Visual Aides

At Neiman Marcus, home wasn't built in a day.

It's a dinner party waiting to happen, but where is the dinner? The silver urn centerpiece sprouts black ostrich feathers instead of flowers. The high-rent china is stacked five pieces deep, and in each soup bowl some wise-ass butler has placed a man's necktie, neatly folded, rather than soup. The backs of the chairs are tied with yards and yards of ribbon, the brand-new seat cushions look like giant clown-suit buttons -- and there's not a diner in sight.

Ah, our host. "I was inspired by the Cirque de Soleil," explains Stephane Gonzalez, who created this vignette at the Cherry Creek Neiman Marcus store. "Customers buy things right off the table. I liked this one -- it was circusy, clowny. But," he adds, "it needs a change-out."

Because it's early October, Stephane and his colleagues have begun subtly gearing up for Christmas. By Thanksgiving, the store will be drenched in red and gold. Or should they break out that box of silvery butterflies?

At Neiman Marcus, anything that has to do with atmosphere -- the black-and-white chair suspended halfway up a wall, the ghostly white hand holding a belt in a museum case -- is the responsibility of Visual Merchandising, the department where Stephane has been for three years. Visual's people work behind the scenes, in a series of rooms filled with sequined mannequin torsos, giant bottles of perfume filled with dyed water, a jar of thorns.

"That's Stephane's," says his boss, Sydney Peterson. "He's saving them up to make a thorn picture frame. I've done that. Stephane most certainly did not invent that."

As captain of a crew of three, plus freelance painters, designers and interns, Sydney has to look around the store -- endlessly, pickily and with an aesthetic magnifying glass -- and ensure that its essential Neiman Marcus-ness remains intact, no matter what each day may bring.

"Laura Mercier is doing a personal appearance here tomorrow," says designer Joan Cooper. "I don't know if she still is, but she was the makeup artist for Madonna."

"It's not just Laura Mercier," Sydney adds. "It's her whole entourage."

"So this is huge," says Buddy Dexter, who oversees the cosmetics section. "A job-on-the-line type thing."

In Visual Merchandising, a film noir concept is emerging. Buddy is on the phone trying to rent old-fashioned film canisters; he's already arranged for two blood-red circular carpets and 400 dark-red roses. All of this will be installed at the front of the store, along with several stations at which Laura Mercier will create custom faces. (Customers who didn't book in time will be steered to the Laura Mercier counter.) By noon today, Sydney figures, preparing for Laura Mercier will occupy everyone's time.

But it's only eleven, early in the purchasing day, and there's still time for yet another walk through the store.

"Neiman's is known for negative space," Sydney explains. "An open feeling, like a ballroom. When you go into another department store after being here, it feels crowded."

A few dedicated Neiman Marcus customers have already arrived -- mothers strolling babies, young socialites, elegant older women in wheelchairs. Employees, almost all of them in black, look just as chic. All female feet are housed in extremely pointy, extremely delicate high-heeled shoes. One does not hurry effectively in such shoes. When Sydney has to get physical -- to spray-paint a display, for example, or haul tables around -- she puts on sneakers.

Now she leaves the main store, headed for an outpost: Neiman Marcus Holiday Glories, created to house the specialty foods, gift items and Christmas ornaments mandated by Dallas headquarters. Over the past month, Sydney's department has changed this space, once a Laura Ashley store, into a stage set depicting a home during the holidays. The lady of the house is waiting in the wings.

"She's the typical Neiman Marcus customer," Sydney says. "Sophisticated, but she wants warmth in her home."

So she's set down her Prada purse and kicked off her leopard-print Blahniks. The gifts beneath her tree are wrapped in leopard-print paper; each of the hand-painted ornaments on that tree arrived in its own velvet-lined box and cost hundreds of dollars. The lady's antique easy chair (salvaged from Sydney's storage locker) is laden with beaded pillows. And for a little seasonal flash, she's moved her priceless art (lent by a collector of priceless art) into crystal-encrusted frames.

"We havethese customers," Sydney explains. "People outfit entire trees here."

And when they're done with that task, they might pick up a custom-ordered oil painting of Eloise, child of the Plaza, or a toddler-sized Harley for the kids. In Holiday Glories, room has been made for an assortment of suggested gifts, as well as four theme Christmas trees. It all looks opulently festive, but the space is a little crowded for Sydney's taste. So she heads back to familiar territory, returning to the matter of the film canisters, the 400 roses, the entourage and --

"A girl is down!" she says. (Translation: a mannequin has disappeared.)

"I know," says Stephane, materializing out of Sportswear. "Someone must have bought the clothes right off her back. I'm finding her some pants right now."

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