‘Jai vu une robe charmante, faite de bouchons de liège,’ said Apollinaire. He can’t have been walking through Mayfair, where the autumn fashions have just been unveiled. If there’s anything to be cheerful about as the nights creep in, it’s the sudden appearance of cashmere and velvet that it’s still too hot to wear. The season comes to the mannequins first.
Selfridges, to the west of the district, has the most famous windows in London, with twenty displays at the front alone. There are no bouchons de liège this year (except on the cork-heeled shoes) – the department store is continuing its notion of honouring Shakespeare through dress. Alas, it doesn’t much honour Shakespeare or dress. Instead of re-creating scenes for a modern-day Boydell’s Gallery, the designers simply picked their favourite characters. Of course everyone wanted Hamlet for their window, which means there are at least three variations on his nighted colour, but nothing of the history plays. Juliet and Desdemona are both on their deathbeds (there’s no Ophelia). Desdemona is half-suspended in an A.F. Vandevorst shroud printed with her fatal final words, while Juliet is conceived by Simone Rocha as she’s always conceived: in virginal white, waiting in her borrow’d likeness of shrunk death. Christopher Kane’s Lady Macbeth crouches in an evening gown, her hands full of red petals, looking more like Shelley’s beloved heaping rose leaves on the bed. If only it were Fuseli’s Lady Macbeth seizing the bloody daggers (his Titania and Bottom would have made a wonderful tableau vivant for a window to0). Gareth Pugh’s Sycorax is the nearest to spectacle, dressed in a stiff funnel-necked ball-gown of black silk, embellished with heavy metal pendants.
The shops compete, naturally, but advantages are bestowed on those with better faces (Max Mara profits unfairly from its double-storied glass and iron façade) while internal arrangements dictate the extent of the display. The more exclusive the shop the less you are likely to see of it. Walk past H&M and survey the inviting chaos within; walk past Prada and you can only peer in if you go through the door. The windows are boxed off entirely. Fendi divides its front and keeps the display simple: two outfits against a backdrop of plastic waves in sporty tones (purple, dun, orange, navy). Mannequin stage left wears a coat of pale blue sheepskin with black stripes above the hem. It’s nicer than the shapeless dark poloneck dresses on some of its neighbours.
One of the problems with enclosed window displays is depth: creating it and managing it. A textured background helps; Louis Vuitton has mirrored tiles, while Dior uses panels of concentric circles to highlight the handbags and jewellery. Not that there is any jewellery to be seen after dark; the threat of smash-and-run men on motorbikes means everything is piled into the safe and the lonely velveteen décolletage is left bare. Much space is given over to perfume; the central Louis Vuitton bay and the biggest window at Gucci, for example, which might have had the best displays if they’d left more room for the clothes (the Stafford Street side has nothing at all). The temptation to re-create the advertising photoshoot, which has just one or two figures, rather than devise a proper display – portraiture over history painting – is apparent in many of the shop fronts. It certainly doesn’t serve Alessandro Michele’s latest collection, which is almost too varied and designed to show off lots of cunning references (is the serpentine neckline inspired by Piero di Cosimo’s painting of Simonetta Vespucci?).
The danger is that the models will let the whole thing down, as Selfridges’ Juliet does, for example, lying there with her eyes open. Gucci has the best mannequins – they’re bright pink. Louis Vuitton and Dior give their mannequins make-up and wigs; Chanel’s are the strangest-looking – they might be based on a real person. The models at Burberry are headless, but with the most expressive hands and in the most interesting arrangements. At Ralph Lauren they have cleverly covered the heads and torsos with gauze to improve the black plastic – they look like the Schläppi mannequins that you often see in museums, with their distinctive Cycladic faces. Chanel have added large cut-outs from their print campaign to fill the space, but no deference is shown to autumnal hues, despite the flushes on the Paris catwalk: here the season is always monochrome. Hermès, by contrast, is an ode to colour, with scarves illuminated like stained glass windows and tropical neons in the shape of swinging monkeys and leopards. ‘Le grand poème de l’étalage chante ses strophes de couleur,’ says Balzac. The window cleaner tells me he washes them every day.
It’s odd that the ideas behind the collections, which are usually reflected in the catwalk setting, don’t always make it into the window displays. Sometime lack of space means a shorthand is used. Max Mara’s beige and gold runway show – set against deluxe scaffolding and street posters – is brought down to bare plywood and grey coats. When Prada showed its autumn collection in Milan, the set was like a Masolino painting, with rows of narrow arches and wooden balconies. The idea hasn’t translated to the shop front, where the unlovely cambric bodices and chequered stockings are set against mustard walls and orange carpet.
Ralph Lauren’s main window has all the exaggerated drama Selfridges is lacking. The setting is a gothic House of Usher, with cracks running through the Baroque wallpaper, and the chandeliers hung too low. Faded glamour only enhances the real (if predictable) glamour of red silk, gold lamé skirts and pink brocade. The black velvet dress with the ruffle collar would be perfect for Margaret of Anjou. Burberry has no drama at all. It’s not the fault of the collection, which has a sort of glam rock decadence (the 1970s are much in evidence on Bond Street this autumn), but of the lack of imagination in the half-empty windows. The plainness of the building, standing opposite the Time-Life office, with its Henry Moore figures in a frieze against the sky, doesn’t help. A little further along, the entrance to Sotheby’s is adorned with the oldest outdoor sculpture in London: a 3000-year-old black basalt effigy of Sekhmet, the lion goddess, which was sold for £40 at auction in 1888 but never collected. The Italian label Ferragamo has no need of window displays in its shop on the corner of Burlington Gardens; the Gothic Revival building, designed by Vincent Harris in 1926, is decorated all over with Arts and Crafts devices in red, green and gold, including a marvellous grasshopper. And who else has a flèche with a carillon of 23 bells, which, though not the sweetest peal in London, can make a great Germanic clanging at half-past seven on a Tuesday evening? The sound echoes disconcertingly off Burlington Arcade.
The best windows of all are at Liberty; every passerby stops to remark on them. A phantasmagoria inspired by the travels of HMS Impregnable and HMS Hindustan – the ships that provided the shop’s timber beams – they make ghostly jewel boxes of colour, filled with strange objects and papered with dragons, pagodas, palm trees and parrots. The lurex dresses and red velvet tuxedos are pinned and hung and bound with ship’s rope. Sounds of a coming storm issue from little speakers and a strange breeze blows within. Everything gold catches the light. Ah, the marketplace! Christmas is coming.