August 27, 2007
First impressions go a long way. Business interviews. Blind dates. Meeting the future in-laws. Shopping trips.
Think about it. When you're out shopping, whether it's for something specific or just as a means of killing time, your eyes roam. Perhaps you notice the ornately dressed mannequins, draped head to toe in the season's finest, configured in a way that tells a story within the confines of a 3-foot-by-12-foot store window.
Maybe you spot unexpected artistic touches -- vintage framed photos, a pile of distressed Western books or an assemblage of rustic antique clocks -- that propel a display table beyond being just a stack of folded crewneck tees.
Those first impressions are carefully thought out and executed by designers specializing in visual merchandising.
Their goal? To attract your eye, romanticize your senses, reel you in and make you buy.
"It's not just about dressing a dummy," says Larry Leathers, the merchandising and display designer for Ruby, a Texas boutique with locations in Fort Worth and Southlake.
The world of visual merchandising is ever-evolving -- ambitious and hopeful one moment, artfully implemented the next. These designers come from all walks. Some sought higher ed for training; others are self-taught. Some have long held the dream of design; others stumbled onto the creative path. All, though, gain knowledge through imagination and experimentation.
"Often I can see it in my head, but I hate to put it down on paper," says Mark Criswell, owner of Home to Garden in Fort Worth. "I just want to dive in."
While their display subjects may differ, designers seem to agree on one thing: Less is more.
"You want to make it as clear and simple as possible," Leathers, 51, says. "Some think that means minimal. But it means making sure your design can be understood. It has to be approachable."
It's like summing up a two-hour film in a 60-second trailer.
"People have to come around the corner, stop, look and say, 'Wow, I want to see more of that.' " says Jennifer Hutson, display designer for Leddy's Ranch in Ft. Worth and M.L. Leddy's, north Ft. Worth.
Hutson, who grew up thinking she would work at a museum, has made the four display windows at Leddy's Ranch a mini fashion attraction of sorts. About every three weeks, Hutson, 42, transforms the windows to showcase a new bounty of elegant Western fashion. She'll bring in props from outside the store to flesh out the window's theme, while making sure nothing distracts from the focus.
"The main subject should be what I'm trying to sell -- the outfits, the boots, etc.," she says. "If people only notice the painting hanging in the back, that's a problem."
People do, however, take notice of quaint touches added to displays. At Neiman Marcus, a high standard of styling is key to the store's fashion forward approach. Local and regional art, unique artisan pieces and fresh floral arrangements are just a few of the ways the store aims to set itself apart, says Ignaz Gorischek, vice president of store development and visual planning for the luxury retailer.
"Only fresh floral and vegetables are used in our stores," he says. "These elements add a visual texture and interest that are impossible to create using artificial elements."
Each Neiman Marcus store has its own visual team, led by a manager and supported by a team of stylists.
"Each store is given the same creative direction," he says. "However, no two stores will ever look alike."
When it comes to narrative storytelling through window design, there is perhaps no grander example than the whimsical musings brought to life in the windows of Barneys New York in New York City. Overseen by the store's illustrious creative director, Simon Doonan, the windows at Barneys, especially at Christmas, are iconic to the Big Apple.
While Doonan has become a celebrity through his visual design work, others have dabbled in visual merchandising before hitting it big in other areas. Acclaimed fashion designer Giorgio Armani turned to the fashion world after working as a window dresser in a Milan department store in the early 1960s.
As with most things, timing is important.
"You need to capture people's attention in seconds," says Leathers. "That's all you've got."