The art of window dressing

Images courtesy of Tom Beebe

“I always wear rubber bands. I usually have like 20. These are my jewelry,” says Tom Beebe, vice president of creative services at HMX Group, the holding company behind major retail brands such as Hart Schaffner & Marx, Hickey Freeman and Bobby Jones. You can also call him the right-hand man to designer Joseph Abboud, who serves as president and chief creative officer of HMX.

Beebe’s rubber-band ritual began when he was working as the East Coast regional manager of Neiman Marcus in the early 1980s. At that time he was still something of a hometown boy, having grown up in a large family in nearby Mamaroneck. Beebe would travel from White Plains to Bal Harbour in Florida to supervise visual merchandising and store window display.

“I used to wear one and it was a constant reminder to be flexible when I’d go to meetings,” says Beebe, whose casual-cool, all-black ensemble contrasts with the sharp blue sky framed by the windows behind him in the bustling common area of HMX’s Park Avenue offices.

He also always wears a pin on his shirt.

“It’s a constant reminder to me that it’s display. We’re not saving lives. It’s not to be taken so seriously,” he says. “And it’s a reminder to stay focused and if you give me pins, threads and wires, I can do anything. And I’ll make it move as much as I can. And that’s basically what Tom Beebe is about.”

Bringing the magic

Knowing exactly what he’s about is a quality that has allowed Beebe to develop a signature style in window display and store design, rising to the rank of industry vet in a small, competitive and highly specialized field. After an exodus from visual merchandising following a 14-year career doing windows at Paul Stuart, Beebe shifted gears and worked as creative director at DNR, the now defunct trade publication for men’s wear, doing styling and trend reporting and attending industry parties with “everybody – Armani, Donatella, Tom Ford, Thom Browne, Dolce and Gabbana, everybody in the business, one-on-one conversations sitting at tables. It was really fun.”

When the 116-year-old publication closed in 2008, Beebe saw the opportunity to get back into the visual world, “and that’s really me and that’s really full-circle.”

Two years later, he was recognized with the prestigious Markopoulos Award for outstanding lifetime achievement in the visual merchandising industry.

“For your peers to recognize you is the highest accolade. …And the thing is, I had left the business for eight years, too, and when DNR closed, I got nominated, so for me it was like a real coming back.”

Market trends, the hit of the recession and the rise of the cookie-cutter retailer over the past 15 years have trimmed budgets set aside for extravagant visual merchandising. Now Beebe sees the pendulum swinging back with retailers like Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters and Macy’s embracing arts and crafts, paper art and repurposed materials like wine-cork beaded curtains in windows – “You need artsy-craftsy people to do these things,” he says.

“I teach all the young kids to just get in the window. It’s still one of the only creative fields that you don’t have an editor and all these people standing over you. If you can get in the window and just do your thing, you become the next Simon Doonan (of Barneys), you become the next Candy Pratts (formerly of Bloomingdale’s), you become the next Christine Belich (formerly of Sony), the next Tom Beebe, you never know. People want theatre.”

Beebe says that visual merchandising is central to defining and maintaining a brand and with this in mind, he’s busy renovating the Madison Avenue Hickey Freeman store.

“We’re taking out the carpet, putting in beautiful wood floors. Joseph is a master at framing, and the mattes are all done in cashmere. The furniture is all done in men’s suiting fabrics. That’s what you’re going to see at Hickey Freeman, because you know you’re in a man’s world.”

Beebe’s own enchanting displays showcase his sense of whimsy and resourcefulness. He’s made cufflinks out of metal wires, shoes out of suit fabric, and once told a mask-maker, ‘I want you to make me a piece out of leather that looks like the wind,’ and this is one of my all-time favorite windows.”

Last Christmas, he constructed Christmas trees out of layered flaps of men’s suit fabric. Last month, he was already planning this Christmas.

In his windows, Beebe points out, “Movement is my signature, because it gives it a spirit. Life’s too confusing to be serious. It’s about being entertained and bringing the magic.”

Working with Abboud

Beebe, who joined the HMX Group two years ago, has known Joseph Abboud “forever from past lives,” but the two met at a funeral crowded by men’s wear professionals and started to talk.

“This gig lets me do everything – store windows, the showroom, styling the 100 forms in the showroom, sticking right by Joseph and shooting the photo shoots, look-books, the ads, the catalogs and opening the stores. …What you do every day is a lot of putting out fires. …But it’s a creative fire and that’s a good fire because it’s all based on passion. And Joseph is based on passion, too… I stick right on top of him like a shadow.”

“Tom has the magic of really knowing our industry and he’s always been thinking outside of the box,” says Abboud as he cuts from the elevator looking bronzed and summery in a fitted dusky indigo T before going to get suited up. He briefly rests his hand on Tom’s shoulder and continues with Beebe nodding in agreement.

“I think what’s been great about our relationship is that we can speak in shorthand so we both know what we’re talking about. We both get it. And more than that, Tom has such amazing, positive energy. That’s the most important thing in this creative world. If you don’t have positive energy, creativity tends to knot up like a muscle. You have to be very positive and always find ways around doing things if you don’t have a budget or have to do things efficiently. He’s the best at it.

“We have this thing. We have more of an artist’s color palette than a fashion color palette. We really approach men’s fashion as wearable art. We always try to find something that evokes an emotion,” says Abboud.

Another connection Abboud and Beebe share is Westchester County. Abboud calls Pound Ridge home and Beebe frequents Mamaroneck, a place that holds a lot of family history for him and his seven brothers and sisters, many of whom still live in the area.

“My grandfather Everett Smith was the mayor, and my grandmother Jane Baxter Smith goes back to a relative, Griffin, who was the interpreter when Mamaroneck was bought from the Indians. A painted mural of the scene is on the walls of the newly remodeled Mamaroneck Library,” Beebe says.

For the past 20 years, he’s lived in the West Village and has cleverly furnished his rooftop apartment with outdoor furniture from his family’s homes in Mamaroneck. Essentially, Beebe is bringing the country to downtown New York and rarely flees the city except for off-season trips to his favorite spot, Montauk.

Beebe says Mamaroneck really is the friendly village and he laughs as he talks about his childhood nickname, Buzzy.

“Locals will know me when we walk around. I like that you can walk through the town and people still say ‘hello’ to you. And I always walk up the main street and walk by where my great aunt and grandparents lived.”

The houses remain in the family, which has always been supportive of Tom’s dedication to his demanding and exciting field.

“I’ve taken spools and spools of ribbon and said to my brothers and sisters, ‘OK, everybody we’re makin’ bows tonight,’” Beebe shouts, throwing his arms in the air. “‘Actually, for the whole weekend we’re makin’ bows,” he laughs, adding, “It was for Neiman’s, and oooh, we had to make so many bows.”

3 Comments

  • Karen Beebe Campanile says:

    That’s my brother … I’m so proud of him . This article is fabulous … tells everything about him in his business and personal life. He has always been the energy behind our family! Bravo to the writer!

  • Al Angelini says:

    I always knew “Buz” had a special talent, but seeing this article
    really zeroes in just how talented Tom is. Simple to understand why
    the family is so proud.

  • JohnBoy says:

    He has always been a “Creative Genius”
    But more important is that he is one of the most caring people I know.
    Just maybe, his thoughtfulness to others is what keeps his mind fresh and helps spark the next exciting IDEA!
    We can all learn something from Tom/ Buzzy!!!
    Great Article

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