Brand World Reflected in Display Windows
What can we see in a shop window? Our reflection and/or consumption desires. In both cases it depends on a brand (in the first one also on the light). Because behind the glass, there can be the brand’s sparkling, intriguing world or withered artificial flowers and a plastic elephant.
Display windows are a brilliant invention that, contrary to all appearances, remains as important as ever. Of course, in the era of the Internet their role is different than before. What has not changed, however, is the fact that in their essence they are like a combination of a poster and stage design, and sometimes even an artistic installation per se.
A flâneur is a figure strongly rooted in European, and particularly in Paris culture. He very often features in nineteenth-century literature: from Charles Baudelaire, through Edgar Allan Poe and Honoré de Balzac, to Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust. What started as a fashionable motif in literature, has become a widely described and analysed sociological and philosophical phenomenon. A phenomenon that has grown out of a wave of interest in a city as a complex structure, not only urban, but also social and cultural, being studied with the use of all available tools offered by humanities. In this context, a flâneur – with all his weakness for the aestheticisation of life, hedonism, but also cogitation and the desire to experience life through its diversity – is a graceful motif that works well in communication. His sophisticated contact with reality, typical for connoisseurs, in the urban space is mixed with him forcing his way through hosts of attacking stimuli, mainly visual. During his saunters, a typical flâneur looks at the surroundings, but also at how they reflect him – like mirrors or shop windows. Today, due to a permanent lack of time, a seemingly pointless stroll, discovering the city without any plan, absorbing its charm, watching it like a theatre performance from the perspective of a café table or a park bench, seems a pleasure rooted in the world that in many respects no longer exists, but also very human. A pleasure that reveals itself in particular in confrontation with the ubiquitous technology that makes us take our eyes off what is around and stare at a screen. Something as prosaic as an amble is regaining its importance. Mainly because of the recurrence, predictability and unification advancing at a dangerous pace, which instead of creating a soothing kind of routine that would give us a sense of security, are mechanical and lack authenticity. This is a vagrancy understood as an urban journey among people, but at the same time next to them, a kind of escapade that does not result in loneliness in the crowd.
Display windows, though invented in the nineteenth century, are today as important as at the time when the first of them captivated passers-by. Making their debut, they were considered quite an attraction and novum. They significantly contributed to forming the modern consumption and experiencing a city. Shop windows affected also the character of cities as a colourful element of their landscapes. One of the first were created in London and New York, quickly gaining followers around the world. Forerunners in this area were department stores starting their operations at the time. Most of them still exist and despite the accelerating pace of change in all aspects of civilisation, they still attach importance to creating stylish designs of their ground floor windows. This tradition is cultivated by renowned New York stores such as Macy’s, Bergdorf Goodman or Barney’s. The same goes for Harrod’s or Selfridges in London and Bon Marché or Galeries Lafayette in Paris. In fact, in every global metropolis it is easy to find sparkling shop windows that compete to capture audience attention. Both salons of the grandest fashion houses (particularly noteworthy here are for instance Hermés, Louis Vuitton, Nike, Dover Street Market or the no longer existing Colette boutique) and small boutiques take part in the race for the most interesting or the most beautiful window dressing. Points may be awarded for style, charm, but also for the storyline or unique theme. New concepts are presented every now and then, intended to enchant the clientele. They become increasingly fancy when it is Christmas time. Then the imagination of artists designing for the biggest companies and shops knows no boundaries. And the same is true for budgets.
A lot has changed since the first display windows appeared. If today’s world looked at its incarnation dating back almost a hundred and fifty years ago, it might not have recognised itself. But in the era of increasing digitalisation, the power of the Internet and more and more elaborate technologies, shop windows are still an important element in building identity and image. They are a decoration with a strong narrative power. Like Biblia pauperum, a theatre performance, comic book or novel, they weave stories suggestively, drawing the audience into imaginary worlds. Sometimes they can act as the best heralds of impressions awaiting us right inside the shop door. Their lasting importance is established not only due to the fact that they have become a permanent part of urban landscape. Their capabilities result also from the change in the competence of present stores. Accents have been shifted. The current model makes shops into more representative and image spaces rather than, as was the case until recently, strictly commercial ones. Into a combination of playground, gallery and consumer experience lab. A place where brand essence can be touched and tested. The shopping itself is supposed to become an experience. Less passionate transactions can be dealt with via the Internet anyway. Although this form of sale has also noted a rapid development. Technology is becoming increasingly sophisticated and consumer experience more and more interesting and full.
