The Elf-Made Man

Yes, you guessed it: It’s holiday-window time again! And the Barneys windows offer an additional and unique curiosity– me . At the age of 49, I am quite possibly the oldest window dresser in the world. Display is a young profession; by the time they are 30, most window dressers have segued into something less nelly and more grown-up. Not moi : I have been at it for nearly 30 years and I STILL LOVE IT! This is my 15th year at Barneys, and I wield my glue-gun with undiminished enthusiasm. Why? Because being a window dresser is–despite the pain, the glitter, the sturm and the hissy fits–total unadulterated fun .

But, for obvious reasons, this year’s holiday preparations were not the laugh riot they normally are. The destruction of the World Trade Center (including the scorching of the Barneys store in the World Financial Center) coincided with the start of holiday-window production at our display studio in the Daily News -Channel 13 building on West 33rd Street. Crafting papier-mâché reindeer and gluing pointy ears on elves while the worst domestic disaster in American history unfolded was a surreal and bleak experience.

For reasons best known to my subconscious, I had decided last February that the 2001 holiday windows needed a whiskers-on-kittens-ish traditional theme. In July, I sketched out the five Madison Avenue windows, each one focused on a different element of ultra-trad Xmas iconography–Santa Claus, elves, reindeer, etc. Then I Barneys-ized them into something called “The Groovy Grotto.” The giant Santa would start things off. The elves would be celebs: e.g., Elf Saint Laurent, Elfis Presley, Marcelf Marceau, Dostoyelfsky, Donatelfa Versace, Missy Elfiot, Shields and Yarnelf, Steven Meiself. In the next window, “Mrs. Claus’ Closet,” 20 fashion designers from Vera Wang to Narciso Rodriguez riff on the same red-and-white theme. The reindeer in question would be Rudolph the Italian Reindeer (after our Mayor). In the last window, Ruben and Isabel Toledo would create Trixie, the World’s Largest Tree-Topper. (Guess her weight and win dinner for two at Fred’s on the ninth floor).

It was nothing short of a miracle that we had elected to go in this cheeky-but-trad direction, given that my entire reputation was built on the naughty and unconventional. You may recall Jesse Helms as Censor Claws; a caricature of Tammy Faye Bakker dressing her giant mascara-wand Xmas tree; a Beat-themed Ginsberg-ish Xmas; a window into which we inserted writer David Rakoff, dressed as Sigmund Freud, dispensing psychoanalytic cheer; and last year’s Big Brother – Survivor tribute, in which 10 young F.I.T. hopefuls co-existed for six weeks.

So we had to change very little to bring the windows in line with post-9/11 Manhattan: e.g., the Groovy Grotto became Santa’s Groovy Grotto; we added a fund-raising Yuletide Yard Sale (the prop sale is on Dec. 29, and proceeds will benefit Mayor Giuliani’s Twin Towers Fund); and Rudolph the Italian Reindeer became a giant effigy of Rudolph the Right-On Reindeer. The patron saint of window dressers continued to smile on us when, despite the hideous economic downturn, we successfully enticed New York magazine to become our sponsor and collaborator, thereby securing a dollop of cash to offset our production cost. Whoopee !

My advice: don’t wait until the windows are all installed on Nov. 16. Come watch the weeklong tableau vivant –started Nov. 12–that is the installation process. (Watching window dressers disporting themselves is often more amusing than the final windows.) At Barneys, we window dressers don’t hide behind curtains; we’re proud of our métier and our glue-gun burns, and we flaunt them the same way a hormonally charged teenager flaunts his or her hickeys.

Come by and I’ll show you mine.