The window displays along New York’s Fifth Avenue during the holidays are normally a big event, with tourists and locals alike flocking to see the extravagant visions the city’s iconic retailers have dreamt up and these retailers, in turn, putting on a spectacle year after year. Of course, for myriad reasons, that’s going to be different in 2020.
On Wednesday, Saks Fifth Avenue — one of the major players in this game — announced it would forge ahead with its holiday windows, albeit in an abridged format. There won’t be one big celebration that literally shuts down Fifth Avenue and draws crowds of spectators (both invited and not) to unveil the display. Instead, there will be 20 smaller lighting ceremonies, to be live-streamed on a special platform created in partnership with Mastercard, the event’s sponsor for the past decade.
From Nov. 23 through Dec. 23, a host (a celebrity, designer, personality or other known member of the community) will press the button that brings the lights decorating the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship store in midtown Manhattan to life from inside one of the holiday windows at one of these ceremonies. Saks Fifth Avenue will then donate to a charity of the host’s choosing, reaching a total of $100,000 in donations by the end of the season.
The retailer’s 2020 holiday theme is “This is How We Celebrate,” and it was actually already decided on by the time New York went into lockdown in the spring, according to Emily Essner, Saks Fifth Avenue’s chief marketing officer. (It usually starts working on the windows for its flagship store soon after the previous unveiling.) Once the city began slowly reopening, the team was working on a “tighter timeline,” she says, and began asking itself: Does this campaign still work?
“We think it absolutely resonates, actually even more than it probably did before,” Essner argues.
Like many others collaborating amid the pandemic, the Saks Fifth Avenue team had some people working from home, others at its workshops to create the visual concepts for the 2020 windows. “Obviously, it’s a challenging situation but in a lot of ways I think unlocked a lot of opportunities to work differently,” Essner tells Fashionista, noting that there was a lot of time spent on Zoom and plenty of samples and materials being delivered to people’s houses. There was also a greater focus on how the displays would look on live-streams and on virtual platforms, as that would be a major component of the campaign.
The biggest shift, Essner says, has been in the unveiling itself, since a gathering of hundreds of people on a Manhattan avenue isn’t an option right now. “It was not appropriate for this year,” she notes. “Though feeling sad, what we said was, ‘Look, the windows and the light show are very much our annual gift to New York City. It’s always important, but probably this year more than ever, it’s critical that we do that. And that was something that we very much wanted to stand by.” (During the lighting ceremonies, the sidewalks will be closed, to allow for social distancing.)
“This is something that is very near and dear to our hearts,” Essner continues. “This is something that we believe is really important. We take our role in New York City very seriously, and we very much believe that New York City is the greatest city on Earth and that, as it is our hometown, it’s absolutely our responsibility to do everything that we can to support it.”
The “This Is How We Celebrate” theme is meant to be “a sort of exploration of the diversity of America and the diversity of the ways that various communities celebrate the holiday.” The windows at its Fifth Avenue flagship will still be centered on New York City, focusing on different neighborhoods and people that represent the diversity that “makes this city so great,” according to Essner. As to what the displays actually look like, though? Well, we’ll all have to wait and see: The retailer is keeping the visuals top secret until the official unveiling and first light show, scheduled for Nov. 23.
Though the circumstances of 2020 may be unique, the pivot in this year’s holiday rollout might shape the way Saks Fifth Avenue approach future campaigns.
“While obviously incredibly challenging, being forced to really rethink it has unlocked a lot of opportunities for us,” Essner explains. “I think one of the questions, candidly, will be: What are the implications for next year? Assuming that the world feels different and we’ll be post-pandemic, do we go back completely, or what are the elements from this year and from all the creative thinking that we’ve been forced to unleash that we incorporate going forward?”