Illumination Goes Luxe

Increasingly, high-end brands are sponsoring Christmas light-ups inside and outside of malls and, in cities such as Tokyo, shopping districts too

An LV Christmas glass installation in Marunouchi, Tokyo

You have seen the Dior star-tree in the open space in front of ION Orchard. Scores have taken photos there, with the massive festive set-up behind them. It is not clear if the lavishly-lit, multi-story, outdoor Dior-branded structure pulls shoppers into the mall, specifically to the (new) Dior store inside, but that installation, with two massive Dior logotypes, is a reminder of the brand’s marketing might. It does not matter that more that 95 percent of those who desire to be photographed with the Dior fake tree would, in fact, not be seduced by it to want to go further than take selfies, but Dior is probably pleased that the tree is attracting massive attention, not just with locals, but tourists too. It is good enough that it’s a Dior Yuletide moment. And Orchard Road has not looked this festively cheery since the COVID pandemic struck. Dior is also making record sales globally to be able to stage such an unmissable pile of the brand’s mighty standing, augmenting the same unabashed commercialism of this very season.

Further north of our island, fellow LVMH brand Louis Vuitton took the massive on-the-mall-premises marketing exercise further—in, unsurprisingly, Tokyo. The business district and shopping area of Marunouchi, in front of the unmistakable Tokyo Station, is where they have set up not just the usual 3-D Christmas-themed structures (such as the window piece above) to attract amateur shutterbugs, but also something far much more interactive: an oblong skating rink to lure the winter skaters. Situated on Gyoko-dori, the wide pedestrian walkway (in front of the central entry/exit of Tokyo Station) that leads to the gardens and grounds of the Imperial Palace, the rink is without doubt, the main attraction of the area. Dubbed Marunouchi Street Rink, it is the first ever set up here, but the 9 metres long and 26 metres wide facility does not come with an iced surface. In the name of eco-friendliness, the rink has a resin skating area. When selfies are done and skating is completed, one can quench one’s thirst at the Fish Café. The kiosk, in the shape of a fish, is known as a Fish Car, and it serves winter-appropriate beverages, such as hot cranberry ginger tea. Every single one of the three stops here is designed in collaboration with Yayoi Kusama.

An LV ice skating ‘ring’, also in Marunouchi, Tokyo

That LV partnered with Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama is also an affirmation of their commitment to Japan. While the installations are, admittedly, a publicity effort for the collaborative collection with Ms Kusama, expected to launch on New Year’s day, they do not have the commercial blandness that such exercises typically project. They have the playfulness, even cuteness, that is inherently Japanese, when it comes to engaging the city folk in public art. And they are massive in scale, which allow them to be sculptures on their own (or installation art), which keeps with the creative standing of Tokyo. The Marunouchi installations are not the only ones LV has set up. Also Yayoi Kusama-themed are the 3-D video art in front of JR Shinjuku Station’s east exit, more video ads framing Shibuya Scramble Crossing, a giant “floating pumpkin” in Ms Kusama’s distinctive dots hovering above some rooftops, just next to Tokyo Tower, and the pathway in front of the Zojoji temple, dotted with the artist’s signature pattern.

Marunouchi (specifically Marunouchi Street Park or MSP, held this time of the year since 2019), even without the latest illuminated participation of big brands, is one of the most “classily lit” parts of Tokyo, as the locals would say. The main light-up is usually on Marunouchi Naka-Dori Avenue, one of our favourite shopping streets in Tokyo, about 1.2 kilometres long. Running for 21 years, the illumination here is, at its humblest, 1.2 million LED lights in champagne gold stretched over 340 trees. This year, much of the action is on MSP Twinkle Street, which this year tumbles down in front of Marunouchi Building. There is a merry-go-round and more Yuletide-themed spots to sit and sip hot beverages and non-alcoholic cocktails that can be bought in kiosks dotted around. The mood is decidedly festive, almost carnivalesque. Even the crowd does not spoil the fun. It helps that Tokyo this year is enjoying a comparatively cold December, averaging 6 degrees Celsius in the evenings these past weeks. There is something bracing about the cold air, a boon to the enjoyment of outdoor festivities.

