Neiman Marcus Fortnight was a celebration of a pop cultural look at various countries that only the venerable store could create for 29 years, from the 1950s to the 1980s, which inspired a global view of style. Here our style-seeker Casey Richter learns its history and its legacy.
The Excitement Of Countries, Cultures
Dallas in Wonderland, otherwise known as the first ever Neiman Marcus fortnight, was launched in the Cold War era and quickly became one of the most respected and desirable events to attend in not only in Dallas, but also in the US and beyond. The marketing blitz was originally conceived and created as a two-week event to boost the store’s pre-holiday sales … and it was an instant hit.
“Stanley Marcus staged the first Fortnight in 1957 celebrating France, it was also the 50th anniversary of Neiman Marcus,” shares Ken Downing, fashion director and senior vice president of Neiman Marcus. “Stanley believed in bringing the world to the city of Dallas, the city of Dallas to the world since global travel and access to foreign countries and cultures was not as seamless then as it is today.” It placed Texas firmly in the center of the high culture map when the era’s quick strike oil millionaire cartoonish characterization had become the country’s perception of the average Texas citizen. Marcus and his team expanded that point of view.
According to Downing, the Fortnights were launched after the fall fashion collections, before the Holidays, to excite and ignite the customer’s imaginations and to bring them into the store to continue a strong selling season. As Stanley Marcus put it more frankly when he was minding the store, it was to ‘offset the pre-Christmas sales slump’.
”For over 29 years, Neiman Marcus Fortnight brought the excitement of countries, cultures, artisans and exquisite product from around the world and one fictional country to life in a way that people had ever experienced,” Downing states. “Exceeding the customer expectation was always Stanley’s intent, an idea that continues throughout the company today.”
The first celebration, trumpeting the half-century anniversary of the flagship Dallas store, was a true French soirée that dazzled attendees of the era. Gallic décor, French fashions, perfumes, food and a visit from designer Coco Chanel enchanted shoppers and made this event so memorable. A year before this first event, Marcus even sent 20 Neiman Marcus buyers to France to search for merchandise that was the best representation of that country – everything from food to fashion. He arranged for French tapestries to be exhibited at the city’s Memorial Auditorium; French paintings to be on display at the Dallas Museum of Fine Art (now known as the Dallas Museum of Art); French films to be shown in area theatres; French entertainment to be booked at local clubs and he encouraged civic clubs to invite French speakers for meetings. According to those who were there, to further celebrate the store’s anniversary, the six-story birthday cake’s interior was included on first floor of the store and staged as the Place de la Concorde. The second floor’s walls were hung with $10,000 worth of donated draperies from French textile makers and interspersed with three dimensional copies of Gauguin, Mondrian, and Leger, made with life-sized dummies, while the fourth floor was set up as designer Christian Dior’s boutique in Paris.It was a Francophile’s paradise and as très chicas it could get in that era.
Dallas’s first international flight even landed at Love Field for the event. The craft was filled with the best French designers, writers, artists and more. During the reception, Stanley Marcus was awarded the Chevalier Award from the French Legion of Honor, established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. There was such a buzz that Time magazine covered the event in its October 28th, 1957 issue, and Neiman Marcus sales reportedly went up by 25% during just the period of Fortnight. Before the French Fortnight ended, British interests contacted Marcus, and in turn the country became the second theme for Fortnight. Other countries honored with Fortnights to follow included Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, Japan, Ireland, Brazil, Spain, Greece, Germany, and Australia before the event ended in 1986.
“The Fortnights made learning fun,” recalls Sandy Marple, Vice President of Special Events, Neiman Marcus Group, who was affiliated with the Fortnights from the various positions she I held from the time she began working for NM 1969. In fact, as the public relations manager for the downtown store, Marple produced the grand opening galas and ceremonies for the France 1985 and Australia 1986 Fortnights. She told us, “They were active, and colorful – full of exhibits and crafts people who were not just willing, but anxious to share their country and culture with you. People from the honored country traveled to Dallas enabling the local community to make new friends, and have stories to tell for years, as our visiting guests took stories home of their many adventures in Texas.” One adventure in the Fortnight Australia1986 had Marple overseeing the finer details of the country including live sheep. She explains, “Dan Merino, the championship sheep on display to tout the country’s wool industry, had to have his fleece removed just as winter was coming on. Obviously this delighted neither Dan nor his owner. Of course, it was Neiman Marcus to the rescue and we outfitted him with the proper coats and hoods to keep him warm, and we got him a heater as well.”
One Of The Most Important Events
Anne Peterson, photography curator at DeGolyer Library, remarks on how popular Fortnight became. “For the next 29 years Neiman Marcus Fortnight became one of the most important events in Dallas, bringing the culture, products and celebrities from more than 30 countries to the city.”
At the 50th anniversary of Fortnight and the 100th anniversary of Neiman Marcus in 2007, items from the DeGolyer Library collections were present to enhance the evening, including vintage documents, photographs, newspaper clippings, blueprints, etc., from designer the Fortnight creator’s Marcus and Tony® Award-winning costume and set designer Alvin Colt.
Marcus recruited Colt in 1963 and they worked together to create an annual, ongoing homage to a myriad of countries, which conversely, helped the exposure for the goods and services the particular country provide. Colt was instrumental in creating the magnificent displays and transforming the store into a remarkable scene. In fact, he turned the main store floor into an English manor hall for the 1967 British Fortnight, set up a live bull in the china shop for the Spain Fortnight of 1980, and a crocodile pool outside the Lacoste shop at another French Fortnight. “Fortnights are done with a very theatrical point of view,” Alvin Colt said in 1984. “It’s not display, interior design or anything like that. Fortnight design has a whole stamp of its own. It’s an experience, and it’s just the same as when the curtain goes up on a show.” That experience continued to make the store a retail leader, surpassing competition at the time that included the nearby, yet now long-defunct department stores like Sanger-Harris and Titche-Goettinger.
Fortnight truly brought the world of fashion, culture, history and education to Dallas, and to Neiman Marcus. One attendee from then remembers this feeling, “For a middle-class kid living in Dallas in the Sixties, Fortnight was a window to the wider world. On a special evening, Mom would dress us up in our best. The minute Dad got home from work he’d load us in the car and take us to Neiman’s flagship store in downtown Dallas – but it didn’t seem like a store at all. In fact, once I entered Neiman’s, I felt as if I’d stepped off a plane into a faraway place.” This two-week period in the fall had an impact on citizens of all types. The same attendee also recalls playing guessing games all year about what the theme of Fortnight would be, and would window shop and peruse the racks at Neiman Marcus with her mother to be caught up on the latest trends, in preparation for the event.
Neiman Marcus Fortnight was not just a fashion event. It was a cultural experience that brought many types of people together to celebrate. It still resonates with the store’s creation of experiences, marrying both luxury retail and its customers.