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'We draw people into magical scenes': The inside story of Dublin's Christmas windows

The window designers behind Dublin’s most famous festive displays share their secrets.

WE MAY STILL be in the throes of November, but it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. The streets are decked out in twinkling fairy lights, supermarket shelves are lined with biscuit tins, and Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas is slowly but surely creeping its way onto the airwaves. 

As such, shops are presently undergoing festive makeovers, none more so than Arnotts and Brown Thomas.

Each year, the two iconic department stores go above and beyond with their window displays, making the Christmas shopping experience all the more magical.

So how do these elaborate and glamorous displays come together? We spoke to some of the people behind them to find out. 

Last week, Arnotts unveiled its Christmas windows with the assistance of some artificial snow and 1,300 light bulbs.

This year’s display tells the story of a little boy named Ben, who is on the hunt for a perfect Christmas present for his family. He pays a visit to Santa Claus – a fixture in Arnotts – and finds the perfect Christmas present: a picture of the whole family with the man himself.

The display is the result of a collaboration with Irish illustrator Emma Sheridan, explains Terry Masterson, the store’s Head of Visual Marketing.

“The design process started back in January,” says Masterson. “We decided upon the story and we then decided we wanted to work with an Irish illustrator to produce a book that would tell the story of a wonderful Christmas at Arnotts.

“We met with Emma Sheridan and it was the perfect match. She really understood what it was we wanted to achieve.”

Peer into the window and you’ll see illustrations and miniature puppets aplenty, all of which aim to evoke the Christmas shopping experience. Everyone from harried shoppers to helpful shop assistants are represented. No detail is too small.

“All of the outfits Ben wears in the windows were handmade by Denise Kelly, the Visual Merchandising Manager here at Arnotts,” he says. “She spent many weekends knitting his hats and sewing his trousers.” 

Children are also invited to engage with the display this year.

“Interactive hand prints at children’s eye levels allow children to cause further special effects in the windows this year,” says Masterson of the interactive elements. 

Masterson explains that they collaborated with renowned set design company Shadow Creations on the build, design and installation. All in all, there were approximately 20 people involved in the windows, including the in-house graphics team.

In other words, it’s no small undertaking. Do Masterson and his team feel pressure to up the ante year on year? 

“As a general rule, we always try to do things bigger and better than the year before,” he says. “As a creative team, we thrive on this.”

For him, it serves as a reminder of the special place that Arnotts holds in people’s hearts.

“I don’t know how many of my friends and family still talk about their memories of coming in to see the windows and Santa when they were young, and to be responsible for continuing on that tradition is a huge honour for myself and the team.”

“I hope our window displays still remind people that Arnotts is not just a department store, it’s a place where memories are made, especially at Christmas time. If you have been to Arnotts and experienced Christmas here once, it will last a lifetime.”

Across the Liffey, Brown Thomas kickstarted the Christmas season back in mid-October when it launched its annual window display. 

This year’s window setup is as eye-catching as ever and and was inspired by the worlds of film, theatre, and musicals, says John Redmond, the store’s creative director.

“Inspired by the golden era of Hollywood and iconic Broadway musicals, the windows have become show-stopping art-deco stages showcasing old-school Hollywood glitz and glamour with leading stars of film, dance and performers taking top billing,” he explains.

“This year to make each window truly unique we customised every mannequin including their costumes which were all handmade and every single piece is placed by hand into the window to draw people into these magical scenes,” he adds.

The display is divided across eight windows with a mannequin residing in each one. A number of Irish designers were brought on board to work on the project.

For instance, designer Eamonn McGill custom made some of the costumes on display, drawing inspiration from MGM-era musicals and old Hollywood starlets. Milliner Deb Fanning, meanwhile, contributed two hats. 

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The result is an extravagant and glamorous series of scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in a Baz Luhrmann film.

It doesn’t come together overnight either. Putting the window together is an arduous, painstaking process.

“The creative team spend 12 months of the year researching and executing the Christmas window,” says Redmond. “It’s the biggest project we work on and every year we try and make them better and better.” 

“The build itself can take two weeks with a team of twenty people working on them which is headed up by Conor Dunbar.”

But it’s all worth it in the end if it means being at the centre of people’s Christmas memories.

“The heritage of the store and the memories we make for people’s Christmas experience are always paramount when we decide on a theme,” says Redmond. “We want to continue to capture people’s imagination and be a part of their Christmas.”

More: 5 of Ireland’s most underappreciated shopping centres, according to an architect> 

About the author:

Amy O'Connor

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