Design: Goodbye, Piccadilly...

The mannequins in Simpson's last ever window display are shedding glitter tears, as the curtain drops on a ground-breaking tradition of street theatre. Leslie Gillilan reports from London's best-dressed shop
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The Independent Culture
SUNDAY afternoon, the ground floor of Simpson Piccadilly. The store is closed - no staff, no customers. Just me, five members of the "visual merchandising team", a box of silver angels, some pink, glittery storks and a gaudy mannequin doing an ungainly arabesque against a display rack of leather belts (50 per cent off while stocks last).

The visual merchandisers are dressing the windows for Christmas. One sits in a pool of blue light, hanging snowflakes around a spangled polar bear, a tableau of frosted penguins and a polystyrene iceberg. Others are squeezing a seven-foot pyramid of multi-coloured baubles through the narrow door behind the Clarins counter ("Oh God, mind my balls, will you?" I hear above the tinkle of shattering glass).

In the window, a lighting engineer wires fountains of neon in fairground colours. I stand in the warm glow of fluorescent pink spotlights, exchanging stares with the passing procession of shoppers. Then I crack my head on a curve of Simpson's famously non-reflective glass. "Careful," says the electrician, "that window's listed."

Behind the scenes, someone is packing a crowd of po-faced albino mannequins into the service lift. A large pink rabbit with a top hat and a Salvador Dali moustache has emerged from a cocoon of bubble- wrap. Someone else has locked the display manager, Sarah Southgate, into one of the lobby windows with a papier-mache trapeze artist and a clown with Christmas-tree hair. "Come on guys, let me out," she cries.

It really ought to be fun. But just below the surface of banter and tinsel lies an unseasonal air of despondency. This is Simpson Piccadilly's last ever window display. A prelude to the store's January demise, the theme is "Good Buy, Good Buy". It manages to say "farewell, Happy Christmas and roll up for the final clearance sale" in one lavish party of props borrowed from the festive windows of Simpson's last three years. But is it a fitting epitaph to this retailing institution? Not exactly.

When Sarah Southgate learned of the store's imminent closure (on 30 January; it is to be the flagship of Waterstone's book empire), she was planning her own visual swan-song, based on illusion and combining a variety of technical tricks (lights, projected images, a few trade secrets) to enable passing window-shoppers to interact with the scheme through movement and touch. It would have been a first for the high street.

It would have been a fitting end, too, because being first is part of the Simpson culture. It has always fostered new talent and visionary ideas - particularly in the field of design. It has wowed shoppers with a programme of theatrical fantasies staged behind the finest stretch of shop-window glazing in London. And, by rights, it should be remembered as one of the great innovators of 20th-century retailing.

Simpson Piccadilly was founded by Alec Simpson, son of Simeon, an enterprising Petticoat Lane tailor who pioneered factory- made ready-to-wear. When it opened in 1936 it claimed to be the largest menswear store in London - possibly the world.

According to one newspaper, the enterprise was "a bid to right the balance of sex equality", by offering an all-blokes shopping experience in a setting "that is congenial and heartily male". A womens-wear department was installed less than a year later, but the store started life as a temple of collar- attached shirts, DAKS slacks and macs, cotton Y-fronts (an American import) and two-piece suits with zippered, self-supporting trousers and single-breasted jackets - all cutting-edge stuff at the time. We owe Alec Simpson thanks for liberating men from starch, studs and baggy pants.

Alec Simpson was a true modernist, and his taste for the new was reflected in every detail of the store - from the chrome light-fittings (when chromium- plate was still a bright young thing) and the strips of neon which decorated the exterior, to the vacuum-driven "Lamson Paragon" system which whooshed cylinders of cash between sales points and sixth-floor cashiers.

The building was designed by Joseph Emberton and, under Simpson's guidance, was variously influenced by the art deco movement, the Bauhaus School and the work of the Chicago architect Louis "form- follows-function" Sullivan. Emberton satisfied the conditions of planning consent by providing a "handsome architectural design" faced in Portland stone, but opted for a steel frame, engineered by German emigre, Felix Samuely. In 1987, the store was deemed a "structural steel classic" by the British Steel Corporation.

