Bridget Foley’s Diary: Window-Watching at Barneys

Those who like a little fashion with their art will find themselves in fusion heaven when the curtain rises on the retailer's new windows.

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Those who like a little fashion with their art and a little art with their fashion will find themselves in fusion heaven starting tonight when (if installation continues as planned) the curtain rises on the new windows at the Madison Avenue flagship of Barneys New York.

This story first appeared in the June 1, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Nine months in the making, the installation marks a collaboration between the store and the Athens-based Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art, founded and run by the renowned art collector Dakis Joannou. The store’s press materials call the windows, on view through July 4, a “public art event in New York City,” to be feted Tuesday night with a big party at the store, including a performance by John Bock.

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The effort is audacious and massive — and very much in keeping with the creative ethos of the store’s uberadventurous creative director, Dennis Freedman. It is also conspicuously devoid of merch, a fact that Barneys ceo Mark Lee insists is not in conflict with the retailer’s primary mission: the transfer at a healthy profit of fabulous high-end discretionary goods from the store to consumers around the world. “The windows,” Lee offers, “are one of many touch points that communicate something about the Barneys brand…together with advertising and the Web site and all the digital communication and content we create, and events and p.r.” The Deste windows, he adds, are timed perfectly to make a major cultural statement when Barneys and every other store in New York is on sale.

For some time, fashion, particularly numerous luxury houses, has been obsessed with flaunting art-world relationships. The houses collaborate. They commission. They sponsor. They award prizes. They set up fancy booths at art fairs around the world. The inference is that art elevates fashion, and from the other side, fashion popularizes art. Yet a stroll past the vast majority of designer shops indicates that while the view may be creative, artistry seldom muscles in on the merch. The approach behind the upcoming Barneys windows stems from a place purer and more genuinely daring than obvious cross-marketing. They are, as pitched, a public art event in New York City, the subject of which happens to be fashion.

Several years ago, Joannou started a project that would consider the role of fashion in the greater culture. Each year since 2007, he has asked an artist to select five fashion items representative of that year and build an art piece around those pieces. Joannou then purchases the fashion items for his collection. M/M partners Michael Amzalag and Mathias Augustyniak initiated the project, assembling, among other items, a Balenciaga shoe and Marc Jacobs hat, and doing paintings of each on enamel plates. Subsequently, Juergen Teller did a series of large photographs, one taken from a 2000 photo of Yves Saint Laurent, who had just died. Helmut Lang compiled Michelle Obama’s Azzedine Alaïa belt and a dress owned by Louise Bourgeois, and connected them to his full-size resin replica of fashion-show chairs in a piece that addresses, Freedman says, “the culture and hierarchy of the fashion show front row.” Patrizia Cavalli wrote poems about a Viktor & Rolf dress, a McQueen shoe and three other pieces. This year, the filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari shot an original film with five actresses, including Clémence Poésy, each wearing a custom look, some made by students. She will take the work to the Toronto Film Festival.

Freedman and Joannou knew each other through W, which published pieces on Deste. (Full disclosure: Freedman and I worked together for years at W.) Some time ago, the collector told the creative director that he would like to show the collection in its entirety in New York, and asked for museum suggestions. Lightbulb! Barneys windows! Though it was decided that each artist should reinterpret, rather than merely transport, his or her piece. A major, extremely complicated project was soon under way.

I first wanted to talk to Lee and Freedman about Barneys windows after last fall’s store-wide homage to Carine Roitfeld, who recently exited French Vogue. The moody windows, which featured a major video component, were spectacular, portraying Roitfeld in an even more stylized version of her reality — sexy, mysterious, incredibly chic. “That collaboration was about getting to what it is about Carine, as a woman [that fascinates] — her walk, her shoes, her eyes. There was a surrealistic aspect. There was a dangerous aspect. It grabbed your attention,” Freedman explains. He implies that by agreeing to make Barneys her first post-Vogue project, Roitfeld validated the store’s new management. “Everything was about, ‘What’s Carine going to do next?’….Especially at that moment in time, it was obviously a very important commission.”

