What to Ask For for Christmas? One Word: Yamamoto

What are the most wanted holiday presents for 1998? “All the Balthazar things,” answered no less an authority than Katherine Betts, Vogue ‘s fashion news director, when we met on Madison Avenue between Brooks Brothers and Paul Stuart the other day. “The mood is Wall Street. Everyone is rich. It’s O.K. to be greedy again,” Ms. Betts reported in an impartial rat-a-tat, like a city desk writer phoning in details of a limousine wreck.

“As I see it, everyone is sick of minimalism and wearing black”-said she who wore head-to-toe black Helmut Lang pants and sweater and five-inch python Christian Louboutin boots dyed purple. “Everyone wants the obvious, Richie Rich trinkets: a big gold Tank Française Cartier watch. A cranberry-colored big BMW. Jewelry, obviously-duh, hello! Diamond drop earrings or a diamond choker from Fred Leighton. Even if last year you hated fur, this year you want a fur coat from Narciso Rodriguez at Saks. Really lightweight. So lightweight it doesn’t look like fur, but like velvet. And it’s about gadgets,” Ms. Betts continued. “The new Startac cellular phone. The new Apple thin, thin desktop computer. All the things the crowd at Balthazar has, or will have.”

Ms. Betts even added a couple of personal wishes. For instance, a new New York apartment “with Sub-Zero everything,” decorated by Sharon Simonaire. According to another source, it is Ms. Simonaire whom Richard Gere has hired to do his new Greenwich Village town house.

Isn’t it rich? Economists have forecast that holiday shoppers in the United States, inspired by the glad tidings of the current economy, will help boost retail sales anywhere from 3 to 5 percent this year over last year. ABC World News reported on Nov. 30 that retail sales over the Thanksgiving holiday were already up 2.2 percent. On the other hand, reports in The New York Times and Women’s Wear Daily for the same weekend said retailers’ cash registers hadn’t reached “Jingle Bells” pitch yet; most shoppers will wait until a few days before Christmas to spend. A poll by an economic research organization called the Conference Board said the average American will drop $465 this season on Christmas presents. People polled in New England will be the nation’s biggest spenders, at about $593 per shopper. Meanwhile, in upper-income Manhattan, that’s just about what our town’s most anxious movers and shakers might tip the reservations person at Balthazar, or any watering hole of their choice.

In New York, Christmastime has landed. From Genre magazine (“Gucci, Gucci, Gucci,” a “yearlong subscription to Wallpaper magazine”) to Martha Stewart Living (“candle sets,” “themed stockings”); from Paper magazine (“camouflage camera from Union,” “boots by Todd Oldham,” “red velvet hot pants by Bongo”) to Town & Country (“Tiffany & Company’s moonstone tiara,” “Harry Winston’s ‘Sparkle Plenty’ earrings”), nary a chronicle or magazine cannot be gleaned for holiday gift suggestions this month.

Asked what he thinks fashion people want most for Christmas, Simon Doonan, the executive vice president of creative services at Barneys New York, produced a list more Nobu than Ms. Betts’ Balthazar, more green tea than boom-boom beef. Of course, everything on his most wanted list was available at Barneys: custom-made shirts, assorted fragrances, an Hermès bicycle, a tiara made of healing crystals and, said Mr. Doonan, “You’re insane not to buy something by Yohji [Yamamoto] if you’re a woman. His collection is amazing.” Barneys has early delivery on Yamamoto.

For the uninitiated: The stylish, British-born Mr. Doonan has been with Barneys since 1986. He is in charge of the emporium’s design and display, including its always merry windows and its elaborate and amusing Christmas installations. In the retail world, no one is quite as involved in Christmas as Mr. Doonan.

When we met on Nov. 24 at Fred’s, the store’s restaurant, this year’s Christmas windows were just completed, and Mr. Doonan and his team were conceiving the holiday windows for 1998. “By July, we’ll have sketches of the windows. As nightmarish as it sounds, it’s a year-round activity. It does mean,” confided Mr. Doonan, leaning forward in his crisp brown Prada suit, “my personal interest in Christmas is vastly diminished. When the actual event rolls around, I just lie in bed in the fetal position and wait until it is over.”

A jazzy “Silent Night” was heard from the store’s stereo, the song distinguished from more sophisticated, seasonless melodies. “We have a system,” Mr. Doonan explained. “The Christmas music increases the closer we come to Dec. 25. It’s 20 percent now. After Thanksgiving, it goes up to 60 percent. Once December really kicks in, everything is Christmas music, but we try to have groovy things.” He smiled. “This is the Modern Jazz Quartet.”

As one has come to expect, Barneys’ holiday windows are as irreverent this year as ever. The theme is a global tour of fashion and popular culture. The English window, for instance, includes Queen Elizabeth as a bearskin-style fur rug that is labeled “Fake.”

So what’s wrong with a nice Santa Claus?

“I’m always berated by people who don’t get our windows,” Mr. Doonan said. In particular, he remembered when small Christmas trees decorated with condoms in gold foil were featured several years ago. “We got grief from people who said the Christmas tree was a religious symbol. In fact, it isn’t. I thought it was a pagan symbol, and it really isn’t even that. Santa Claus and Christmas trees are inventions of retailers. I think to really show what Christmas means in a religious sense would be bad taste in a store window.”

Indeed, The Battle for Christmas , by Stephen Nissenbaum, a fascinating cultural history of America’s favorite holiday that was recently published in paperback by Vintage, describes how John Pintard, one of the founding members of the New-York Historical Society, concocted Christmas sentimentality in 1810 to control noisy immigrants who reveled too loudly at the holiday. The idea was to focus their energies during Christmas week on their home lives, not on their revelries in the streets. Later on, to attract shoppers at the turn of the century, department stores filled their windows with decorated evergreens, probably an idea brought from Germany. “There never was a time when Christmas existed as unsullied domestic idyll, immune to the taint of commercialism,” writes Mr. Nissenbaum.

Mr. Doonan, who is writing a book titled Confessions of a Window Dresser that Calloway Publishing is expected to publish in the fall of 1999, was headed downtown after our chat to decorate his apartment for Christmas. “It consists of placing two Christmas balls bought at the Liberace Museum gift shop on either side of the mantel; that’s it. Even though I have a high-level job in retail,” he joked, “I’m clinging onto my soul with Lee Press-On nails.”