The story behind the Fortnum & Mason Christmas windows

The Fortnum & Mason windows are where Christmas really begins. Emma Hughes spends a week with the team working frantically to get them ready.

Tuesday, October 28, 9.30am
Really, every day is Christmas in Fortnum & Mason, spiritual home of sugared almonds. But with November just around the corner, the boat (or sleigh) is about to be pushed out properly. In less than a week, the 2014 Christmas window displays will be unveiled and there’s a Herculean amount of work still to be done. I’m crouching in what feels like a glass-fronted rabbit hutch with Paul Symes, the store’s creative director. The theme for the windows this year is Frost Fayre (a nod to the Thames entertainments of yore) and the one we’re in is a mock-up of a London park albeit one stuffed with crystal and silk ties. ‘We just walk through the store grabbing armfuls of stuff we like the look of,’ Paul jokes. You’d never guess he’s barely slept in weeks. There are two phases to the windows’ creation: the installation of the scenery and its dressing with products. Each element is calibrated with surgical precision, right down to the filters on the lights. ‘I wanted the lighting in this one to look wintry, but also inviting like Champagne,’ Paul explains. He grins. ‘Time for a drink, I think.’

We hole up in The Parlour, Fortnum & Mason’s ice-cream emporium. Paul, showing heroic restraint, orders a green tea. ‘The food here is wonderful, but it reached the point a few years ago where I couldn’t get into the windows,’ he admits. He shows me some of his sketches (works of art in their own right) and explains that this year’s windows don’t actually tell a story, as such. This is quite a dep-arture: previously, they’ve been based on Christmas classics such as Swan Lake, for which a troupe of shirtless male cygnets from Matthew Bourne’s production invaded the store much to the delight of elderly lady shoppers.

Back at the front of the shop, Paul ushers me towards a hidden door that leads onto one of the windows.
It creaks open to reveal a bandstand (installed a few nights earlier), with three people contorted around it: Kayleigh, Rose and Emily, all new to the store. There’s hardly room to swing a jar of loose-leaf tea. ‘It all gets a bit Indiana Jones,’ Emily admits. We troop outside onto Piccadilly. The blinds (printed with a coy ‘No peeking!’) are pulled up and the window-in-progress is revealed. Astonishingly, there’s not a drop of glue holding it together. Things can get slightly hairy, I’m told, when buses rumble past. I press my nose against the glass, mesmerised by the festive provisions. Doesn’t it make them hungry? Rose leans in. ‘I don’t actually like mince pies,’ she whispers.

Wednesday, October 29, 9pm
Tonight, two whole scenes will be built from scratch in the Piccadilly-facing windows, ready to be dressed the following day. It’s an epic task, and everything has to be ready before the first customers appear tomorrow morning, which means beavering away until dawn. I grab Paul in the visual merchandising team’s bunker behind the fish counter (‘You only really notice the location on Tuesdays when the kippers arrive’). Traditionally, this is the moment when the wheels come off. ‘I once cried in Jermyn Street after a lorry delivering some Christmas trees gridlocked Trafalgar Square,’ he confesses. But, for the moment, everything is running like clockwork: as we speak, the vans laden with scenery are pulling up outside.

The elves have arrived. Up on the shop floor, the staff from Mojo Creative Production are being briefed by their manager, Rodney Holt. Based at Button Farm  (visions of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory) in Brent-wood, Essex, they’re responsible for making Paul’s sketches a reality. ‘But we’ve got to rip all the Halloween stuff out first,’ says beefy Mark, who wouldn’t disgrace the cover of Men’s Health.

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It’s showtime. Secret panels on either side of the store’s main double doors have been lifted out to allow access to the windows: in the years before they were installed, everything had to be taken apart and squeezed through a tiny hatch behind the chocolate counter. ‘Of course, there are some things you can’t dismantle. Such as trees,’ Rodney tells me. He has the faraway look of a man who’s seen terrible things on the battlefield.

A scene straight out of Narnia is materialising on the carpet: rocky outcrops (hewn from polystyrene) and sheets of icicles. The paint is still wet on some pieces. Rodney disappears off to help and I head around to the Jermyn Street entrance to watch the Christmas trees being carried in. One massive specimen sticks in the doors, but nobody gets ratty or raises their voice. I suppose it’s hard to get cross when you’re all covered in glitter.

Back in the windows, the weather is on the turn. Michael, a retired architect and theatre designer, is transforming the existing autumnal backdrops into winter ones by daubing the hills with white paint. ‘You’ll only be able to see a few sections, but I’m doing the lot, just in case,’ he reassures me. He once painted the set for a production of Waiting for Godot and there have been a few moments of Beckettian surrealism in the run-up to tonight: last week, totally exhausted, he tried to paint over his own shadow on the canvas.

