Feathers and sequins at the ready: It's Showtime at Fortnum & Mason

Over the past few weeks, Fortnum & Mason's creative director Paul Symes has been beavering away from dusk 'til dawn on the formation of this year's show-stopping Christmas window display – and somehow still found time to join the WAN Retail Interiors jury panel.

Under the theme of 'Showtime', the display reveals glimpses into the bustling backstage scenes of a dazzling fin-de-siècle theatrical show, in which gastronomic delights cascade amidst velvet curtains, fishnet calves topped with mirror-ball shoes peek beneath golden tassels, rose-pink showgirls pick chocolate truffles in spangled dressing rooms and top-hatted men await their cues in crepuscular light.

As we enter Paul's studio on the sixth floor, where he works alongside a small team, he exclaims that it was once the store's in-house bakery; 'so long as they don't go back to making their own bread, we're safe!' In amongst this Aladdin's cave of dyed feathers, sequins and remnants of the nifty tweaking of second-hand finds, Paul talks to us about the necessity of nocturnal abseiling, his tête-à-tête with Stephen Fry and what best to do with broken chandeliers.

Established in 1707, Fortnum & Mason is a London institution, capturing the essence of a very English wit, glamour and eccentricity which is carried gracefully through the changing ages. And under Paul's direction, its infamous windows continue to be the best free show you'll see all year.

How did you come up with the theme for this year's display?

We already had the theme of 'Showtime' – we always have an overall store theme that's decided about two years in advance and is based on mood. So we knew it was going to be a sort of Moulin Rouge, burlesque theme from the buying point of view, but as far as the windows and the interior go, it actually came about by chance. I was sitting at home watching YouTube and an old Pet Shop Boys video came up with Dusty Springfield in: 'What Have I Done to Deserve This'. They were singing in amongst the theatre with all these showgirls walking around and I thought, how lovely! Also, the staircase in the video looks like the staircase in the Duke Street side of Fortnum & Mason, so I thought how nice it would be if we actually made it look like there was a show going on around you, and you just happened to be shopping there at some stage as these events were taking place.

It does feel very much like that, especially when you go up to the top and see the showgirls in the birdcages. There's one on the staircase and another one just leaning casually over the railing; you have to sort of shuffle past her.

They are hidden all around the store in places where you'd least expect to find them! When you come in through the Duke Street door there's one looking at you there, there are a couple looking down from the staircase... The idea is that you just stumble upon them. They're not a major part, they're just there.

It is great having that huge atrium there as well – it must have been fun using that space.

Oh exactly, and that's something we did for the first time three years ago; up until then we never actually used the atrium as a space. We did it for the first time with Swan Lake, and it was an unknown quantity – we didn't know how it was going to work, how we'd get the stuff up there. We had to use abseilers! We didn't even know how much weight the hooks would take... and we only had them tested two weeks before the atrium decoration went up, so we were working blind – just guessing.

So it was just luck that it turned out okay?

Exactly! But we had to be very careful; we could have gone a lot further with the displays, but there comes a point where it starts to become tacky and salacious, and we didn’t want to be demeaning to women either – we were very conscious that it cannot look like something you'd expect to see in Wardour Street (Soho). So we decided to do 'behind the scenes' in the windows, which gave us the opportunity to put men in and other scenes that you might expect to see, which evened out the balance a bit. Our chairman was very conscious that we cannot have half-clad women in every window – it's not the way forward!

It does have a nice tone to it – a celebratory tone really – and also an escapist one, in this period of relative gloom with the recession. I was standing outside taking photos earlier and so many people's faces lit up as they looked in the windows!

Yes, well I think that's the way it should be. We spend a lot of time and money on our windows, and we can't always fill them up with Christmas trees.The nice thing is you can take people out of their mundane world for five seconds – and it's free. We're offering the biggest free show you'll see this year – and you don't even have to come in!

With music as well! Does that stay on at night?

Yes. The actual sets are built outside – we have a company who do all our window schemes, it's like an extension of the department – purely because we don't have the space here. So they're all built on a farm in Brentwood, Essex, and then we make them up here and design each one, and all the ideas are formed in-house.

How many people are involved in that design process?

There are only four full-time employees in the department, and that includes me!

Where did you get all these wonderful mannequins and costumes from?

The costumes were made here by the team. We bought a lot of the basic raw materials and basques online – my company credit card had quite a few purchases at Ann Summers that made my financial director wonder what I was up to! Then the team dyed the feathers and made every costume individually, every headdress... It was some pretty heavy work. The mannequins we bought second hand, and the reason for that is you can't get the poses in this day and age which Rootstein used to do. Rootstein was the most prolific mannequin company in the seventies and eighties, and the poses were so intricate. In those days stores had proper visual teams – it would take somebody all day to dress a mannequin because it was such a skill, but nowadays they just don't have the teams... they're really difficult to dress.

