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VM Basics: Luxury

Luxury - as opposed to bespoke - as a retail category is a relatively new phenomena, albeit one that today’s customer has learned to recognise. But what does luxury mean today?

The tropes of premium in-store VM are well known: coat-hangars 6 inches apart, only one of each garment on a fixture; and merchandise displayed by lifestyle, not product category.

For the store itself a quiet, still, interior space, perfectly decorated, with appropriate music, sophisticated lighting and carpet – except in Italian stores where marble is preferred. Lastly, there will be a subtle hint of perfume.

Representing luxury in window displays is more complex. Luxury materials and finishes are an obvious starting place, as at optician Linda Farrow’s store. The Mount Street Christmas window featured a charity promotion with Julian the Bear, offering a free shiny bear with any pair of sunglasses, or available to purchase separately. The proceeds raised by the golden bears are donated to the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. The ‘giving back’ relationship element also communicates luxury as it conveys generosity. Linda Farrow is effectively ‘giving away’ her window space, located on an expensive shopping street, to a good cause. But luxury is more than the use of gold (always an opulent element) and other shiny surfaces, which alone can be suggestive of kitsch or the nouveau-riche.

For international brands a clean, easily comprehended concept that will have universal recognition while reinforcing the brand is a must. This means no ‘cornucopia of merchandise’ looks that can be misinterpreted as clutter, especially by Asian customers.

Fendi and Louis Vuitton are past masters of such displays, with Fendi changing its backboards for every theme. This Fendi Spring/Summer window from Hong Kong’s The Landmark store, borrows opulent textured matte gold for the backdrop. A neat ‘spokes of a wheel’ prop is composed of belts, its central focus a handbag – key to Fendi’s merchandise offer. The mannequin, wearing a dress from the S/S collection, carries the same handbag.

One retailer that carries off a near-cornucopia look successfully is Fortnum & Mason. With a spiral staircase bedecked with colour-coordinated merchandise, as seen here for Valentines Day, the effect is still neat and also rich, implying the abundance of a well-stocked pantry.

Scale - either giant or miniature - works especially well as an indicator of luxury, provided it is immaculately executed. It demonstrates care, which is a luxury due to the labour cost required to create it. Selfridges does this very well in its London store windows with, for example, the Apple watch launch employing the flower images of the watch face writ-large in the windows in a theme specified by Apple.

The mini-display works on the same basis. This Valentine’s Day window for Tiffany, in one of its beautifully-lit niche windows, depicts a romantic encounter between two paper dogs. The scale of the ring beside the right-hand dog’s tiny paw conveys the care and skill with which it was created and installed. Here, care and skill demonstrate luxury again, much as the finest chocolate brands demonstrate the finest care and materials with exquisitely hand-decorated confections.

Shopping malls are equally good at creating luxury free-standing displays. This example, from Hong Kong’s Landmark mall from 2011, the Year of the Rabbit, showcases just one of an entire nest of giant rabbits filling the podium area. The display was a conspicuous consumption of space, which lesser malls might have filled with shops.

Half of this pop-up store for Thom Browne in Le Bon Marche’s Paris store is used to create a room of mirrors reflecting endless pairs of the same men’s shoe. As in many city locations, space in central Paris is a luxury. Le Bon Marche and others, including Hong Kong’s Lane Crawford and New York’s Barneys, have deliberately moved upmarket. This extreme reduction in store density creates vast quantities of quiet, calm, open space, conveying the message: ‘If space is money, as it is for all real estate in all world cities: look at the wealth we can offer you.’ The customer is eing invited to participate in an exclusive club of luxury.

Sometimes, usually when economies are in recession, luxury is perceived as an indulgence and not an imperative. Therefore some premium retailers focus instead on the tool-like nature of their merchandise. While it might be possible for customers to deprive themselves of a luxury, no one can deprive themselves of a tool that would enable them to function better. For example the features and benefits of a coat, the quality of the fabric, the styling details or its performance characteristics.  Swiss brand Victorinox, and sportswear brand Adidas both often feature windows highlighting such features.

Luxury also implies exclusivity, but this rather conflicts with a premium brand’s aim to successfully sell merchandise. Making merchandise accessible drives sales but may risk diluting exclusivity and brand image.

While the trepidation experienced on entering a Bond Street or Mount Street store, with firmly closed door and empty space, may deter some, entering a department store, no matter how plush, is unlikely to generate the same concerns. Celine’s decision to close its concession spaces in many London department stores may help drive traffic to its flagship store but, equally, may drive sales towards more accessible competitors.

Even mid-market brands display relative conspicuous consumption, as in the entrance to the All Saints’ store in London’s Notting Hill. The collection of sewing machines at the entrance takes space that might have been used to promote merchandise, suggesting that the All Saints team has spent time and effort sourcing old machines. The collection is a luxury of both space and labour. The fact that these are visible from the street is a luxury for all customers too, enriching the environment - as does all good VM - in the same way any public amenity or shared space does.

Luxury in retailing today may be more discrete than in the past, but it is be just as recognizable as it was, say, in the 1920s, when a bunch of out-of-season red roses in February for Valentine’s Day was an extravagant luxury. For windows, be they large or small, luxury is often entertaining and always of exquisite quality.

Photos: Alvin Yeung, YMC Design, and Dr Valerie Wilson Trower