The story behind your favourite Christmas shop window dressings

The 2016 window of Brown Thomas, Patrick Street, Cork. Picture: Gerard McCarthy

Ciara McDonnell on how a window becomes a wonderland

THE annual unveiling of the Christmas windows at Brown Thomas might herald the beginning of the festive season, but their production starts way back at the beginning of the year.

Creative director of Brown Thomas, John Redmond, says the process of bringing such an elaborate production to life is a 12-month process. “We start planning and brainstorming, at least in broad brushstroke terms the previous December,” he explains. “Next comes the sketching, researching, and sourcing phase. Then once summer arrives the team works full-time to ensure the displays will be built and decorations are handcrafted and finished in time for Christmas.

“In October we go into complete lockdown for two weeks, which is when the magic truly begins.”

When it comes to Christmas, Brown Thomas goes all out, and that means scouring the globe for the right props and pieces for the Christmas windows. “Christmas is the one time of the year when Brown Thomas dedicates the windows to pageantry,” Redmond says. “The windows are not focused around product, instead it’s all about fantasy and the magic of Christmas. Each window has been hand-built and takes approximately one week to construct. Brown Thomas is one of the only retailers in the world to work ‘free-hand’, meaning none of the team follow guidelines, but hand-craft and finish all decorations.”

This year, the Brown Thomas Cork Christmas window is a full-scale collaboration of Brown Thomas staff old and new.

The decision to scale back to the simple pleasure of story telling provided the core inspiration for Redmond and his creative team.

“This year, our windows are about fairytales and enchanted stories, with a stylish Brown Thomas twist. We have teamed up with Irish children’s author Ciara Molloy Tan, a former member of the Brown Thomas creative team, to write the story, which is then told across each of the windows divided by scenes.” The windows tell the tale of Siún and her little brother Ruairi, who are transported to a magical land, complete with woodland creatures and powder puff fairies.

“They are treated to a Christmas feast in a giant banquet hall, with mulled wine and mince pies, just before Santa arrives to deliver his toys. The Brown Thomas steam train arrives, Santa and the children hop aboard, then it’s time to fly home and wake up from their dream.”

Display artist Hilda Hennessy, who along with her team is responsible for the installation of the Christmas windows, heads the team at Brown Thomas Cork. Hennessey says that this year’s concept is one of her all-time favourites.

 Ciara McDonnell with display artist, Hilda Hennessy, who says Cork Brown Thomas has one of the finest frontages in Europe.
Ciara McDonnell with display artist, Hilda Hennessy, who says Cork Brown Thomas has one of the finest frontages in Europe.

“The idea of a ‘Store of Wonders’ celebrates the art of children’s story telling. The concept of children literally getting lost in a story is magical to me — an enchanted fairytale with a Brown Thomas twist.”

Children are at the forefront of this year’s display, and along with a giant steam train, fairies, and sweet shops there is a secret story displayed at child-height at the bottom of each window, so small people can glean some of the magic at their own level.

The installation of the scenes within the Christmas windows takes two weeks to complete, says Redmond, starting with the ceiling grids. These grids alone can take almost five days to complete.

“Each piece of foliage is hand- woven through the grids at various heights to give the illusion of height and space in the window. As we decorate and build every single element of the window, it takes almost 10 hours per day to achieve the level of decoration we require. And that’s just the ceiling. Then the team covers floorboards, installs props, decorates and fills each space, and last but not least dresses and completes the mannequins.”

The mannequins are hand-painted and extremely delicate, so placing them within limited window space can prove one of the trickiest parts of the window installation. “The styling team will then spends hours dressing the mannequins before adding the perfect accessories, jewellery, shoes, bags, gloves, and wigs to complete each window.“

The story behind your favourite Christmas shop window dressings

Hilda Hennessey has worked with Brown Thomas for almost two decades and says he thrill of Christmas never gets old for her.

“I think our grand building on Patrick Street has one of the finest facades of any of the great retail buildings in any European city,” she says. “It is a beautiful building at any time of the year, but when you stand back, especially at night, and look at it dressed in all its Christmas finery, with metres of greenery, thousands of fairy lights and fantastical window displays, it is truly magical.”

The highlight for Hilda is watching the customers react to her creations. “I love watching family and friends gathering at the Christmas windows, smiling and spending time to take in all the details and you can tell that in that moment they are lost in the fantasy. That is an amazing feeling.”

The story behind your favourite Christmas shop window dressings

As purveyors of fantasy, Redmond and his team aim to awaken the child within customers each year, something Redmond says is informed by his own childhood. “I always remember being brought to see the Christmas windows at Brown Thomas,” he recalls. “There is a picture at home my Dad took of me and my family looking into the Christmas window. Now when planning Christmas windows, I think of that magic as a child looking at the windows and of that family life. “Christmas is a time for children and family.” The team hopes visitors to the store will lose themselves in the fantasy they have spent the last 12 months creating.

Redmond adds: “We try to create memories for people, and especially the children who will visit our windows. My favourite part is when the windows have opened and I can quietly observe all the smiling faces of customers and passers-by as they go from window to window.”

The story behind your favourite Christmas shop window dressings



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