Since 1909 every inch of Selfridges has been given over to celebrating Christmas, in a most American way, including the infamous windows of the flagship department store along London’s bustling Oxford Street.
Editor's note: Originally published in 2016.
“We’d sort of given up on Father Christmas,” admits Creative Windows manager Rebecca Bateman. Poor old Santa hadn’t seen the inside of a Selfridges window for 40 years. He’d even taken a six-year sabbatical from his legendary grotto inside the store. But there’s something truly magical about The Fat Man that refuses to lose its twinkle. It was just up to the creative team to make his 2008 comeback tour perfectly Selfridges; the rest would come.
There’s no doubt that Selfridges and Christmas go together. For exactly 104 years, the Oxford Street institution has been a year-round focus for window shoppers, but the festive season is the big hitter. On a regular day, 125,000 people will see a Selfridges window, but you can add 30 percent to that estimate at Christmas. “People still bring their families to see them,” says Bruno Barba from the marketing team, which works closely with the display department. “Selfridges windows have been a draw from the start.”
When Harry Gordon Selfridge brought his fresh new department store concept over from Chicago in 1909, he brought with him not just a new form of shopping, but the American way of celebrating Christmas. Those new traditions were so taken to heart by the English that many of us now believe they’re home-grown.
Every inch of the shop was decorated for the celebrations that first Selfridges Christmas in London. Customers were given mince pies, choirs sang, Father Christmas distributed gifts and the staff got a bonus, plus a card from Mr. Selfridge himself. The “information bureau” offered a gift advice service and the store’s own “supermodel,” Gloria, ran men-only shopping sessions on what to buy for wives, mothers, and difficult aunts.
But it was the windows that were the real draw. From the very beginning, Gordon Selfridge, a natural risk-taker, had been more interested in creating a buzz than shoving as many products into the window as possible. His first-ever window display didn’t feature any goods at all. The blinds lifted to reveal windows inspired by the fabulous paintings of Watteau and Fragonard (perhaps a link between the store and the Wallace Collection, which had opened just nine years earlier a street away?) “The thinking was,” says Barba, “people would say ‘This is so beautiful that inside the store it must be even better!’” Selfridge was also the first shop owner to leave the window lights on after the store closed—to the shock, then emulation, of his commercial contemporaries.
The freedom to experiment remains with the company today, and has resulted in some controversial window designs—not least a live naked model in 2008 (for a very limited period only). And a set of five panes at the west end of the store has recently been defined as “Wonder Windows.” These work independently from the normal displays, as works of art in their own right. Often they feature famous or hip new artists creating staggering showcases—a combination of retail haven and art gallery.
“It’s never one person that comes up with all the ideas,” says Rebecca Bateman. “It’s always a collective decision. We set a theme, something we do for every project, though more people get involved at Christmas. We look at the catwalk shows, what’s happening around town—and what people are talking about.” Even when a traditional theme is chosen, the team is encouraged to find ways of subverting expectations, as Father Christmas discovered last year.
People had missed the jolly old man in the red suit, and there was huge rejoicing when his famous grotto returned in-store in 2006 (though sadly there was no sign of his cheery friend from the 1930s and 40s, the bewhiskered Uncle Holly). With a Santa Express train ride last year, it seemed a mere formality to bring him back to the windows for 2008 in a spectacular called The More The Merrier.
“We used layers and abundance,” Bateman continues, “but as usual we wanted to turn traditions on their heads. We don’t actively realize we are doing it; it’s just ingrained in us.”
Come wonder, come all
Second in-store size only to Harrod’s, since 1909 Selfridges has been the flagship department store along London’s bustling Oxford Street. The merchandising ideas that Harry Gordon Selfridge brought back with him from Chicago included the Christmas promotions that have made Selfridges an iconic part of the English Christmas.
Bruno Barba chuckles. “We fancied him as a ‘naughty Santa’—a single man about town.” The finished windows depicted a neon-tinged Santa enjoying London’s great contemporary tourist sights, though the one everyone remembers is him travelling on the London Underground and getting his enormous belly stuck in some closing tube doors.
Selfridges’ Christmas is the Forth Bridge of Window Design. Almost as soon as the blinds go up on one year’s Christmas display, the team of 12 sits down to look at the next year’s extravaganza. At this stage, there are many fingers in the pie—a lot of people in a lot of departments want their say.