Other early Simpson proteges included the Viennese artist Max Hoff (whose illustrations of chunky, pipe-smoking male models became a Simpson signature) and designer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, a Hung- arian refugee from Nazi Germany (and a director of the foundation course at the Bauhaus), who initiated Simpson's reputation as one of London's best-dressed stores.

For Simpson's opening day (Sir Malcolm Campbell, world landspeed record- holder, cut the tape), Moholy-Nagy furnished the fifth floor with three full-sized aircraft as part of an in-store aviation theme. He also displayed shirts and jackets on heat-formed body shapes in transparent plastic - his own innovation. He was concurrently designing film sets for Alexander Korda and posters for London Transport.

In 1943, the responsibility for display went to Natasha Kroll, a Berlin- trained designer who introduced topical in-store exhibitions - starting with shows devoted to Mrs Churchill's YWCA Wartime Fund, Brazilian architecture and Australia at War. Among the highlights of Kroll's window-dressing career was her vividly theatrical celebration of the Paris liberation in 1944. Always on the look-out for fresh talent, it was she who enlisted art school graduate, one Terence Conran, to create a Festival of Britain- style window of clothes hung on spindly metal stalks with plastic ball feet.

There was Costa del Sol week (to celebrate BEA's inaugural flight to Malaga); the launch of a Chichester sailing range, to mark Sir Francis's circumnavigation of the globe in the yacht Gipsy Moth; and the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977, when Sarah Southgate's husband, Peter, transformed the entire ground floor into an indoor garden complete with real flowers, lawns and sprinkling fountains.

It was talent, energy and dedication - not education or experience - that counted at Simpson. In fact, when Alec Simpson died from leukaemia at 34, his brother Samuel took over as deputy chairman - even though he was a Harley Street consultant with no experience of retailing.

"It was a fantastic working environment," says Peter Southgate. "Anything could happen." Indeed, his 1979 display for British Fashion Week (clothes by Zandra Rhodes, Jean Muir et al, mannequins by Adel Rootstein, sculptures by John Taylor) ended up in the V&A museum.

In the recent past, Simpson would have spent around pounds 25,000 on the Christmas windows. But Sarah Southgate's last tableau has been cobbled together with old props ("we never throw anything away"). The angels are a relic of a "Heavenly Metal" scheme, the trapeze artists from a tie-in with a Cirque du Soleil show, the peacocks, glittery storks, jewelled birds, badgers and the Salvador Dali rabbit all took part in 1996's "Ultimate Party" theme.

This Christmas, some of the figures in the window are shedding glitter tears. Upstairs in the top-floor display department, Sarah and her team are saying goodbye to the mannequins: Yasmin, Helga and Ecstasy Man (the one with the dark eyes and the masculine bulges). There have been tears, I'm told, on both sides of the sales counter. "Why, oh why, are you closing?" the staff is constantly asked.

The decision to sell Simpson Piccadilly (it is now owned by the Japanese company Sankyo Seiko) will not rob us of the enduring DAKS brand, nor the deco-retro building. The company will retain the 1950s "corner shop" on Jermyn Street (as well as dozens of international concessions), and the store's new owners will not be allowed to change much of Emberton's creation. Nor, indeed, will they easily shake off the Simpson name.

The store's Grade II listing protects the exterior - those clean, uncluttered lines, the bands of glass and chrome, the concave windows and the original Simpson sign. Ditto the interior, which still retains most of its natural wood surfaces, elliptical lines and cylindrical columns. The original 90-foot chrome light-fitting, suspended through the core of the main stairwell, is safe. So are the Travertine marble steps and the wall of corrugated glass bricks which runs like a waterfall of light down the store's west side.

What we will lose, however, is what Sarah Southgate describes as "one of the last street-theatre windows in London". The new era of window display is low-budget minimalism, a slave to merciless commerce - which puts corporate identity in front of entertainment value. Take this year's Regent Street lights, sponsored by Tango and Birds Eye and condemned by all as truly dreadful.

Waterstone's, take note: Simpson's fabulously curvaceous windows are a display legend, and the shop comes with a fantastically talented visual team. And they will soon be looking for jobs.