Monday, October 29, 2007

King Tut and the World's First Mannequin

The most primitive form of mannequins can be traced back 3000 years to the time of Tutankhamun. More commonly known as "King Tut," this famed Pharoh met an untimely death at the age of 19 and was buried with a wooden torso which archeaologists believe to be the world's first dress form.

King Tut is now on public display in Egypt for the first time since his tomb was discovered 85 years ago by archaeologist Howard Carter. He will then travel to London, eventually passing through the Dallas Museum of Art. Though it is unlikley that the many torsos and talisman he was buried with will accompany him on this journey, but his 3000 year old leathered, weathered, body is proof that those Egyptians thought of everything!

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Sartorialist - Mannequins vs. Live subjects

Though mannequins can be placed in a variety of extravagant scenes that make them eye-catching and bring out the clothes that they wear, there is something about seeing a skirt twirl around a set of dancing legs, or a bejeweled bracelet catch the light as it travels on a gesturing wrist, that will never be recreated on a still object.

The Sartorialist has a fine eye for photographing people whose outfits are shop window worthy, yet worn by real people. All of his work is displayed on his blog, which I've become quite addicted to. He travels constantly so you get snapshots of how people are dressing all over Europe, and each photo is laced with nuance and character.

I encourage you to check it out!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Oprah is My Wardrobe Mistress

In a section of his writings called "Man the Interior Designer," Jean Baudrillard suggests that serial objects, or what he refers to as "furniture," are simply pre-designed objects that suit the pre-existing values of an industry that is emblematic of all commodities. He calls man a "a mental hypochondriac... someone obsessed with the perfect circulation of messages," and though many will dismiss him as crazy, ultra-marxist, or perhaps simply, "French," I think he might be onto something.

Today I spoke with Carmen Garcia, a visual merchandiser at Ann Taylor. She explained that all the visual mercandising done in the store is decided by a team at the Ann Taylor headquaters. This team sends her a book with sketches detailing which shirts should go on which mannequins, and where each should be arranged within different areas of the store.

Their strategies are based on the assumption that they know what their customers are looking for. For example, during the month of October, people are looking for fall and heavier winter wear, so coats and sweaters make it to the front of the store. Business wear, however, is also still in priority since people are coming back from summer vacation and looking to refresh their work wardrobes for the year.

Garcia assured me that a product featured in the store windows almost always demonstrates a visible rise in sales once it is put on display there. However, boosting its sales is also the fact that window products are often also simultaneously shown in a magazine, or on Oprah, for example.

So if I've understood this correctly, someone at O Magazine decides that a skirt in Ann Taylor is attention worthy. It gets some sort of publicity, either in O Magazine or in another one where Ann Taylor frequently places ads. The visual merchandising team at the Ann Taylor headquarters gives the orders to have it featured in a window, and the store based team executes the design. You (or me, though I'm not at all into Ann Taylor), naive shopper, see it and think "gee, I like that," without realizing that you probably only like it because you've seen it favorably portrayed in so many other places: on Oprah, in a magazine, perhaps on someone else who has already purchased it, and now in the store.

As you buy the skirt, you also buy the mental hypochrondria of our society, proving to visual merchandisers that their messages are getting through to you. Slightly Orwellian, yeah?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Patricia Fields

This month’s Patricia Fields window features a mannequin wearing emerald green tights, a yellow and black can-can taffeta tutu, and an aqua, magenta, and royal purple sequined horizontally striped tube top. A large cotton-candy colored pink boa bedizened with nickel-sized silver reflective circles is draped over her neck, as electric pink and canary yellow feathered armbands, teal earrings, and a rubber toucan nose, all contribute to her chimerical appearance.

She is crowned with a whopping tangerine, pink, indigo, yellow and cerulean wig designed by Tobel, the in-house wig designer that works out of the hair salon in the basement of Patricia Fields. A marvel in synthetic hair design, this latest creation can only be described as an inspired fusion of Marie Antoinette, Marge Simpson Tina Turner, and a cockatoo.

“I work a lot with birds because I think they’re beautiful,” said Artie Hach, the store's head visual merchandiser, pointing to a dead bird that he used as part of wig for the scarecrow-woman figure also in the same window as the toucan one.

“I added the scarecrow to make the window a little scary -- I was inspired by the movie ‘Jeepers Creepers;’ I’m sexually attracted to the demon,” he added.

Hach went to FIT for exhibition design, but he is an equally talented stylist. He worked with Patricia Fields on seasons 1-4 of “Sex and the City,” earning an Emmy and many skills that have enriched his abilities to outfit the mannequins he uses in his visual merchandising.

“The four years I worked on ‘Sex and the City’ were like a second college and the Emmy was like my degree,” said Hach, who has since also taken on many freelance large-scale window design products for H&M and Macy’s.

Often seen with a ladder, screwdriver, or spare light bulb in his hand, Hach’s job is to maintain the store looking spry and to ensure that products, especially the best-selling ones, are effectively featured.

The second window features a sexy geisha girl being kidnapped by the armageddon creature (a one-eyed scepter wielding monster in a Willy Wonka purple jumpsuit and a pastie over his right nipple) and a biker babe with a Flinstone-sized bone in her hair and a black studded patch over her left eye.

Monday, October 15, 2007

A notable read: Simon Doonan, Confessions of a Window Dresser.