The team is divided into three groups. Creative works out the practicalities of concepts, Production turns those ideas into reality and Styling adds the finishing touches. More money is spent on Christmas than any of the other displays throughout the year, though no one will admit exactly how much it all costs. “A lot,” is the best I can get from Bruno Barba. There are no short cuts to be taken either—whereas displays during the rest of the year go “on tour” to Manchester and Birmingham, the Christmas windows are the same in every branch simultaneously.
Even during the five other window promotions each year, one eye is always kept on The Big One. Once the theme is decided upon, the team collects images and ideas together and creates a template-pack to be used as inspiration. The theme will run throughout the store. In-store visualiser Michael Ryley creates mock-ups of the windows using a variety of graphics packages that could be taken for photographs of the real thing. By June or July, the basics are finalized, and the main work starts, taking around three months to produce a masterpiece. At the same time, rather more mundane-sounding boxes need to be checked. “We have to book-out from stock any products we’ll be displaying so that we can ensure they will be available,” says Rebecca Bateman.
In the past, there was a vast in-house workshop in the subbasement of the store, responsible for wonders such as the iconic 1948 Carnival Christmas. The displays were so famous they were even turned into collectible postcards. “We outsource most of the jobs these days,” says Bateman, “though we still make some things. We use all kinds of techniques such as vac-form which are better done by experts,” she explains. “We go to people who normally work in TV, film, or other media and ask them to turn their craft to our purpose. That way we get the best.”
Also unlike the olden days, although some classic props are kept, it is impractical to keep much stuff in storage. Notwithstanding escalating warehouse costs, after being on tour around the other stores, many items just aren’t fresh enough to be used again. “Besides,” she admits, “we sometimes forget what we’ve got and accidentally buy things again anyway.” Display items are recycled in a number of ingenious ways—props from Selfridges windows have turned up in school productions, at charity events, and even the odd individual’s house.
In-store Week is the Windows department’s equivalent of a West End show’s Production Week. The blinds go down, and behind them, 24 hours a day, people are beavering away to create design perfection. Staff work in shifts, leaving notes for the group clocking on as they leave, bleary-eyed, for bed in the mornings. Clothes must be pinned properly; there can be no wrinkles or dirt specks. It doesn’t help that the team are like Ginger Rogers to the public’s Fred Astaire—they have to do everything backward as, of course, they can’t see the view shoppers will see. My suggestion of putting mirrors onto the back of the blinds is only half-laughed at.
Sight problems are just as much of a problem as they are in the theater. Audiences don’t want to see the joins—something particularly challenging when Selfridges hosted one of its simplest but most memorable-ever windows—completely made from mirrors. “They reflected everything,” shudders Bateman. “Up, down, sides…but it was wonderful when it finally worked.”
In the early hours before the morning of the launch, the blinds go up and the final touches are added. Windows are cleaned, lights focussed, last-minute adjustments made. The whole team is present. “I do a final walk-round and hope to God everything is okay,” admits Bateman. “It’s nerve-wracking.”
Gordon Selfridge used to send examples of the store’s famous Christmas hampers to his favorite newspaper and magazine editors; it’s interesting to look at the contents of hampers from years gone by, sent to tempt the media to carry favorable reviews. In 1940, for example, the hamper contained biscuits, cheeses, chocolates, oranges—and a dressed boar’s head.
These days the decorations need to speak for themselves. But the unveiling of a Selfridges
Christmas window is still front-page news. TV, newspapers, and magazines all have their two-penn’orth to say about each year’s marvels, but they have now been joined by a new generation of bloggers, e-writers, and fashion opinion-setters twittering and tweeting the second those blinds go up. Gordon Selfridge, that great Prophet of the New would have wholeheartedly approved.
And this year? How will Selfridges be celebrating 100 years of cutting-edge window design now that Santa’s out of the bag? Lips are sealed, but Rebecca Bateman is confident. “This year,” she says, “we’ve cracked it…”
Selfridges holiday windows are revealed in mid-October.
Here's a video uploaded to YouTube of the 2022 Christmas lights on Oxford Street:
* Originally published in July 2016.