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The window dresser's winter wonderland

People in fashion: The Selfridges Christmas windows amount to minor works of art - especially when you consider they are a year in the making. Hester Lacey met presiding genius Paul Chambers
Frogs with wings, glittery gold and blue beetles, wood nymphs reclining by mysterious woodland pools, bright tropical lizards and a huge purple octopus: these are some of the ingredients of this year's Christmas window displays at Selfridges on Oxford Street. Nowhere to be seen, however, are the traditional department-store standbys: cotton-wool snow, big dangly stars, garlands of plastic greenery with twinkly fairy- lights that flash in time to piped carols, automated Santas that go "Ho, Ho, Ho" or 30ft fake Christmas trees festooned with baubles.

The man behind the store's 1997 near-tropical extravaganza is Paul Chambers, manager of Selfridges Creative Direction department, together with his team of eight designers and a production department based in the Selfridges studio off the Edgware Road. The idea has been germinating since this time last year. "We start coming up with ideas in January and February, and the props and sets have been in production since March," says Paul Chambers. "This year's theme is 'visions and dreams'. It was a concept originally put to us by the fashion department, which predicts the moods for the store over the following 12 months. It initially had a Twenties feel, with an element of surrealism, and it's very organic. It's an alternative look at Christmas - exciting and unique."

He leads the way on a circuit of the building with its 36 windows. Mannequins clad in devore recline next to mysterious dark pools with huge white and pink flowers. "We took inspiration from French artists for these," says Chambers. "They have a hazy 3-D Pop Art feel." The next display, all in reds and oranges, is like looking into the bottom of a cave, populated with tiny bugs and scorpions. Further on, enormous Venus fly-traps springing from a rain-forest floor cling greedily to a cornucopia of Gucci goodies. Everything is dusted with iridescent glitter. Look closely, and a tree reveals itself as a green-skinned wood-nymph, winged frogs and sinuous lizards clinging to her thighs. Another window has strange coral-like forms and starfish, another has an enormous purple octopus, and one of the prettiest has white waves made up entirely of tiny fish and butterflies. The frogs and the lizards crop up everywhere, painted in clear jewel-like reds, blues, greens. "We thought the frogs might be a bit too spooky," says Paul Chambers, "so we added the colours and now they're quite sweet."

This glamour has been created mainly out of sheets of board, fibreglass, polystyrene, glass, 20 boxes of glitter spray, 50 bags of glitter flakes, and goodness knows how many miniature plastic lizards, frogs, scorpions, beetles, butterflies and bugs. Most of the sets were assembled in the Edgware Road studio, dismantled, moved and put back together again; a task made trickier by the fact that the entrances to the window spaces are inconveniently small, and also because the Christmas windows cannot be seen to be put together - they have to appear fully complete, as if by magic. This year, prior to Christmas, the windows were decorated with graphics attached to the glass, behind which the production team were beavering away; in the four weeks of installation, the production staff split up and work in two teams round the clock.

Each window is carefully designed to be a "two-hit"; the first "hit" is for people whipping by on the bus, who will get a fleeting, general impression, hence the large scale of the tree-nymph and the octopus; the second "hit" is the detail, for those people (and there were plenty of them pausing last week) who stop to scrutinise. "The maximum time people look for is about a minute, so you have to make your impression in that time," explains Paul Chambers.

At the age of only 27, he is responsible for Selfridges' windows all year round, though Christmas is the highlight of the year. "We have three major promotions that everyone is involved in: spring/summer, autumn/winter, and Christmas. The rest of the year it's more or less up to me." He tries to go to New York once a year to gather ideas. "The stores in the States are much bigger and more customer-oriented. I should go more often."

About 10 per cent of his work is actually setting up displays, he says, the rest is inspiration and organisation. "I always wanted to do something like this. I did A-level art and a one-year pre-vocational course to develop retail-based artistic skills and creative design - very practical, rather than airy-fairy art. Then I did a two-year course at the College of Distributive Trades." He started off wanting to be a stylist, and got his first job at Miss Selfridge, dressing mannequins. "It was quite repetitive and I got bored. But I knew the Selfridges display people by then, and it just seemed a more extravagant and somehow more grown-up job." He worked his way up to head of creative direction last year and, he says, has just started thinking about Christmas 1998.

With not a single pine tree or a solitary robin in sight, however, isn't his seasonal effort this year a bit, well, unseasonal? "What is Christmas? Christmas is twinkle, it's magical, it's a spectacle, a mystery from a child's point of view. This installation has all those elements. It has the glitter and magic, and those are the important things."