EW YORK — Manoel Renha, a 40ish Brazilian-turned-New Yorker with a slim build and trim dark hair, has more in common with jolly old St. Nick than appearances would suggest.
Renha thinks about the holidays all year long. He works with his own little cadre of elves, helping him make dolls look just right and adding just the right amount of glitter to each decoration. He spends long days — and even many nights — in a secret workshop.
Renha is the creative director for windows at Lord & Taylor’s flagship store in Manhattan. The six oversized windows that face Fifth Avenue, which rise from a basement studio on the nation’s only window hydraulic lift system, are Renha’s gifts to the city and to all the visitors that come here to capture a little bit of holiday magic.
They never feature merchandise; they always have multiple moving parts. Lord & Taylor has done them for 80 years — with Renha providing the creative juice for 21 of them.
The official theme for this year’s windows is the five senses. But the windows also transport passers-by to the early part of the 20th century in faraway lands such as Paris, Venice and Copenhagen, Denmark.
“I always say my last one was my favorite but this one really is up there,” Renha says. Other themes near and dear to him were “The Nutcracker” and fairy tales.
“The fun part is seeing the windows and eavesdropping on the comments. The best comments are from the kids — they’re so
honest!” he says. “I take seriously their comments for the next year.”
Renha never set out to be one of Santa Claus’ helpers. He studied to be an architect but soon after school he was asked by family friends to work with them to change the image of their department-store chain. “Since then, I’ve been in retail,” he says with a smile.
But when it comes to the holiday windows, Renha doesn’t have to worry about pushing the season’s “hot items.” The process is more organic than that: With a few ideas swirling in his mind, he’ll do loose sketches of scenes that he thinks will entertain and delight the crowds. Those produce a concept and, then, technical drawings. “That’s where my architect and set designer background come in,” he says.
In the summer, Renha does the same sort of inspiration boards that fashion designers use, a haphazard group of magazine clips, photographs, print swatches and color cards that set a mood. He later becomes an expert in the costumes, buildings, fabric, food and colors of the era.
It’s a lot of work — and expense — for a project that doesn’t necessarily drive traffic into the store. But Lord & Taylor’s senior vice president of advertising, promotion and public relations LaVelle Olexa says the windows are about a bigger picture.
“The world who visits New York City expects fabulous windows. It’s something important to the city overall. It would be a big miss not to have them,” she says. “People remember coming back with their parents and now coming back with their own children or even grandchildren.”
Of course, she hopes this goodwill will turn into consumer loyalty eventually.
“Maybe they’re not shopping today, but they might tomorrow or the day after,” Olexa says.
Ultimately about 200 people have a hand in the creation of the windows, but Renha relies mostly on the two dozen in his own department that are there from the brainstorming sessions to the final touches.
“You can’t count the yards of fabric we use for the windows. We buy everything in bulk,” Renha says showing off bolts of satin and lace and boxes upon boxes of glittery garland and mini faux cranberries. A few boxes of toymaker Breyer’s realistic animal figurines also are scattered about.
It’s not uncommon for the garland to be cut into 1-inch pieces and all the cranberries cut off their branches.
How else would one make a wreath that’s scale appropriate for a home where its residents are only 2 feet tall?
The hot glue gun is a favorite tool this time of year because everyone is in a rush to finish every last detail, from putting icing on the cakes to positioning the carving knife in Grandpa’s hand. “Everything has to be done by hand on this scale,” Renha explains. “The details are what makes the difference.”
Each outfit is finished as if it were headed to the selling floor, with even hems and embellished trim. Shoes for each of the 80 characters are tiny pieces of leather sewn together.
Renha can’t use typical dolls’ clothes because the size isn’t quite right — his figures are a little bigger. It’s also difficult to find printed fabric for the garments and upholstery because the scale has to be so small. “It’s easy to find big prints, especially now in fashion, but not for these proportions,” he says.
Luckily, a child’s tea set does work for the Parisian bakery scene this year. Glass-making isn’t one of Renha’s many talents.