The Hellish Life Of A Department Store Window Display Builder

Display builders at department stores work 60 to 70 hours a week at Christmastime, in freezing windows. And something always goes wrong.

A girl visits the Macy’s Christmas windows, New York, 2012. John Minchillo / AP

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For five years, I built window displays at a major department store. It was pretty hard, grueling work. The windows weren’t heated or air-conditioned, so in the winter it was cold, and in the summer it was blazing hot. And the window would be full of smells and fumes and general people-odor. And the sheer task of carrying awkward large things from here to there took a lot out of us too. Usually someone else would design the displays and our team would be responsible for actually making them in the windows. We had an off-site production shop with really talented carpenters that built some of the props, but we also built a lot of things right in the store.

Christmas was always a shitshow. As soon as Christmas windows open for this year, the store higher-ups are already talking about next year. An outside company designs the more complicated mechanical aspects of the Christmas displays, and they probably start about eight months out. We’d begin building our stuff in about July or August, and we’d start installing in November.

In terms of installation, Christmas windows were always kind of hellish because you’re spending 60 to 70 hours a week with the same group of people. You see them more than your own family. I loved the people I worked with, but after a while, tensions would run high. Things often don’t go smoothly, and everyone’s just tired and overworked. Especially at Christmas, you’re working so hard for this one kind of ephemeral moment.

There weren’t a lot of people on each window team, and 99% of the time, we’d need to construct a display in a single day. So you’d be holding this giant prop made of plywood above your head, and your arms are quaking, you’re sweating, you’re using every fiber of every muscle, and meanwhile, someone else is trying to hang something from the ceiling, and you’re like, Is it done yet? Is it done yet?. People don’t have any idea how hard it is. And it’s not like we were bodybuilders either. I worked with people of all different sizes, and we didn’t necessarily have physical training in our backgrounds. I went to school for visual merchandising.

It used to be that window directors themselves had more control over holiday windows, but over the years there’s been kind of shift where it’s more dictated from above. The world is about corporate sponsorship now.

Holiday window at Bergdorf Goodman, New York, 2011. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

A lot of stores change their window displays at night, but we did it during the day, which was good for us because it let us have lives. There were shades that came down and covered us while we were changing the display. Otherwise people would definitely have stopped and stared at us.

There were also times when super-high-end designers would send people from their office to come supervise us. They wanted to do a good job too, but mostly it just felt like they were trying to torture us. That’s the way the fashion world works — everyone’s just trying to do their job, but everyone thinks their job is the most important of all.

Once we had a special event in the store for a very, very famous shoe designer. He had a little setup with a chair and desk so his fans could come and gaze upon his visage or whatever. Apparently there was a mirrored backdrop behind him, and he was very vain and you could see just a whisper of a bald spot, so he freaked out and made them cover the whole thing with fabric so no one could see back of his head.

Sometimes terrible things would happen that were beyond our control. The glass on the windows broke one year, and that was awful because these sheets of glass are massive, and they’re custom-cut. So when they break, you have to special-order new ones, which takes forever.

Some of the mannequins were really freaky looking, and sometimes we’d make fun of them or pull their pants down. But we couldn’t mess with them too much because they’re really expensive. They average around $1000 apiece, and they can be as much as $1600. Some were really beautiful, because they’re sculpted from life. But something the store bought in 1992 that was based on a supermodel at the time could look kind of dated.

The mildly heartbreaking thing about the job was whatever we did always played second fiddle to the fashion. That’s as it should be, but I learned pretty quickly that whatever I did was not the focus. And I learned not to get too attached to anything because in a week it would be gone and replaced by something else.

At the same time, there was something almost magical about having this really bizarre once-in-a-lifetime job. Things like touching a $30,000 dress — I couldn’t even fathom how someone could purchase something like that, but they do. It was so interesting to be on the inside looking out, to have everyone watching you.

As told to Anna North.

An elaborate holiday display at Harrod’s, London, 2012. Oli Scarff / Getty Images

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