Where the magic happens

It is the festive display to beat all others — Claire O’Sullivan goes behind the scenes at Brown Thomas Cork to see the Christmas window in the making.

Where the magic happens

IT’S FOUR days before this year’s Brown Thomas Cork Christmas window is due to be unveiled and I’m stuck in the middle of it.

And I mean. Really. Stuck. Thankfully, black blinds separate me from the street so I’m spared the ignominy of having school kids pointing and chortling at me as I half-dangle over the side of Cinderella’s carriage. All around me are long-limbed mannequins with cascading silver hair festooned with diamonds: mannequins that swoon, mannequins that orgasm, mannequins with jewel-encrusted eyelashes and hip dreadlocked beehives.

It’s all Jimmy Choo, Louboutin, Carven and Maje, sparkles, iridescence and high-octane glamour. And then there’s me with my hopelessly short legs that are incapable of stepping over a fairytale carriage so I can take a proper look at the Christmas window in the making. Not for the first time in my life, I vow to take up yoga.

“Are you alright there Claire?” giggles Brown Thomas Cork’s chief window designer, Ger Hanley. “There’s not a lot of room in there.”

Every year the Brown Thomas team create the ultimate Christmas flight of fancy in a space less than four foot wide. In essence, they put on a fashion show in a cupboard, and all of it is done without the ability to look at their work from the street as the window has been blackened off. An extraordinary feat. Work on the Cork window began in mid-October. For two weeks, a team of five work from 7am-9pm building a scene that must stop shoppers in their stride, a window that must bewitch with glamour and sophistication and tell a story. I told a friend of mine of ‘my trip into the window’ and she scoffed: “Cork just gets all the hand-me-downs from Dublin.”

She was right — to a degree. All the props, the throne, the rose from which Sleeping Beauty emerges, the spiral staircase, Cinderella’s carriage were on show on Grafton Street last year. The Cork team, led by Ger, travel to Dublin in June to choose which ones they’d like to use. That’s where the similarity between Cork 2012 and Dublin 2011 ends.

“We’re a different design team so we have entirely different ideas. We take whatever props we think will work for us and then we sit down and come up with completely different window ideas,” she says.

There are four sections to the window and each has a different colour scheme, tone and personality. This year the windows are an homage to the Snow Queen, Swan Lake, the Nutcracker, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

“Everybody spots something different in the window each time they pass it and that’s what we want to do. It’s great when you hear a passer-by squeal ‘Hey I didn’t see that before!” says Ger.

The Cinderella window is my favourite this year. When it was unveiled eight days ago, it literally shimmered onto the street: an explosion of copper, gold coral, rose and orange. There isn’t a rose or an angel in that window that hasn’t been agonised over. Ger says the team of herself, Deborah Forde, Cathy Lawson, Margaret Lucey, Julie Hanna and Jacqui Roche are all “extremely particular”. And it shows.

Look up and you’ll see roses, copper vines and glass teardrops hanging from the ceiling with little angels peeping out everywhere. On the floor there’s gold toadstools sprinkled with golden fairy dust, multi-sized pumpkins studded with jewels and cross-legged golden fairies who look out at passers-by. Further down in the Sleeping Beauty window are golden vines dotted with deep red roses while Beauty herself is lost in the moment with a delectable prince.

Kathy and Julie pick all the clothes featured in the window. Stand-out items include the Christian Louboutin red leather clutch bag which has a pair of shoes for a clasp and manages to make punk studding look classy. And then there’s the amazing gold metallic Maje bandeau mini which teamed with a cream Carven jacket has this year’s whole texture trend nailed.

Ger has been designing Brown Thomas windows for nearly 18 years and Deborah, 12 years. And both women live very different lives by night. While the day job is all design and high fashion, both women return to farms in the evening. Ger is a dry stock farmer in Kilmurry while Deborah, originally from St Patrick’s Hill, is now married to a farmer in Glenville. “As much as we can, we’ve put our other lives on hold for the past few weeks with the window. We have to warn the kids each year in October that we won’t be around much for a few weeks. It’s 7am in the morning until 9pm or 10pm at night and a lot of weekends,” says Deborah.

I pop in to have a last look at the window before it’s unveiled. All week Ger has emphasised how window design is all about the detail.

“You don’t want to clutter it but you have to have detail and areas of interest. There must be things for shoppers to focus on, to pull them in.” I spot a beautiful candelabra that wasn’t there two days ago.

“I was up at 4am walking around the house collecting things that I thought might be useful,” laughs Ger. “I unscrewed that and also a lantern from outside the house. It’s the little details that can pull it all together.”

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