Byline: David Moin

NEW YORK — It may seem premature, but Neiman Marcus got into the holiday spirit Tuesday by launching its 1997 Christmas catalog. It’s the thickest edition ever, and puts fashion on the front pages, while still playing up the kind of outrageous fantasy gifts offered each year.
“We felt the book was getting too predictable, too systematic,” said Bernie Feiwus, president and chief executive of Neiman Marcus Direct, at the launch party at Industria, a photo studio complex in the West Village often used for parties. “We’ve totally changed the format and we added 16 pages,” bringing the total page count to 156, Feiwus said. “It’s the largest Christmas book we have ever put out.”
For the first time, the 1997 Christmas book features evening attire and accessories from Halston, Richard Tyler, Donna Karan, Badgley Mischka and other designer labels on the opening pages, and dispersed throughout the catalog. In past seasons, fashions were not so heavily positioned up front.
In addition, “We used totally different models and photographers,” Feiwus said.
On several pages, gifts sold in the catalog are also used as backdrops or props to feature the gowns and accessories. For example, a $345 Steuben olive dish is used to display a $275 Zodiac watch from Eclissi. A $3,800 Judith Leiber elephant minaudiere is seated in a 1966 replica A.C. Cobra 427 sports car, which Neiman’s will auction at Christie’s Dec. 9 to help raise money for Best Buddies, a charity for mentally handicapped young adults.
Elsewhere, there are photos of models posed on the hood of a Sony Limited Edition GMC Suburban, the “ultimate mobile family entertainment center.” It’s has a deluxe sound system, a 9-inch television, four seat-back video monitors, a game console and a portable cell phone. The cars and other gifts that serve as props are also highlighted separately in the book.
Among the more outrageous gifts this year: an “X-Files” pinball machine, priced at $6,500, and marionettes, priced $8,000, created in your own image by artist Kris Smith. To create a marionette, she interviews and photographs customers to capture their personalities. Not everything in the book is expensive. In fact, gourmet food and the $32 hand-painted snow globe are the most popular items sold.
Of the 655 items in the book, 248 items are $100 or less, including 62 items priced $25 or less. The average order taken is between $150 and $200. The book accounts for just under 10 percent of the annual volume of Neiman Marcus Direct, which last year posted $259.4 million in sales. In terms of volume and distribution, the Christmas book is Neiman’s biggest catalog. Three million copies are distributed around the world, with the vast majority mailed in the states. About 100,000 go to Japan.
Although Christmas is still 3 1/2 months away, Neiman’s always launches its Christmas book in September.
Why so early? “Our customers expect it. They’ve been calling us for a week,” Feiwus said.
Aside from calling for copies, consumers and suppliers call in with ideas for unusual gifts.
“We get over 1000 suggestions a year,” Feiwus said. “They usually wind up representing about half of the special gifts.”

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