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STYLE: DESIGN : Window Dressing, 90210

July 24, 1994|Maureen Sajbel

It's an ephemeral art form often overlooked as Angelenos whiz past in their cars, glimpsing only a bit of color or shape in their peripheral vision. But designing store windows is more than sticking a dress on a mannequin and hoping someone will notice. When done well, window displays create a stage for the merchandise, an identity for the store. They may entertain or inform, shock or charm, so they're seldom boring. Here, along a four-block stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, are a few windows worth watching.


That red dress," the caller says, fuzzy reception giving away the fact that she's on her car phone. "How much is it and what size is it?" Drive-by shopping isn't unusual at Neiman Marcus. In fact, creative director Kenneth Downing designs the store windows for just this kind of honk-if-you-love-Valentino response, and rarely does a week go by without a call from a cellular phone. Many outfits, particularly Richard Tyler creations, he says, are bought this way. And at the moment, he's replacing a Thierry Mugler suit for the third time.

Downing calls his four large windows "the billboards" and says: "We design for viewing at 35 miles per hour." A graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, he takes a broad-stroke, painterly approach that makes use of the fine arts degrees of his staff. "I don't believe in props and cha-cha. That's not what we're selling," he says. At Neiman's, fashion is exhibited like art, usually in spare windows with a painted backdrop and plenty of negative space.

The 31-year-old Seattle native built his reputation at his hometown I. Magnin and at the Magnin store in San Francisco before coming to Neiman's almost four years ago; he is respected by his competition and loved by clothing designers for staying true to their vision. Downing studies videotape of designers' runway shows, and if they show a dress on the runway with firefighter's boots and greasy hair, or tennis shoes and a French twist, then that's how it will appear here.

"God knows I should be second-guessing Karl Lagerfeld," says the man who loves fashion, as he gestures with his cuffs, fashionably and impractically long enough to cover his knuckles. "Our bible is the video screen. We try to bring a slice of the collection to customers. Who would want to drive by and see how you would really wear it? They want the fantasy. We leave the mixing to them."


Magnin's windows are often sophisticated sight gags that demand a double take. The Jean Paul Gaultier or Giorgio Armani clothes are beautifully displayed, of course, but next to them might be a bikini fashioned from plastic fruit or a bustier decorated with wax asparagus. Likewise, the perfect bride wears a lavish wedding gown, but she might also be wearing the wedding cake as a headdress.

"When I was a kid in Chicago, I'd go and see the windows in the Loop," says Diane Gatterdam, 40, vice president of visual for all I. Magnin stores. "I was so overwhelmed. I wanted to be in that world. I wanted to live in those windows." What sparked her imagination most were the Christmas windows, especially the ones with animated mice living in fantasy rooms.

After studying painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, the tall redhead took a stroll down Michigan Avenue, and I. Magnin was the first store whose windows drew her in. She got a job there and has been with the company for 16 years, moving first to L.A. and then to San Francisco, where she's now based.

"The windows are the eyes of the store. They're the first vision of what the store is about. You know immediately what you're going to see inside," she says. "It's like painting, but you start with four white walls. When you pull the screen up at the end of the day, it's so exciting." Gatterdam's windows are typically witty and breezy, often alluding to literary classics, with props from, say, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," or to pop culture, with backdrops of celebrity caricatures.

Her sense of humor appeals to many, it seems. Quite a few shoppers called to see if they could buy her fruit bustiers.


Michael Bewley never pretends to be anything he isn't--"I'm not an artist," he insists--yet he might concede that he's a bit of a quick-change artist. Saks Fifth Avenue's windows are typically event-related and change frequently. They're up for as few as three days when an Oscar de la Renta or an Ellen Tracy buzzes through town, then they're down again and filled with something else, maybe the Academy Awards, the Emmy Awards or the holidays. "Sometimes there are three trunk shows within a two-week period," says the 30-year-old visual director, a San Francisco native and one of the youngest designers on the boulevard.

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