Captivating — absolutely. But if one assumes a store window has two primary purposes — one, an essential statement of self, and two, a calling card to curious, possibly uninformed passersby, on the latter, the windows might be deemed intimidating. Inside fashion, Roitfeld is a rock star. On the outside, she’s no Rachel Zoe on the recognition meter.

Not a problem, according to Lee. He notes that the Roitfeld windows — and most others — tie back into a larger program of marketing. Roitfeld did a straightforward though arresting shoot with Mario Sorrenti for a mailer, and all of the windows have a related Web video. “These videos reach millions of people, far more than the windows,” he says.

Provocation via window display is hardly a new concept at Barneys. Yet the Deste installation will likely highlight the visually creative point of departure between Barneys’ former regime, or regimes, and Lee’s. Beginning in 1986 and until Freedman’s arrival, Barneys’ creative direction was spearheaded by the brilliant Simon Doonan, who is now ambassador at large. Doonan’s ability to capture the cultural moment, whether amusing or sober, in fanciful, over-the-top vignettes, made him a star and Barneys’ windows legendary. “Simon put condoms on the Christmas tree,” Lee recalls of a Doonan shocker about 25 years ago, when Barneys was still on 17th Street. “That was a big political statement at the time of ACT UP and the beginning of the AIDS crisis. That was definitely not for everyone. All the different shades of surprise and wit and humor have always been there. I just think it’s always fluctuating and moving and we’re part of an arc of that history.”

Most recently, Doonan’s windows seemed wittier than they were controversial, probably because over the years, his personal style that dominated the installations — exuberant, irreverent, kitsch bordering on camp — had become so well known.

Freedman’s approach is more about collaboration, whether with artists, when circumstances make sense, or designers. His windows feel more high-minded, layering drama on an artfully cerebral base. “We’ve done a room made entirely out of hair, a chrome-plated wall of exploding bricks, and now, a fifteen-foot-high image of Yves Saint Laurent by Juergen Teller. In every case, the key is capturing the dramatic moment. It can be theatrical, it can witty, it can be surreal, but above all, it must be dramatic,” Freedman says. Which is not to say they lack humor or broad appeal. A recent accessories-centric installation was based on the notion of perpetual motion. One window featured 100 Chinese luck dolls, all moving, as a backdrop to a lineup of Yves Saint Laurent shoes; another lined up about as many digital clocks, their numbers matching the blue of a Prada shoe. (Amusing random factoid: This window caught the eye of pedestrian Jerry Lewis, yes, that Jerry Lewis, who called to inquire about the clocks. Guess who now owns more digital clocks than one person could ever need?) As for the most talked-about window so far: From last holiday’s Gaga’s Workshop extravaganza, Bob Racine’s extraordinary Gaga’s workshop, made entirely of hair.

Freedman stresses the power and possibility inherent in collaboration. He runs off a wish list for the future including André Bishop (“Who are the best young set designers?”) and Maurizio Cattelan. For the recent windows celebrating Christian Louboutin’s 20th anniversary and Alber Elbaz’s 10th anniversary at Lanvin, he spoke in-depth with the designers to make sure the results were something representative of their worlds, yet something neither would do on his own. “I always start by asking, ‘Forget about clothes. What inspires you?’ With Christian it was that clear element of danger.” Elbaz talked about reflection. “That’s all I needed,” Freedman says.

For his part, Lee maintains a healthy push-pull between commercial and creative forces is essential to keeping the customer engaged, and is elemental to the identity of the store, which opened in 1923. “We’re more than just an emporium selling clothes and bags. We’re part of the fiber of the city,” he says. “We have incredible customers who come from the art world, from the theater world, from all of those worlds, architects, designers — that’s a big part of our customer base. To have that communication with our customer base and with and for the city is part of our uniqueness. It’s part of our advantage.”

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