After a quick tea break, it’s back to business. ‘Waterfall first,’ announces Rodney, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He explains how he gets the artificial snow to stick to the trees by running a static charge through them, making minute tweaks to the positioning of every single branch. With the foliage screwed into position, it’s all hands on deck. There’s no room for me in the windows, so I mooch around the cupcake counter. Behind me, Jill is gluing extra rocks together with what looks tantalisingly like whipped cream. I bitterly regret not having brought a snack with me.

It’s half-time and the team heads outside to inspect their handiwork. I’m amazed by how much roomier everything looks from the street. Rodney is pensive. ‘Yes, I think we’re doing all right,’ he says eventually, with characteristic modesty. A man in a dress, rugby socks and party wig wobbles past. It seems we’re not the only ones for whom Christmas has come early.

I’m leaning against a giant Christmas Feast hamper and wondering whether anyone would notice if I went to sleep in it. Our photographer, John Millar, interrupts my reverie. ‘It’s snowing,’ he whispers, tugging me towards the main windows.Inside, Rodney is putting the finishing touches to a tube covered in minute disco-ball mirrors, with two spotlights pointing at it. He flicks a switch and the tube whirrs into life, scattering constellations of light (just like snowflakes) as it turns. ‘You can have it nice and slow or get the full blizzard effect,’ he beams. The Mojo team, living up to their name, show no signs of flagging. I, on the other hand, am wilting. Everyone waves me off as I flag down a taxi. That night, I dream of glue-guns and glitter.

Saturday, November 1, 11pm
With less than 48 hours to go until the big reveal, it’s time for the store’s interior to have a little Christmas magic sprinkled over it. Paul meets me at the goods entrance, fresh from collecting a sack full of toy robins. In the atrium, a forest of artificial trees is being prepped. Later, they’ll be winched up on cables and suspended from a rig at the top of the building with a little help from some brave abseilers. This is not a place that was designed for forklift trucks. Paul and his tiny team will be here for hours, all by themselves. Do the rumours of a Fortnum & Mason ghost bother them? Paul waves a hand. ‘Put it this way: I’ve been working through the night here for eight years and I’ve never seen it.’ All the same, I take the gloomy stairs two at a time on my way out.

Monday, November 3, 4pm
‘Can’t we get someone up on the roof with a big bag of snow?’ Paul pleads. We’re out on Piccadilly and,
in 90 minutes’ time, the blinds will be going up. No one is wearing a coat and it still feels like the height
of summer. Not ideal. There have been some dicey moments since my weekend visit. Last night, four of the huge chandeliers blew and, this morning, a cacophony of squeaks had everyone thinking that mice had taken up residence in the bandstand window. Mercifully, it was just debris caught in the turntable mechanism.

It’s time for the final pre-flight checks (‘Just to make sure nobody’s left a packet of cigarettes in the window,’ Paul whispers). We crowd around the glass as the blinds are briefly raised nobody wants to spoil the surprise for passers-by. I’m blown away by every single window: the frozen grotto stacked with spirits and glassware (it took two days to position the artificial ice cubes), the glistening petit fours tableau, the polished silverware. Paul, ever the fair-minded parent, insists he doesn’t have a favourite, but, when pushed, he admits to being particularly proud of the window full of gold-leaf-covered Christmas puddings.

Darkness blankets London and the temperature has dropped obligingly. The ground floor is heaving with excited shoppers in mittens, scarves and woolly hats. There’s a school’s-out atmosphere: acrobats caper and aproned staff appear with trays of Stilton and truffles. Downstairs in the food hall, a giant gingerbread house is being demolished for sampling. I feel as if I’m seven years old again.

A voice over the tannoy, fruity as a mince pie, summons everyone outside. A several-hundred-strong crowd piles out onto the pavement, with the stragglers clambering onto the central reservation. The house lights are dimmed and a hush falls. Behind a velvet rope, chairman Kate Hobson is poised to press the button that will reveal the visual-merchandising team’s hard work to the world. As her finger moves, there’s a communal intake of breath. Then, suddenly, all around me is applause, camera flashes, shrieks of delight. Thanks to Rodney’s gently whirring creation, snow is falling in one of the windows. I wade through the throng to congratulate Euan Venters, Fortnum & Mason’s chief executive. His tie is spangled with stars. Very festive, I say, and he winks. ‘Nothing happens by accident here.’ I catch sight of Paul, standing at the back of a group of tourists. He gives me an enormous smile. And then, a magician to the end, he vanishes.

Fortnum & Mason, 181, Piccadilly, London W1 (020–7734 8040;