Premier designer & manufacturer of holiday, seasonal & event decor.

Erte Girl

Grand Designs: Stefanou brings passion (and size) to displays at Fashion Show Mall and Bellagio Resort & Casino

November 25, 2003                                                                                                         by Kristen Peterson


Stephen Stefanou likes big things!

His dreams are big. His passions are big. When it comes to the holidays, his designs are copious.

From a giant holiday wreath at Trump Tower to 14-foot cadets at Rockefeller Center, Stefanou has become a master of large-scale seasonal trim.

At the Fashion Show mall, his Erte-inspired holiday display features sculpted, jeweled ornaments of slender women, stretching as much as 25 feet and costumed in red velvet and lace.

At the Bellagio, Stefanou is working with director of horticulture Audra Danzak to create a winter wonderland in the Conservatory, complete with a 25-foot topiary train, four topiary caribou, oversized ornaments, snowdrifts, an ice pond and “snow” falling every 15 minutes.

“The challenge here is what would be cool and interesting in a city where everything has been done,” Stefanou said, looking down at his 35-foot, art deco Christmas tree inside the Fashion Show mall. The tree includes strobes and clear panels inspired by glass designer Rene Lalique.

“As the casino industry becomes more savvy they’re taking advantage of the holiday because of the resort element,” Stefanou said. “Their industry spurred this phenomena that doesn’t exist on any other level.”

Stefanou and his Dallas-based Venue Arts, a company that designs seasonal corporate displays for big-name clients, broke into the Las Vegas market last winter when Danzak called him five weeks before Christmas to help dress the Conservatory’s holiday show.

The following morning Stefanou was at the Bellagio planning for 10-foot, gold-and-jeweled, bulbous ornaments to augment the 8,000 poinsettias and ivy-lined lake. Two months later he supplied an 18-foot God of Wealth and Fortune for the Conservatory’s Chinese New Year show.

In addition to Bellagio and Fashion Show, Stefanou will work with MGM MIRAGE Events to dress the TI lobby for the holidays to coordinate with the hotel’s new adult theme.

“I need a client who needs something really different,” Stefanou said. “I always dream everything big, which requires architectural design, thought and engineering.”

In Fashion

For the Fashion Show mall, which recently had a $1 billion expansion, Stefanou dusted off some renderings he had drawn up nearly 25 years ago for Donald Trump, but were never used.

From the renderings came the idea of an Erte (the late, Russian-born art deco painter and designer) holiday show to fill out spaces in the grand mall.

“We didn’t just want a decorating scheme to decorate the building,” Karen Kozemchak, Fashion Show mall marketing director, said. “We want to create an environmental feeling and link it to what we’re about, fashion and design.”

There are eight sculpted women, including a seemingly pensive mannequin lounging in red holiday pants and gold heels.

Lazing comfortably in a 12-foot, jeweled silver wreath, she balances a clear snow globe in her left hand. She stares downward, unaffected by the holiday frenzy unfolding below. Calm. Peaceful. Tranquil. A little Erte. A little holiday spirit. A lot of haute couture.

“She’s not aloof, but very stress free,” Stefanou said. “This is something that’s frozen in time. It’s a classic.”

Stefanou contacted costume designer Michael Southgate, formerly of London’s Adel Rootstein Display Mannequins, and hired him to create the costumes. Stefanou said he went to London to get licensing from Erte estate. The women are sculpted directly to Erte’s proportions from the artist’s illustrations.

The mannequins were created in London and flown to New York, where they were costumed and sent to Dallas to be placed into the ornaments.

“With this square footage, you cannot decorate the mall,” Stefanou said. “You have to create destinations within the mall.”

Two 12-foot “crystal maidens,” dressed in red gowns and connected by red sashes, pose on mirrored stands. Their halo headdresses include ostrich plumes, snow berries, iced golden leaves and pearlized, ruby leaf sprays.

Giant red Christmas tree balls, inspired by artist Claes Oldenburg’s giant, everyday objects, are part of a Santa display in which the mall Santa will sit in a giant ornament lined with red, hand-tufted velvet.

More than 100 benches in the mall were covered in flame red to weave the display together. The Christmas tree is placed where the mall holds its fashion shows. Each show will include falling snow.

Creating holiday dressing for a mall is unusual for Venue Arts. Stefanou says it normally doesn’t work because competition is focused more on economics than aesthetics.

But, he says, the Fashion Show is no “ordinary mall.”

Moving up

Before getting into design, Stefanou was a pre-med student from Shreveport, La.

He answered a newspaper ad for a job spraying mannequins. Soon he was decorating windows and trimming mannequins.

Last month Stefanou was installing his corporate holiday displays in 12 cities, including Rockefeller Center in New York.

At Bellagio, he and Danzak are planning an enchanting spectacle, which will be completed Dec. 8.

“It seems that when he and I brainstorm, we go crazy,” Danzak said. “Last year we did a new show and we want to make it even more spectacular this year. So we decided again to think up some new approaches.”

On Dec. 1 the cranes come out to transform the Conservatory into a winter wonderland, featuring a 35-foot, live cut tree from Mount Shasta, Calif., floral spreads, a classic French garden designed in the image of a Turkish carpet and Stefanou’s oversized ornaments.

Guests will walk through a garden of birch and evergreen trees, some of which were inspired by the Adirondack Mountains in New York and used in the fall display.

“We wanted the forest, but different,” Stefanou said. “So we went further north to Montreal. Now we’ve reached a new elevation. We’ve come up higher. There will be a forest with lots of variety.”

Icicle decorations will hang from the branches.

“Part of the challenge is using the amazing technologies the conservatory has in creative ways,” Stefanou said. “The water, lighting and sound, technology.”

“Normally, a conservatory garden in the United States is in a major urban environment, funded by wealthy people. It’s scientific, it’s civic, it’s beautiful. There’s no oomph. But (Audra) has to do something to blow their minds every two months.”

It’s something Stefanou can appreciate.

“Every year is a growth experience for me,” Stefanou said. “This is a whole new deal. But if you ask me, every day I wake up it’s a whole new world. I am totally guided by intuition. That dimension is limitless.

“My formula in the business is to make it as difficult as possible and no one will want to copy you,” Stefanou said.

While tourists are strolling the Bellagio, Fashion Show mall, Rockefeller and other sites during December, Stefanou will be at a tropical island resting, because, he said, in January he has to take it all down, then start on Chinese New Year.

“I enjoy what I do,” Stefanou said. “I have a lot of fun.”

And this time of year, Stefanou is surprisingly calm.

“I have been a master of delegation. That’s the way I pull this off. I have a great staff.”