Five female mannequins behind a retail display window

The Art of Storytelling in Window Displays

  • By Holly Wadsworth

I saw an unusual and refreshing sight this morning while on a busy London high street: a young woman, walking along, engrossed in a paperback book.

I never used to understand how people could walk while reading, but I’m now almost professional, as I’m sure you are too, at texting, Instagramming, and reading on my phone while walking.

Here within lies one of the challenges facing retail brands today: how to engage with customers in an authentic and enticing way that will make them look up from their screens and take note.

There is, of course, no fixed formula to solve this conundrum. But perhaps instead of always looking to the technologically driven future for answers, we shouldn’t forget to sometimes look to the past.


There’s More to Window Displays Than What’s On Sale

For as long as we have been able to communicate, we have been making sense of the world by telling stories. As consumers, we can engage with a story, hopefully creating positive associations with both the brand and the product.

Whether a brand is two or 200 years old, its history and how it came into being often prove great starting points for a storytelling window campaign.

Over the last decade as a visual merchandising designer, I’ve had the opportunity to transform boxes of dusty archives into engaging and modern window displays.

Although it isn’t always easy to tell a story without words, I’ve learned a few tricks along the way…


Don’t Be Afraid of Embellishing Your Store Window Displays

Good storytellers always exaggerate a little for good effect, and to provide some entertainment.

One of my favourite examples of storytelling elaboration is a project I worked on for Louis Vuitton’s 2011 holiday window scheme.


Louis Vuitton Archives,Rancy family circus


Until the launch of these windows, few people in public knew that the brand had previous connections with the world of the circus:

  • The famous escape artist Houdini sometimes performed, faced with the impenetrable locks from his LV trunks
  • The Rancy family circus, who took up residence next to the Vuitton home in Asnières, France, had their miniature pony, who was hidden in a specially commissioned LV trunk, magically appear during a show

The narrative of the window concept was anchored in this brand history, but from there, we expanded the theme to meet our needs. (The windows were adorned with ornately decorated props: balancing elephants, tightrope walkers, trapeze artists, juggling seals, cheeky mice, and dancing monkeys.)


Louis Vuitton Circus, 2011


The story of the Vuitton circus was told in-store, on social media, in the press, and their website. It worked so well because the narrative was authentic and belonged to the brand.

Stories like this can be used to educate, inform, surprise, and entertain customers while also reassuring them of the heritage and longevity of a brand.

Another good starting point for a narrative display…


Look to the Brand Name and Logo for Inspiration When Designing a Window Display

Some companies are named after their creators, but others have more complex and interesting origins. The brand Nike, for example, takes its name from the winged goddess of victory and their brand symbol, the ‘swoosh,’ is a symbol of speed and flight. While there haven’t been many flying Greek goddesses in Nike windows recently, many of their displays directly refer to their brand story of flight and speed.

I recently did a project for the company Montblanc, where the window theme was based on the origin of the brand name. The brand is named after Europe’s highest mountain, the Mont Blanc, symbolizing the brand’s commitment to the highest quality and craftsmanship. Their logo, a white star, represents the snow-covered peak of this mountain.


Mont Blanc Window Display, 2015


The inspiration for the window scheme came from a contour map of this famous mountain, each different layer of the decor representing a different contour and becoming a prop for products. While the design of the window was somewhat abstract, it became a good communication tool to illustrate the brand story behind it.

My last piece of advice, if brand appropriate…


Don’t Forget to Have Some Fun with Your Window Displays

A humorous narrative display can win over the hearts, minds, and wallets of its audience. Although many brands shy away from them, the most culturally or politically sensitive stories are often those that provide the most humour.

Levi’s are well-known supporters of gender-neutral fashion and inclusivity and illustrate this beautifully in their thought-provoking and often funny window displays. When marriage equality became a hot topic in the press, they showed their support for the cause with the elegant and fun “Just Married” window campaign.

Last year, I designed a set of windows for a charity project for the Camden People’s Theatre in London. We had a tiny budget and four even narrower windows to work with. The theatre was going to be running a month-long event called ‘Whose London Is It Anyway?’ The festival explored the changing face of Britain’s capital city through theatre, performance, and discussion.


Camden Peoples Theatre Living Window Display


As one of the main topics on the agenda at ‘Whose London Is It Anyway?’ was the housing crisis, we decided that a great way to illustrate this story would be to get people “living” in the windows. I designed each window to look like a different room in a house, and we had a rota of actors signed up to live in each tiny space for ten hours at a time. In a simple and fun way, we drew the attention of passersby and the media to the extortionate cost of living in London.


About Holly Wadsworth

As the former Head of International VM for Lancel, Head of VM Design at Montblanc, Window Designer for Louis Vuitton, and Associate Lecturer at the London College of Fashion, Holly Wadsworth knows a thing or two about visual merchandising. She currently serves as Founder and Creative Director of HWVisual, a London-based boutique visual merchandising design consultancy.

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