I have never felt more regal, smug or self-satisfied. This, I mused as I gloated over the unbelievably fortuitous arrival in New York this week of Hurricane Charmilla, must be how she feels when she snuggles up in bed at night—-gin and tonic in one hand, bejeweled orb in the other—with her husband, H.R.H. the Prince of Wales.
Let’s start from the beginning. Early last spring, at the Barneys corporate office on 47th Street, my colleagues and I gathered for a 2005 holiday-planning meeting. The focus of such summits is that “magical fourth quarter,” when we retailers make buckets of cash.
When asked by our dynamic and genial C.E.O., Howard Socol, if I had given any thought to a theme, I proposed the idea of a “Royal Holiday.” The regal signposts were already in place: Fur capes were everywhere; fashion insiders were blathering on about Marie Antoinette ad nauseam. Most importantly, Camilla and Charles—though admittedly not the hippest and grooviest duo on earth—had plonked their wellies on our collective radar by announcing their intention to tie the knot before the year was out.
It would be a home run. Why, the copy lines all but wrote themselves: “HAVE A ROYAL HOLIDAY!” “RULE YOUR YULE!” “Get real and GET ROYAL!” At the end of the day, pampered Barneys customers—Hollywood royalty, Wall Street kings, society empresses, label queens, B.A.P.’s and J.A.P.’s—would undoubtedly resonate with this concept.
The entire Barneys organization got a royal hard-on. The buyers bought cashmere sweatsuits from Juicy Couture that said things like “Heir to the Throne” and “King of the Universe.” We shot a holiday catalog strewn with crowns and scepters. For the first time ever, we embarked on a redesign of the sacrosanct black Barneys shopping sack with graffiti’d crowns scrawled by yours truly—the marketing equivalent of Stephen Sprouse scribbling on the legendary Louis Vuitton bag.
By the time we witnessed the Charmilla nuptials on April 9—who can forget that “BRIDE AND GLOOM” tabloid headline?—the global zeitgeist was hissing with sovereign steam: Groovy style barometer du monde Sofia Coppola was even making a Marie Antoinette movie! Manhattan chippies were wearing purple again! Tiaras were back, again—and not just for Courtney Love!
Come August, it was time to start pre-staging and building the holiday windows. New York caricaturing legend and Observer contributor Bob Grossman was commissioned to create heads of Camilla, Chuckles, “the heir” and “the spare.” While sketching out the window designs, I found myself leaping to protect the Duchess of Cornwall from any excessively harsh satire: Unfestive tampon wreaths were immediately crossed off the list of potential props. It was at this point that I had to face the fact that I had become, almost without realizing it, a huge Camilla fan. There is something appealingly unpretentious about her manure-spattered tweed skirts, her three-decades-old Farrah hairdo and her unapologetically aristocratic heartiness. I resolved to create a jolly and upbeat tableau that celebrated the fact that, for the first time in decades, the media was giving ink to two horny upper-class, middle-aged gin drinkers with hair sprouting out of their ears, as opposed to the tawdry, two-dimensional Paris Hiltons of the world.
In addition to the Windsor extravaganza, I envisioned a window depicting people who hailed from Queens (geddit?): Lucy Liu, Fran Drescher and Donald Trump, to name but three. There would also be a label-kings-and-queens window, paying homage to deceased American fashion designers of yore (Mainbocher, Trigere, Halston et al.); and, lastly, a Marie Antoinette let-them-eat-cake window, for which Olivier Theyskens, couturier for the house of Rochas, began to create a 20-foot-wide dress for the guillotined queen. Meanwhile, at Lanvin, Alber Elbaz was furiously stitching a sassy red yuletide brunch coat for Camilla.
