Once Upon A Window…
I saw an unusual and refreshing sight this morning, whilst 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 along reading, but I’m now almost professional, as I’m sure you are too, at texting,
instagramming, and reading on my phone, whilst 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 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. 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 product. Whether a brand is two or two hundred 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 embellishment.
Good storytellers always exaggerate a little, for good effect, and to provide entertainment. One of my favourite examples of storytelling elaboration is a project I worked on for Louis Vuitton, for the 2011 holiday window scheme.
Until the launch of these windows, few people knew that the brand had past connections with the world of the circus. The famous escape artist, Houdini, sometimes performed, faced with the impenetrable locks from the LV trunks. The Rancy family circus, who took up residence next to the Vuitton home in Asnieres, had their miniature pony, who was hidden in a specially commissioned LV trunk, magically appear during the 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. The story of the Vuitton circus was told in store, on social media, in the press and on the 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 whilst 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.
Some companies are named after their creators, but other 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. Whilst 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.
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. Whilst 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.
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, 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.
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 HW Visual, a London-based boutique visual merchandising design consultancy.