old elf’s high-tech communication station where children can send messages via email, text and YouTube.
“Love,” “Magic,” and “Togetherness” round out the other three windows, and include several spectacular video displays, an interactive measure of “naughty” or “nice” and Santa making final preparations for his big night.
In their ongoing effort to enhance the experience, Sullivan and team have begun incorporating the outside of the building into the display, and as part of that, they’ve added ornate frames on the outside of the each of the windows, along with an 18-foot, sculpted Santa Claus on their marquee to welcome visitors.
Fowler said that, while in previous years they’ve done minor additions to the building’s façade, this year marks a first. “We’ve never done something the size of the Santa that’s going to be on the outside, just the depth of it.”
In the future, the plan is to continue encompassing both the inside and outside of Macy’s with future displays.
“The experience is not just when you’re right next to the building, in front of the window or on the sidewalk,” said Sullivan, “the experience is overall.”
Providing a memorable experience to the estimated 15,000 people who pass each hour during the holidays is exactly what Sullivan is hoping for.
“Customers come to our store really for the experience and one of the most important experiences is coming to see the windows. It’s a tradition for many families.”
The Mastrianos are one such family.
It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and Laura Mastriano, her husband, their two teenaged children and friends have traveled from Stony Brook, N.Y., just to get a look at the newly revealed windows.
“It’s an annual tradition for us,” said Mastriano. “We’ve come every year since my daughter was about 4 years old and, for us, it’s a great memory. We’ve taken pictures of her every year in front of the windows at Macy’s. We’ve seen her get taller, and my son as well. It’s bittersweet, but a beautiful, amazing time.”
The Sumaza family is another, and they’ve come all the way from Puerto Rico.
Patricio Sumaza explained that as a young boy, he visited the U.S. and saw the windows. Now, as a father, he’s come to show them to his own children.
“This year it was on my bucket list to bring them,” he said.
Sumaza’s son, by the same name, smiles as he singles out the “Santa” window as his favorite. “You get to see Santa and the elves at the computer,” he said.
With that, it appears Sullivan and her team have accomplished what they set out to do.
“A smile — that’s all I want,” she said. “That feeling that they feel good, that they were moved and experienced something fun; just a smile on their faces.”