How long did it all take?

It took the team a month to make all those outfits – and that’s not working every day, that’s just whenever I gave them five minutes! They’re all glue-gunned on – you couldn’t wear them. If you look at those windows from behind it’s all held together with Sellotape and Blu-Tack and bits of nylon, with signs saying ‘do not touch: window falls down’!

What do you do with all the props and the materials once you’ve finished with them?

We re-use them. The mannequins in the cages we’ve borrowed from a collection so they will go back to their original owners, and the ones in the store we will either pass on to a college or use them again in the lingerie departments. The birdcages I’ve promised to a charity called Circus Space, and the rest of it all gets broken down and re-used. Some of it gets sold on eBay, some of it we give away – we give away a lot of feathers! It all goes to good homes.

How did you come to work here at Fortnum & Mason?

I’d worked at Selfridges for many years and then for the fashion company Jigsaw, then one day I decided I’d quite like to set up on my own, so I started a consultancy. I got invited to Fortnum & Mason because they were doing a major re-fit of the store and wanted somebody who had experience in visual presentation of products on the shop floor, so I came on board to help them with that. During that time, I became more and more involved with other projects within the store, and then the creative director took an early retirement and I was asked if I would like the job. I just thought yes, I quite like it here now!

So you went for it straight away?

Yes… I mean, Fortnum & Mason wasn’t like I had thought it was. I’d always thought it would be terribly pompous and regimented, and it was quite the opposite! It was very endearing, the people were very endearing. It’s very eccentric, but it’s also… I hate the phrase ‘it’s like working for one big family’, but in some ways it is. For instance, last week we had a big charity event and Stephen Fry came in to do some announcements; I spent three hours talking with him in the old telephone switch room and then he said, ‘it’s just like I’ve always worked here!’ And it was – even someone of his calibre and his presence could just fit seamlessly in.

Do you have a particular favourite window display that you’ve worked on?

The current one. I always say that! I stand outside and say, ‘this is the best window we’ve ever done’! And then about a month later I’m bored with it and the next one will be the next big thing. Actually, a particular favourite would be Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake – I just like that one because it was a topic that could’ve gone horribly wrong, but we managed to pull it off. Each one’s a different challenge… I strongly believe you’re only as good as the last thing you did.

So now that this display is all done and dusted, are you starting to plan for the next one?

We’ve already started. Next are the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebratory windows, for which we’re decorating the outside of the building as well –not in the same manner that we did for the coronation, but with the same amount of pomp and circumstance. Easter is already planned and that’s being built, and we’re now planning Christmas 2013. So although they’re not built, all the plans and designs and inspiration are there. We like to know what we’re doing in advance purely for the buyers, but we don’t necessarily plan every window down to its final details until sometimes two days before they go in; that’s the way I like to work… so once we have the big idea we can leave the icing on the cake to the last minute.

Do you get a good response from the public?

Yes, generally people like them. There are some who haven’t liked them, and that’s fine. I always think if you’re going to do things that are in the public eye, you have to take the criticism as well as the compliments… The interesting thing is that people don’t see how it all happens. We work nights up until Christmas, so people see nothing, and then they suddenly see the finished thing and say, ‘oh, that’s nice’; but what they don’t see is that the scaffolders have been in during the night, the abseilers have been in, we’ve had all the glass panels out of the top of the atrium to get the scaffolding in…they don’t see the sixteen-ton lorry turning up at three in the morning with 120 Christmas trees that somehow have to make their way into the store.

So you work all through the night?

Yes, the whole team comes in and we literally decamp and are there all night. This year we’ve done some filming – we’ve actually filmed abseilers coming down the atrium at night and a whole lorry-load of trees turning up outside, and us carrying everything around. So I think people have begun to realise that it takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears.

How do you decorate your own home for Christmas?

Badly, and very late. My Christmas tree is usually the last one in the shop, because everyone else has got theirs by then. So by the time I get there it’s always the saddest one, the one that everyone’s left behind.

Do you use some of the decorations from the studio?

Oh no, totally the opposite – I do colour theme but it has to look like a proper Christmas tree.

No feathers?

No feathers! White lights only and a real tree. Last year - and I think probably again this year - I decorated the entire tree in hundreds of old chandelier drops. We collected a few from here, some from eBay, and some from a place in West London that sells broken chandeliers. It was just simple and nice, nothing too ostentatious – it was all very homely. And we put wrapping paper around the tub.

Amy Knight, Arts & Media Correspondent