Shop windows act therefore as a brace of sorts, clasping together the real world and virtual reality. The current complementary sales and communication model with rewritten roles makes a computer, phone or tablet screen, as well as a display window, into pieces of a mosaic that give a single picture.
Although online shopping is growing fast and steadily, it will take a long time before it catches up with the traditional sales in terms of turnover. The latter’s incredible asset is the physicality of display windows, their traditional, scenographic trait. However, both channels must complement each other, creating a kind of hybrid. This is why global companies introduce new sales models. Online shops are beginning to imitate traditional ones as regards their form, range of services and facilities, as well as the sophistication of purchasing process. And traditional shops increasingly rely on technology that enables to combine both these planes. From virtual mirrors, through apps, all the way to display windows designed with Instagram in mind. After all, nobody wants to be perceived as not photogenic or separated from the current trend (although some moderation is recommended here in order to avoid pretentiousness).
Display and Rituals
Nothing can ever replace the ritual, pleasure and additional non-consumptionary values of shopping connected with a stroll along city streets. Most probably, technology will be becoming increasingly close to reality. It will develop possibilities not available before. But socialising, manifesting our own selves and defining where we belong in the social hierarchy are intrinsic to human nature.
Displays looking at us from behind the glass are closed compositions. They reveal the sedulously designed brand world to the audience. Today, both huge department stores, sports, fashion or luxury brands, as well as small original boutiques, send these evocative postcards from their universes to recipients roaming cities every day. A bit old-fashioned in their charm, but regularly adjusted to contemporary times, display windows stay important. Once the avant-garde, a casket filled with wonders, at present they announce attractions waiting for consumers inside a shop.
Today’s vibrant, multidimensional and diverse world is itself like a passer-by staring at a shop window. Distanced from everything around, it is lost in the eye-catching view separated only by a glass pane. The goals of this analogue image are in many respects consistent with how virtual reality affects us.
Technology determines the form and quality of life. It sets the time necessary to fulfil all our needs or whims, and even the kilometres left for us to run or drive. Captured in the form of elegant devices, it displays more and more information on multiplying screens. Two display windows, so completely different and yet so similar. Screens are mirrors, pictures of and invitations to parallel worlds. The form is evolving, tools are becoming increasingly precise, extraordinary, extravagant. What remains the same is the fully sensual experience embedded in a cultural and social context. Shop windows are of particular importance now, when customers expect unique sensations and authenticity. Going shopping, they look not only for items.
From a Shop Window to a Gallery and Back
Sauntering the shopping streets of global metropolises, we can note a series of successive stories. Even though each of them forms an autonomous narrative, they merge into a huge train of visual fireworks. Like in every aspect of human activity, also in this field competition has existed from the very beginning. A beauty contest started. Department stores hired decorators and window dressing quickly became a profession. What is interesting, many companies go for continuity, employing trusted creators to design their displays. Many famous artists designed shop windows at the beginning of their careers, looking for a chance to break through and a way to earn money. We can find such episodes in biographies of Giorgio Armani as well as Salvador Dalí or René Magritte, and the leaders of the American Pop Art – Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. It was not always by choice. This occupation provided a living. Putting it bluntly: hackwork. Today well-known artists also accept propositions to create shop displays. But it does not happen too often. And probably is also quite expensive for a given company.
The initiative to hire artists came from Gene Moore, one of the most famous and esteemed American window dressers. He worked for various shops, including the no longer existing Bonwit Teller department store, then spent almost four decades shaping Tiffany’s visual identity. Thanks to him, young artists not only designed decorations, but had also an opportunity to present their art. He was the one who designed the display window at which the main character of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly, played by Audrey Hepburn, is staring in one of the film’s first scenes. The scene is extremely hypnotising, even though hardly action-packed. There is something non obvious and very sensual about it, besides Hepburn, of course. This impression is probably intensified by Henry Mancini’s music combined with the stateliness of the store building and the character’s studied nonchalant elegance. The scene itself may serve as a timeless visualisation of the role that shop windows play not only as professional seducers but also as figures of both high and mass culture.