The Tiffany’s globe also part of the Maruouchi’s annual street light-up

Another LVMH brand, Tiffany, too made their presence felt. Not to be outdone, the American luxury jewelers created the Tiffany Holiday Street in the vicinity of the Marunouchi Park Building, diagonally from the Kitte Shopping Mall (which has its own stunning festive decoration in the main atrium; this year, Winter Forest Christmas). Tiffany’s installations—more traditional—are no slouch: there is a Christmas tree, underscored with boxes in Tiffany blue, and a huge stained-glass bauble. These on-the-street pieces commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Tiffany store in Japan, which opened in Mitsukoshi Department Store in 1972. Although Japan is Tiffany’s largest market in the world outside the US, the company did not open a freestanding store in any Japanese city until 1996—in Tokyo, on the shopping belt Ginza, with a massive 7,700 sq ft flagship. The Tiffany Holiday Street designs are derived from the brand’s holiday greeting cards from the ’50s and ’60s, which were designed for the New York 5th Avenue store by the late pop-artist Andy Warhol.

The Marunouchi illumination is possibly more stylish than those in other parts of the Japanese capital (even trendy Omotesando) because the main street Marunouchi Naka-Dori Avenue is not only home to major fashion brands (including avant-garde mainstay of Japanese fashion Comme des Garçons), it is also where some of the city’s best public artworks are displayed—nineteen pieces in all, including the sculptures by Renate Hoffleitm, Emilio Greco, and Kohei Nawa. But these are not some random pieces placed in the front of buildings by their wealthy owners. They are, in fact, operated and curated, since 1972, by Chokoku-no-Mori Art and Culture Foundation, which operates the famed Open-Air Museum in the onsen town of Hakone. The alluring Marunouchi lights are more than prettifying one of the nicest and least manic parts of shoppable Tokyo. There is a spillover effect on the neighbouring districts of Yaesu and Yurakucho, too. In Japan, Christmas is not a public holiday. It is less about religion, and more about the festive vibe, augmented by the holiday illuminations.

The Dior star-tree outside ION Orchard. Photo: Chin Boh Kay

Back home, our main light-up is on Orchard Road, a roughly 3-kilometre stretch, taking into account Tanglin Road. That makes it twice the length of the Marunouchi illumination (and, at 38 years, almost twice as old), but not, unfortunately, double the stylishness or sophistication. Unlike the light-up in Marunouchi, Orchard Road’s goes through thematic and chromatic changes each year, and not always with convincing creative flair. Certainly not 2018’s Disney Magical Moments. Mickey Mouse and company (Elsa and Anna was somewhere too) pleased not the National Council of Churches (NCCS), to the extent that they wrote to the Singapore Tourism Board to express their displeasure that the light-up was more Disney than Christmas. Even Dick Lee, four-time Orchard Road light-up designer, joined the chorus of criticism, echoing to The Straits Times exactly what the NCCS felt: “there is too much emphasis on Disney, and too little on Christmas.” Mass appeal does not always sway. And Disney does not always win.

It is admittedly hard to evoke the Christmas vibe on our sunny island, chief among the disadvantages, our weather. Even in this rainy season, the temperature is around 28 degrees Celsius, way warmer than hot spots in Tokyo, even down in the belly of the Toei subway system. No one sings Baby, it’s Cold Outside. Which means when a Christmas ad calls out to you to “soak in the festive spirit”, it inevitably means you’d be soaked. The heat, coupled with the humidity, usually means T-shirt, shorts, and slippers are preferred for viewing the festive lights. This typical Orchard Road turnout contrasts dramatically with that in Marunouchi, where going to view the seasonal illumination is an affair that encourages better dress than required for a visit to the konbini. Here, inside is better than outside. At the central atrium in Takashimaya Shopping Centre recently, shoppers were thronged into the space now mostly occupied by a nearly three-storey Christmas tree surrounded by bears with the body of models and dressed in Ralph Lauren. Many visitors seemed to have escaped the scene out on the Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza, mere steps away. There is a Christmas market—the Great Christmas Village, it calls itself—in operation. The crowded open space is flanked by food trucks and crammed with fairground rides and a messy central zone of tables, littered with leftover makan and used disposable plates. “Great” is really stretching it.

Photos (unless stated): Jiro Shiratori

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