Selfridges’ windows – both at Christmas and during the rest of the year – are known for being ultra-directional. Over the past few years, Selfridges has given Oxford Street, that blandly conservative thoroughfare, a taste of cutting-edge London culture, however baffling this can sometimes be to those with little interest in fashion and design. But this year, rather than setting out to expand its consumers’ aesthetic and intellectual horizons, Selfridges is pandering to what it perceives to be the public’s mood and its psychological needs. ‘The world has taken a battering since 11 September 2001,’ explains marketing director James Bidwell. ‘Interest rates are going up. We plan our Christmas windows very far ahead – in March. At the time, we were thinking that as an antidote to the Iraq war, people wanted something soft and cuddly for Christmas. People are embracing wholesome values again.’
The resulting agreed theme was Feast – a feelgood name for our uncertain times, and one loaded with literal and metaphorical meaning. The windows, on view until Christmas Eve, are heaving this year with confectionery – and so literally signify a gastronomic feast.
Metaphorically, they also constitute a visual feast. Gigantic in scale, this eye candy sends a message of unbridled abundance. There are humungous snowmen made of marshmallows, Moroccan lanterns carved out of Turkish delight, a giant gingerbread house and trees sculpted out of ice cream. There will be a towering chocolate sculpture of Nigella Lawson, which she will ‘meet’ on 6 December, where the goddess of posh nosh will also treat customers to a cookery demo.
US confectionery brand Hershey has opened its first (temporary) standalone store in Selfridges’ huge corner window, modelled on its shop on Times Square in New York, and which can be entered directly from the street. (Selfridges has done this before: during Tokyo Life – its Japanese-themed season – there was a shop selling Japanese food in the same space.) Overall, the windows are about indulgence, but of a straightforwardly wholesome and domestic – rather than of a decadent or louche – kind.
Bidwell makes no bones about Selfridges’ commercial motives: ‘Our windows are the biggest billboard in London – 200 000 people walk past the store every day. We want to engage with them as effectively as possible. The windows allow for a powerful interaction with the brand.’ This year, the store is inviting us to get in touch with our infantile – or at least child-like – side. As Bidwell puts it, ‘We think people are hankering to see Christmas through a child’s eyes.’ Inviting us to regress to childhood by presenting Christmas in an unashamedly nostalgic light, the references the windows dredge up from our collective memories range from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Hansel and Gretel. In short, heartwarming and appealing both to the sweet-toothed and those who are still kids at heart.
But, this being Selfridges, it hasn’t sold out totally to cloying tradition. It has had the imagination to mount surreally monumental, not twee, itsy-bitsy installations. And, in collaboration with Art Review magazine, it has commissioned five artists, including Turner Prize nominee Anya Gallaccio, to interpret the Feast theme with window-filling artworks.
Selfridges is certainly steering clear of aesthetically naff nodding reindeer, snow machines and Santa’s grottoes. But, at the heart of its outsized sweet sculptures, lies a similarly saccharine sentiment – Christmas as a time of childlike wonderment. It’s possibly a tall order to expect adult customers to regress to a time when we thought Santa existed, but then its avowed aim is to cosset us with comforting imagery during a time of economic volatility.
Selfridges window displays will be unveiled on 12 November at 400 Oxford Street, London W1