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An expert army of elves are behind the Christmas windows that dazzle on the high streets at this time of year. Words by Rebecca Kent.

Enlivened by spectacular 3D scenes of everything from a white Christmas to an eerie one, high street windows glow like beacons at this time of year. Behind the displays, experts work around-the-clock to make them happen.

They say it should take around eight seconds for a window to lure a shopper inside to part with their hard-earned dosh – so it’s essential it not only looks good, but that it does the job. With that in mind, designers are tasked with being as creative as possible.

But, with all kinds of props and technology available these days, help is at hand to whip up a masterpiece.

“It is supposed to make shoppers screech to a halt and say, ‘I’m going to look inside’,” says Jonathan Baker, 44, a course director at the London College of Fashion. “To do that, you must know the product, who you are targeting, what the trends are, how much space is being paid for, and whether or not to go into the hard sell. For example, you are not going to put an Alexander McQueen dress in the window with hundreds of other products because it would only devalue it.”

There are usually three teams behind dressing a window: design, production and styling. Ultimately, their aim is to increase sales in store – with senior visual merchandising staff bearing the brunt of that responsibility.


 
Apprenticeships were once an acceptable way to start out in the industry, but, nowadays, because it’s so competitive, you are more likely to land work by being qualified. It can be a straightforward path up the career ladder. “If you are a junior, be prepared to be the one who holds the pins,” says visual merchandising expert Baker. “But you can move between companies easily; you might be a junior somewhere, move up to a supervisor role, then get a job in another company as a visual merchandise or display manager, then go to another brand and be a creative director. That’s where the money is.”

Indeed it is. The salary of a creative director is about £150,000 compared to £18,000 for a junior.

As a visual merchandiser, it’s essential to know what tools you have at your disposal and when to use them: animatronics, “a bit dated,” says Baker; lighting, “a crucial component”; headless mannequins, “perhaps for the likes of Primark which has a broader market”; busts; and augmented reality. These days, you can put a cardboard cutout of a watch on your wrist, and hold it up to a shop window, to see a computer-generated version instead.


With so many unwieldy props, the job is physical. There is a lot of time spent up ladders and changing mannequins.

Abi Shapiro, 28, works in the production team at Selfridges – it’s Christmas windows have a ‘musical panel’ function, where if you touch the glass, it triggers a tune to play.

“Essentially, we have to take a 2D image and turn it into a 3D reality, trying to achieve depth by using props of the right scale,” she says. “We have a room full of manual tools such as hammers, screwdrivers and drills – the standard tool kit for any DIY.”

Between the three teams, putting together a window is a 24-hour job and a high-pressured one, too.

“Working to time and budget is the biggest challenge, especially when you have to work with other teams,” Shapiro says. “The creative team might like what’s biggest and best, but often we’d have to say we can’t afford that.
“But in saying that, we’re lucky. Selfridges is innovative with its windows, so we get to treat them like an art gallery.” The pressures might be great and the hours anti-social, but the pay-off is instant satisfaction.

Shapiro adds: “It’s a great feeling when people are taking photos of our windows, or when they tell us how much they like them. We are all passionate about our jobs, so it’s always great to get feedback.”

Mark Briggs, Store manager, Harrods:
“At least a year of planning goes into each season’s displays and there are steps the store image team must follow. First, they must brainstorm to identify the theme, then we visualise the agreed theme, and finally, we work out a budget. Harrods has a mile-and-a-quarter of windows; 72 in total must be dressed. We have a 100-strong team, 15 of them on window displays. Our windows need to have an equal balance between show-casing the products we sell, and offering customers a sensational set of seasonal displays.”

The London College of Fashion offers a degree course in fashion retail branding and visual merchandising – see fashion.arts.ac.uk.

For other courses see britishdisplaysociety.co.uk and skillsmartretail.com.


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