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Visual merchandising basics: luxury and corporate brand VM

Everyone who works in visual merchandising thinks that what they do is ‘VM.’ But VM varies so widely that in reality we all do very different jobs to create very different displays with the same outcome – to attract attention, to sell merchandise, and to build the brand. Not only does the output vary, but VM varies by country too. Let’s take a look at the differences.

For top-end, international designer brands VM reinforces the marketing campaign of the brand. Be it Gucci, Longchamp or Bally the windows of all top-end stores will echo the seasonal print and on-line campaign, showcasing the seasonal collection with each store reflecting the same theme. Each location will be slightly different as the contents of a window will be dictated by the size of the window, and by the size and importance of the store.

The two windows of the Hong Kong Gucci store in Central, for example, as here from Christmas 2012, have props and a wonderful display. The 3 exterior windows of the Chengdu (China) store, in comparison, contain just 2 light boxes and the brand name.

Of course in purpose-built malls windows can be standardized to some extent allowing a more uniform theme display. For older stores - especially those in London or Paris where the store is in a street of older buildings - VM has to be tailored to accommodate narrow access, or difficult window shapes which cannot be changed. Two exceptional top-end brands must be mentioned here: Fendi and Hermes.

Fendi changes the back-boards of every window for every display, and Hermes has made the half-height carriage window their own even in new stores worldwide. See examples below: Fendi 2-jours window from SS12, with its assembled metal ‘dropbox’ cut-out shapes against rippled backboards neatly accommodating the window access in Hong Kong Landmark mall, and Hermes’ peach-toned Hobby-horse window, complete with saddle against the carriage window back-boards from Spring/Summer (S/S) 13 in the Sloane Street store.

Carriage windows were used in better quality stores in the past as they prevented passers-by from seeing into the store, yet allowed daylight to enter. These windows were traditionally dressed only with a vase of flowers in summer, or perhaps a vase of dried branches in the winter. As the customer arrived by carriage - hence the name - and entered the store directly, merchandise display was unnecessary. Passersby on foot would have been unable to afford the merchandise so there was little point in creating a display for them.

Fortunately, for VM people, the world no longer thinks this way. Although the medium employed - resin, fibre-glass, wood, and metals - varies the end result of top-end VM today is, increasingly, a simple display.

While some of New York’s department store windows remain theatrical, with cornucopia-style displays (as Selfridges in London sometimes also features), windows of Asia have developed their own neat, clean style, partly because of the lack of skilled man-power to create labour-intensive displays, but also because, in Asia, neat and clean looks classy, or fresh. Europe remains more variable - partly due to the constraints of old store windows - but also because generally, the customer is more sophisticated and will tolerate more complexity. As Asia has been the focus of retail expansion over the past few years, contemporary VM reflects the change in retail focus.

Whilst VM at the top-end is a very clean, global installation of a back-drop and bespoke props relating to the seasonal campaign theme, VM at corporate level - for multiple High Street stores for example - often relies on foam-board and stickers to attract attention.

Here the budget is lower, and while this can be well done, too often it isn’t due to the conflicting demands of the retailer’s various internal departments. I remember one store group – which shall remain nameless – where the window backdrop was the responsibility of the VM department, which also dressed the mannequins, but the props were the responsibility of the graphics department. It was, as might be predicted, a recipe for clutter and foam-board Christmas trees….

For corporate brands, windows may also require installation by store staff rather than a VM team. Even if the brand has trained selected retail staff in VM basics, and provided copious detailed instructions (and many store groups do), they are still not usually followed with the degree of skill required for a great window. That said, Clarks’ shoe stores seem to be doing a good job with neat modular elements, many of them from card - see F/W 13’s door and steps, and I like Ecco’s light box with a changing display. Here the graphics department has built the brand with a changing bespoke series of images, including shoe sole prints and patterns.

Foamboard can be used brilliantly: Anya Hindmarch’s windows offered a lovely cardboard box to showcase a single handbag last autumn – an image of which was used in the print campaign - see image – or Rimowa’s store window from Christmas 12, one of a series of well thought-out concepts featuring the suitcase.


Even paper can look great – I doubt we will ever forget Louis Vuitton’s paper shirts from S/S 12, see image – but the emphasis of both examples is on clutter-free, considered work, not the ‘pile it high’ mentality we have seen in past VM.

We increasingly read - or understand - VM as a manifestation of the tropes of a brand, irrespective of the brand position. It should be clear, concise, and comprehensible to everyone; and of course, a visual pleasure.

Tips for concepts:

• Keep it clean, neat, and considered making only one point, and preferably supporting the seasonal collection.

• If using humour consider if it is comprehensible to non-native English speakers.

• Ensure the VM supplier has up-to-date and accurate measurements of all windows and their access doors.

• If the concept has to be implemented globally, stacking/folding props or those that can be easily assembled on site work best.

• For successful assembly on site, consider how much man-power is required for completion.