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."

"It's not easy to dress them," Sydney observes. "You have to be careful. They're tiny, a size four. They're big, expensive dolls."

Backstage, leaves must be stripped from rose stems. De-thorn? Not enough time. Film canisters? Not here yet. Has anyone steamed the wrinkles from the red taffeta tablecloths?

"Where are the ostrich feathers?" comes a voice from the hallway. "The white ones? The ornaments are here, the big hairy silver balls, the little hairy balls, the butterflies...the feathers?"

"Laura Mercier's people are here," someone announces.

Stephane is still dealing with the naked mannequin. He's found some pants and opened a seam along the back, through which he threads guy wires that keep her upright, in a stance that suggests she's thinking about hailing a cab to take her to the next party, if only thatweren't such a bore. Several nails are driven into the platform to keep her steady.

"Tilt her! Tilt her!" Stephane orders.

"Where's her ring, Stephane? Shouldn't she have a big ring?"

"We can't put anything over 300 dollars on her hand. And what the heck are you gonna find at Neiman's for that?"

"Who is she? She looks like one of those Hilton girls."

"No, no, she's going hiking. With her sister. Or to a party. These girls don't work. I want them to look," Stephane confides, lowering his voice politely, "like bitches."

"Don't you just hate them? They're so skinny, and then they have those big boobs."

"No, they don't," Stephane corrects. "See, I threw in a fake boob to make the corset fit better. I picked it up over in lingerie."

There's a thrill associated with picking up something over in lingerie, of grabbing an item off the rack to go with the deerskin corset, and for the Visual Merchandising people, that thrill never goes away. Theirs is a personality type clued in to the tiniest detail -- irritated if it's wrong and fulfilled when it's right. All but Buddy have degrees in fine art, and they also have extensive backgrounds in thrifting and dumpster diving. They are grownups who revealed their callings as children: fastidiously dusting their plastic-horse collections, subjecting their mothers to makeovers, changing out their rooms. When one of them throws on an apron, it's a black vinyl apron. A wrist is lined not just with bracelets, but with vintage Bakelite bracelets.

Buddy, who appears to be wearing a flannel shirt, a pair of jeans and some running shoes, is actually wearing "all label," as he puts it. "I have a closet full of designer clothes, and I always manage to look like this," he elaborates.

"We're seeing even when we're not working," is how Stephane describes it. That's how he discovered those fabulous mirrors now decorating the holiday shop -- on sale at Albertsons, in the meat aisle! That's how he got the idea to pleat some paper and attach it to a mannequin -- and how he got in trouble. Too many customers wanted to buy the pleated paper right off of the model and had to be told that, technically, it wasn't a dress, nor was it for sale.

"I've styled some male forms and been told no one in their right mind would wear that," Buddy recalls. "I dressed them in lots and lots of ties."

"I've done a bad twin and a good twin," Joan adds. "But the best was my Frida Kahlo. I thought most people wouldn't even know who she was, but I didn't care. I put crinolines under her dress. I put the flowers in her hair. I even painted a uni-brow on her face. And it was wonderful -- a woman came in and bought the entire outfit, everything but the flowers. We threw in the crinolines."

Before coming to Neiman's seven years ago, Joan was a stylist in Los Angeles, where she freelanced for competing department stores -- which meant she hadn't really arrived. "It's like going from tuna to caviar," she remembers. "I went from stuffing tissue into handbags to making velvet roses."

But even with such heady rises in rank, Visual crew members occasionally wonder if any of it -- the velvet roses, the thorns -- really matters.

"You're allowed," Sydney confirms. She had her moments while getting ready for Christmas last year, with preparations starting less than a month after September 11. "It was hard not to wonder what my job really meant," she recalls. "So I decided to be more tongue-in-cheek. I took Prada shoes, funny-looking loafers, and had someone run out for googly eyes and tiny antlers. We made them into reindeer. I encouraged Joan to put antlers on the mannequins, and we had tags labeling them with reindeer names. Here, in Denver, people thought it was funny."

On the calendar, at least, Christmas 2002 is still two months away -- and Laura Mercier is now. "Okay, Buddy," Sydney says. "The panic has started. We'd better go."

At the main entrance to Neiman Marcus, ten round tables have been set up; they're draped with black cloths. The tables are being moved around by various factions, including a custodian who only wants to run extension cords according to code. There are still the roses to position, the black panels for the captain's chairs to place, the film noir feel to perfect.

It could take a while, but no one from Visual minds.

In the coming months, Robin Chotzinoff will commemorate Westword's 25th anniversary with 25 profiles of Denver today. Click here to read these stories.

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