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VM basics: text book stripes

The rules of visual merchandising (VM) are text-book simple - at least to those of us who work in VM - and this article will take a look at one of them: the effective use of vertical stripes.

The fundamentals of VM are determined by how the human brain receives messages, dictated by the mechanism and sophistication of the human eye. Be they horizontal, vertical, or diagonal, the brain finds lines interesting. The eye naturally follows a line and all evoke different emotions.

As a small example, take a look at the image of vertical and horizontal stripes here. Although both the horizontal stripes and the vertical stripes are the same width the vertical stripes appear slightly narrower. This is due to the way the human eye perceives images.

The horizontal stripes remind us of horizons, be they fields and a big sky or the sea meeting the sky, which we find tranquil and very restful. Vertical stripes evoke a ‘sit up and pay attention’ response. They remind use of zebra crossings (seen from the perspective of the car driver), iron gates or railings.

In VM we employ anything that attracts attention, so it follows that vertical stripes in all variations make great VM for windows and promotional graphics.

I’ve included one example of a Hong Kong Swank Shop window from Spring/Summer (S/S) 2009 as an example of the peaceful effect of horizontal stripes. The central image of the closed-back window is of a beach and sea/sky horizon, and is echoed in the horizontal stripes either side, which lighten as they ascend towards the top of the window, suggesting a slight perspective through use of colour.

Dries van Noten’s windows in The Landmark store in Hong Kong’s Central, windows for S/S 09 were a wonderful exercise in the use of vertical stripes. The images demonstrate the variations a black/white colour palette can achieve. This was the summer of black and white fashion: the restricted colour palette emphasizes the effect of the lines, and the curved and alternating stripes reference the mesmerizing effects of Op Art - in itself a great theme for VM if handled carefully.

The skill of these windows lies in the controlled effect of the busy-ness of the stripe. The super-wide stripes fill two of the full-length windows, each with one mannequin dressed in black and white.

Two windows have even stripes.

These 50/50 black and white stripes are interrupted by an Op Art arc which livens them up, and gives something for the eye (in reality, the brain) to follow, drawing the focus in to the window rather than directing it towards the top or bottom of the window surround.

The last full-length window uses a placement stripe as a backdrop again, interrupted by more of a part-circle than an arc. Placement stripes have overtones of formality - we usually see them used in Oxbridge college scarves and for Regency wallpaper. The sweeping arc neatly echoes the shoulder-line and sleeve of the mannequin dressed in a black and white windowpane-check top and matching skirt, showcasing the mannequin and the merchandise, but not dominating it.

The three small Tiffany, or niche, windows are designed to showcase a single accessory. Each has narrower, scaled stripes, all variations on the vertical theme. One is at a slight angle but not quite diagonal - this is a topic for another article.

The second employs horizontal lines broken by multiple wavy arcs, which reduces the tranquil effect of the horizontal lines. 

The third window features a misplaced circle - more on the effect of circles in VM in a future article too.

To repeat the vertical lines of the full-length windows in a scaled down version would not have had the same impact in smaller windows, so offering a variation on a theme employing other stripes still fits the concept - stripes to attract attention - but prevents the smaller windows from being a slightly boring repetition of the larger ones. Very impactful, very attention-grabbing, and very nicely thought out, as good VM should be.

• Stripes make great attention-demanding backdrops

• Vertical stripes command more attention than horizontal ones do.

• Vary the widths to add interest

• Limit the colour palette for maximum impact.

• As always, the backdrop and theme should showcase the mannequins and the merchandise, not dominate them.


Dr Valerie Wilson Trower writes a regular column on visual merchandising for Retail Design World