Alison Jackson, the notoriously cheeky English artist known for her staged faux-surveillance photos—using celeb look-alikes—of the royals and others, agreed to collaborate on the Charmilla window. Alison and I decided that we would fly over her “Camilla,” “Charles,” “Harry” and “Wills,” put them up in a cheap hotel, I was thinking about those dingy hostelries at the New Jersey entrance to the Holland Tunnel—and install them in the window for a tableau vivant unveiling on Saturday, Nov. 12. At the end of the day, after what we anticipated would be an unprecedented, traffic-stopping media blitz on Madison Avenue, the human look-alikes would be replaced by the Grossman caricatures. Feeling a bit like Hazel, the lesbian Lizzie Grubman of Footballers Wives (get the DVD if you haven’t been watching it on BBC America; $27.98 from Amazon.com), Ms. Jackson and I giggled malevolently at the demonic brilliance of our pooblicitay strategy.
Whence, you may well be asking yourselves, cometh this deranged, hype-crazed approach to what is, after all, a warm, fuzzy and spiritual institution?
It all goes back to the early 1980’s, when Barneys was located down on 17th Street, far from the madding cash-rich crowds of Fifth Avenue. Back then, we were the underdog: With their glitz and chandeliers and foofy clientele, the uptown stores seemed to hold all the cards. Beware the scrappy outsider! Like a child who had never received quite enough attention, we became raving exhibitionists. Within a short period of time—with our fabulous Meisel/Evangelista ads and our cheeky windows—we had established ourselves as the hippest destination store in America.
Old habits die hard. Every year we try, as if our lives still depended on it, to win the publicity lottery. However, in my 20 years of attention-garnering window stunts, nothing prepared me for the seismically orgasmic confluence of schedules that was about to happen.
August 2005. The coup of all coups! The icing on the gâteau!! Camilla and Charles announced their intention to visit New York in November!!! I became so twitchy that I seriously contemplated installing an IV that would pump liquid Thorazine into my veins, 24/7.
From morning to night, deranged Ab Fab ideas filled my head. Let’s tell Prince Charles there will be free gin and tonics and that Pamela Anderson is coming and see if we can’t get him to unveil the Charmilla window himself! If Camilla thought there was some free drag, duty-free fags and/or gin involved, maybe she could be induced to linger inside the window itself, festooned with the new Barneys shopping bags, striking monarchical attitudes?
Confirming the actual arrival date, alas, proved almost impossible. Citing security concerns, the Brit consul is being very cagey. Tracking the path of Charmilla became my new obsession. This scheduling crisis forced us to cancel the Alison Jackson look-alikes and unveil with the Grossman caricatures. Whatever happens, I was determined that our windows would debut exactly one day prior to their arrival. In my mind, I was envisioning a New York Post cover—me doing a Carol Merrill (Let’s Make a Deal) in front of the window—with a nifty “Willkommen-Bienvenue-Welcome” kind of headline.
By mid-October, I was starting to get fractious. When, oh when, were Mr. and Mrs. Chuckles actually waddling into town? If they would only arrive halfway through November, it would be utterly perfect. There’s an unwritten rule which dictates that New York stores install their holiday windows at some midpoint between Halloween and Thanksgiving. (We window dressers are born knowing this kind of stuff.) Anything earlier than the 10th of November is considered—by people like Santa and God—to be borderline obscene. Would Camilla and Charles cooperate, or would they force us to be grotesquely early or, worse still, foolishly tardy?
Bad news: Last week, Charmilla announced its intention to blow into town on Nov. 1, for one day only, in order to do something important and somber down at the World Trade Center site. This gave us two choices: We could wait until Nov. 12 (our scheduled date) and bask in the tepid afterglow of their visit, or—could we? dare we?—we could bring the installation date forward to a shockingly early Oct. 31. Allowing Christmas and Halloween and Hanukkah to commingle felt like retail treason.
What to do?
Madison Avenue, Monday, Oct. 31, 4 p.m.: I yanked down the curtain on the Camilla and Chuck window to a blizzard of flashbulbs. “Please don’t tell me these are your holiday windows!” rhetorically declaimed a passing customer.
“Happy Halloween,” I replied. “And have a Royal Holiday while you’re at it!”