Barneys New York was throwing a party, and though I wasn’t invited I came. It was a glamorous affair, everyone turned out in their Barneys best, coiffed and buffed and lipstuck. The invitations had gone out to the store’s best customers, so I shouldn’t have been surprised I didn’t make the cut. I spend bundles of time at Barneys just looking.

The great thing about this party was that if you spilled a martini down your gown or shed a mascara-stained tear, you could dash up to ladies or over to Shu Uemura and purchase supplies to repair the damage. The sales force did not have the night off. And you never had to wonder if your lingerie was out of alignment. Barneys has plenty of mirrors and excellent lighting.

There were other good things about this party. Like that you could try on shoes. And that a guy in a white jacket would serve you a miniature pancake topped with creme fraiche and a few grains of salmon roe while you did so. You could also wander out into the chill, fortified by a cup of hot chocolate served in a Barneys-embossed paper cup, to join the uninvited masses and Streetwise vendors staring in the Oak Street windows. This act of collective appreciation was ostensibly the reason we were all there. Barneys needed a Christmas present.

You might think the terribly clever Barneys, with stores in 15 U.S. and 2 Japanese cities, wouldn’t want for cheer at Christmastime. You might imagine that corporate executives, dressed in a stylishly nonchalant mix of plaids and tweeds or in black-on-black deadpan, could choose the store a handsome set of bistro china or a handful of trinkets from the men’s accessories case. But no, Barneys needed something it didn’t have: a gift. And the people asked to provide that gift have been invited to the store tonight.

Barneys, advocate of three floors’ worth of stylish luxuries, knows a thing or two about giving. A true gift comes from the heart. It must be meaningful. It should be lavish. Fun. But not so lavish or so fun as to induce guilt. Barneys had concocted a gift that would fulfill all these needs. Like a corps of mechanical ballerinas twirling in the holiday windows of a lesser department store, this was a complex thing.

It began with an invitation. An invitation printed on a red sheet of Plexiglas cut to fit snugly into a black Barneys gift box. It encouraged about 100 Chicago “big talents” (most of them graduates of or faculty at the School of the Art Institute) to create a work of art based on the theme red (as in “Christmas”). Barneys would show it, the School of the Art Institute would sell it. You might wonder why big-shouldered Barneys needed a donation from the palettes of presumably impoverished artists. You might wonder why said artists would merrily sign over their profits to the school; many are still paying off student loans. You might, had you been invited to the party, have learned the answer: out of the goodness of their hearts.

This is where the intricate springs and motors come into play. The artists would make the art. It would be displayed in Barneys’ windows through the holiday season. On opening night, last week, a fabulous crowd of big spenders would cough up $35 each to battle fiendishly, if silently, for the art. The money would be handed over to a School of the Art Institute program that brings art classes to needy kids. Christmastime for everyone. The artists get the warm glow of knowing they’ve done good (plus or minus whatever showing in a department store window means to them), Barneys gets hip windows and do-good credit, the big spenders get bargains on local talent, the kids get another semester’s worth of plywood and Elmer’s, and everyone gets to come to the party, where, via the magic of red martinis and reddish salmon roe, art is turned to good.

Everyone, that is, except the needy kids and their teachers. The paying guest list included big spenders culled from the mailing lists of the Art Institute and Barneys. The freeloading guest list included the artists.

The big spenders, after checking their coats in men’s shoes, tended to mingle downstairs, ordering cocktails from the bar at the women’s glove counter or the men’s sweater island. Chicago Social was all over this crowd. The freeloaders mingled upstairs, alternating bites of salmon on potato wedge or red pepper and goat cheese on toast point with forays into Calvin Klein or Donna Karan or Commes des Garcons. It was charming the way all the merchandise was so handy, and something about the holiday spirit made us wonder if party favors were in order. One contributor succumbed to a perfectly distressed leather jacket, $600. “If Barneys won’t pay you,” someone commented, “you can always pay them.”

Sometime after the carpaccio trays and before the bite-sized lemon tarts, each decorated with exactly three pomegranate seeds, Varla descended the stairs. By day, Varla is a guy named Jeff who lives in New York. By night–at least on this night–he is a rotund and randy Venus. Red hair flowing from crown to crotch, feet quivering in pencil-point heels, ample flesh squeezed into a second skin, Venus belted out a ballad. Two bubble machines spewed Lawrence Welk-quality bubbles. Two women in business suits momentarily joined the show as they scurried past Venus’s bare behind.

Varla didn’t get to perform at the New York version of this benefit, where Barneys staged the auction without the party. Shoppers simply lifted a red phone on the sales floor during regular business hours and found themselves connected to Christie’s, which took bids for the artwork. “We billed it as the event you didn’t have to go to,” explained Barneys window-dressing genius Steven Johanknecht. “In New York, the social scene is sort of played out.”

In Chicago, where we still like a good party, the silent auction was a laconic affair. Bid sheets spread over the tie counter were largely ignored. The big spenders seemed more interested in stocking up on small jewels and small talk.

Maybe that was because some of the artists couldn’t help but throw a bit of a smirk into their gifts to Barneys. Corey McCorkle returned his frayed black linen zip-front Barneys-label jacket to the store under the title Frayed (Mourning). Despite suggestions to the contrary, two artists produced work that wouldn’t do for cash-and-carry. One was a decal stuck to a Barneys window, the other a promise to help the highest bidder volunteer time to city kids.

Amy Wheeler, the only current student in the show, silk-screened a four-panel homage to Barneys. Three of the prints re-create the Barneys objects of her desire–a sweet little black jumper, a terrific clunky ankle strap, and a chocolate-colored high-button jacket–executed in much the same style as the charmingly vague postcards Barneys sends. Like the one taped to my bathroom mirror, the one with that sullen girl in pigtails holding a perfectly fabulous platform ankle boot. The one that reads, “Sometimes philosophy is not enough.”

Wheeler’s fourth panel was an open letter to the store. “Dear Barneys,” it began. “I love your store. I had never been inside until you asked me to do your holiday windows. Everything you have is beautiful and elegant! But unfortunately it costs too much for me to buy. I was wondering, since you wanted me to do the windows, if I could trade you these pictures for the clothes? I have included inventory numbers and price tags to help you out. Sincerely, Amy Wheeler.”

Only half the 48 artworks received any bids at all. Most sold in the $200 range. Wheeler’s piece went for $2,500. To Barneys. They’re planning to hang it at corporate headquarters. And they’re not planning on trading her for the clothes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.