Window dressing still attracts stars and renowned names. Who Moore had been for Tiffany for many years, Simon Doonan is now for the Barney’s department store. Grand fashion houses used to bond with specific creators: Louis Vuitton with Faye McLeod or Hermès with Leïla Menchari. But contemporary times require constant changes and new names attractive for the media and capturing customer attention. Long-term cooperation results in an excellent sense of the brand and a coherent style, but in terms of maintaining interest and constantly introducing new ideas it does not seem as attractive as today’s world may require. In addition to permanently employed window dressers or managers responsible for aesthetic image, many displays are prepared in collaboration with designers and artists whose reputation and signature strengths provide an inestimable communication value, especially at a time when architecture and design have become fetishes for the mass audience.
Even though shop windows have remained chocolate boxes, they must also meet new expectations. They might be the emblem of visual and physical contact with the brand, but nevertheless must function in the virtual galaxy filled with millions of photos published on Instagram and Facebook to the same extent as in the urban reality.
It would be rather problematic to measure the number of looks thrown at display windows by passers-by. Undoubtedly, it is much easier to check the number of page views for a website or social media content. Still, the charm and strength of analogue screens consist in the fact that they arouse curiosity incidentally or unexpectedly, when we take a walk, hurry for a meeting or chase after Christmas presents. We are dealing with miniature street performances, frozen in motion or moving.
Shop windows offer also something that meets voyeuristic tendencies almost everyone has. After all, it is human nature to spy on others. However, the more important driver of the unflagging popularity of these glazed installations is the need of physical experience. In times when we are so intensely present in the digital world, the possibility to get in touch with a form of communication rooted in tradition gives us emotions and sensations so necessary to balance the stimuli coming from virtual reality. These are also more lasting because – supported by many contexts – they stir our imagination and emotions more strongly.
Although in the brand image universe shop windows may seen an innocent detail, they are an important element in building identity. Beautiful, refined, graceful, but not cheap, they are a testament to individuality, character and ambitions.
Immersing in the world of display windows, we will quickly notice that there is one paramount rule. Everything is legitimised by unrestrained imagination. The more non obvious an idea, the more spectacular display. What elsewhere could be considered too extravagant or balancing on the border of kitsch, behind the glass suddenly becomes justified and interesting. The concept of exaggeration does not apply here. It does not mean, however, that designs are poor or chaotic. No way will we meet rachitic artificial flowers, cardboard cutouts or styrofoam snow. These are tasteful installations finished with attention to detail. They are to capture viewer attention, arouse interest, enchant. Convince that phantoms are more real than their real-life models.
Shop windows play also a role similar to that of product packaging, they are its equivalent when it comes to shop interior or rather, first of all, to the products sold there. They are a promise which, if empty, turns out to be just a colourful but meaningless facade – and empty promises alienate more than no promise at all. Sometimes they are extremely abstract, sometimes very tangible, but always serve to transfer information, meanings and values. On many levels they are also the essence and story of a brand or items.
It seems an exciting prospect to go on a journey that follows the trail of shop windows. There are so many of them around the world, that viewing them all would take longer than young Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz needed to return home. I refer to the book by L. Frank Baum not by accident. The author, apart from creating the entire Oz saga, wrote also about window dressing, sharing his ideas for the modern design. He even started a journal dedicated to the topic, The Show Window. There is also another reason to mention Baum’s work. The green eyeglasses invented by the Wizard may in a way serve as a metaphor for shop windows. The latter are like an emerald filter through which we can see unreal, fairytale worlds.
One of the first display windows belonged to department stores that were set up in large numbers in the second half of the nineteenth century. The technology enabling to manufacture large glass panes made it possible to present goods in a new manner. And department stores are exactly where we should start our peregrination along the most interestingly designed ground-floor facade sections. Primacy should be given to London, where, as it is considered, shop windows made their debut. The city can also boast of many shops that are synonymous with experts in the field of decorating their exterior.
Endless Change of Decoration
A display window is like a door left ajar, like a picture presenting a place in a condensed form. A place where a story, impression, dream, playing with imagination are more significant than hard facts. Although today, seduction may translate directly into sales. Thanks to the possibilities offered by virtual reality, passers-by may use their mobile devices to scan QR codes that activate the digital presentation of a given collection. Such a solution has been recently introduced by Lacoste, and earlier also by the Selfridges department store. This is particularly important in the context of the pandemic and increased anxiety related to visiting public places.
Shop windows are timeless because they show imaginary worlds in a condensed form, and this world loves stories clad in beautiful forms. Decoration is the only variable here.
The text is taken from the book „Projektowanie doświadczeń” (Experience Design) by Igor Gałązkiewicz.
The heading, subheadings, introduction and ending have been added for this article.