Simon Doonan, the head window dresser at Barney's New York since 1986, was born in Reading, England, a town whose sole distinguishing characteristic was the large biscuit factory that employed the majority of its population, paying English factory workers better wages than the Irish factory workers who did the same job. He made his first rumbles as a window dresser in the London store Nutters, where he featured live rats rummaging through trash cans wearing rhinestone collars. Eventually, he was invited by Tommy Perse to work at the Los Angeles based store, Maxfield, where he designed a host of controversial windows, including babies being kidnapped by coyotes.

Doonan's book is a sharp, comedic biography/history of the visual merchandising industry, including several photographs of his work throughout the past 20 years. Most notable are his windows featuring Tina Brown, (former editor of The New Yorker), Dan Quayle, Queen Elizabeth, Bette Midler, Prince, and Madonna, who he "did 3 times."

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Mind the GAP

Though not visible to customers, just about every corner of the GAP has a title; the après ski lounge, the martini bar...these are just a couple of the names that the GAP visual merchandising headquarters gives to designate the “effects” they want their display teams to achieve in each store. One or twice a season, the merchandising headquarters sends out a lookbook to each store with pictures of how the displays should be arranged. Based in the store layout, merchandisers are allowed to improvise, but the team from headquarters is always patrolling to make sure that the displays correspond with the GAP’s image and maximize advertising.

“We used to just put one thing on a mannequin,” said Eddie Calcano, head of visual merchandising at the GAP Rockefeller Center for the past 9 years. “But now we’ve started to layer things to give a more ‘boutique’ feel. You’ll see scarves, bags, belts, shoes and other accessories arranged together so that we’re showing a complete picture. We’ve found that customers like that.”

Two years ago, the women’s floor at the GAP was on the first floor, but it was discovered that few men ever shopped in the store. They would leave without bothering to go upstairs, believing that the store was exclusively for women.

“As soon as we moved men to the first floor, more men would come in. We didn’t lose the female customers either; you don’t have to worry about women finding their department. If there’s something for them, they’ll find it.”

Friday, October 12, 2007

Dirty Secrets of Visual Merchandising

As an avid window shopper and someone just generally fascinated by consumer tendencies, I can't help but ask myself, how do the salaries of these people figure in to what we're paying for our clothes? Those $130 black cigarette pants at BCBG -- how much of that $130 am I paying for the design and manufacturing of the actual product, and how much of it am I paying for the presentation of the product in the store itself? If the visual merchandisers at headquarters AND those more regularly present in the store need to get paid, on top of the overhead costs of renting, powering, stocking, and providing sales employees for the store, costs accumulate.

The key to visual merchandising, as I've been told, is knowing your consumer. Anticipating his needs, catering to his desires, and creating more of them. Take a look at the BCBG Maxaria store in Soho, for example. Sleek, hip, trendy -- caters to the young single girl who carries big leather totes, wears high heels with pointed toes, and likes to have ruby colored drinks in the meatpacking district on Thursday nights. The store's windows are filled with form-fitting, cleavage boosting dresses, curve enhancing sweaters, and other variations of predominantly "going-out" wear.

Now check out the BCBG Maxaria on Broadway and 68th. Wide aisles allow for the easy passage of strollers, and more conservatively displayed hip but serious business wear are the marquee here. This is the Upper West side customer that wants to be stylish at her business meetings, but still comfortable enough to pick up her kids after work.

None of this is an accident --

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Mannequins, The Silent Salespeople

"Mannequins are those silent sales people that show off the latest and greatest without bugging the customers, and with a little brains, they can be the most effective sales staff."

Is this true?

How influenced are you by what you see on mannequins?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Press play for a behind the scenes look at the Adel Rootstein mannequin showroom:
(Quite a rough copy of what I hope will be a much better final short clip once new material is integrated).
Update: I've been told that this video is very hard to hear. It plays decently on my computer, but then again, I'm very familiar with the text. Way TOO familiar!
I have about 4 hours more of additional footage, so as soon as it's all edited, I promise a much cleaner clip.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Adel Rootstein Mannequins

At the entrance to the Shawfield Hotel stands a 6'4 woman in stilettos and designer sunglasses. She is leaning against a cart full of shopping bags - Hermes, Dior, Chanel, and looking effete. To her right, just past the check-in desk stands a woman in a delightful double cashmere lemon sorbet colored skirt and matching jacket, and just behind her, another woman stretched across a chaise lounge extends her leg, admiring a pair of gray heels.

Walking further into the hotel, a surrepetitious waiter eavesdrops on a nearby conversation, as a Lenny Kravitz look alike checks out the rack on the cross between Cher and Lilly Munster with monster cleaveage. To the left, a serious set of very tall and very attractive set of fashion glitterati await an elevator, as a sultry couple heat it up on the floor in front of an adjacent fireplace.

Though this could easily be the lobby of a hotel in Aspen or Monte Carlo, it is the showroom of Adel Rootstein, premier mannequin maker, located on 19th street in Chelsea.

Monday, October 1, 2007

It's not what's on the outside - ALU, visual merchandising materials provider

ALU is an Italian company that specializes in the design and manufacture of merchandising materials (racks, displays, fixtures, lighting arrangements), and other "systems" used to sell merchandise in a store. Before visiting the showroom, I mistakenly believed that ALU manufactured display mannequins, but upon arriving and being very warmly received by Robert Mabry, the President of ALU, I was not at all disappointed by the absence of painted heads.

The showroom at ALU is located on the 6th floor of an unassuming building in Chelsea. Exiting the rickety, slow, dumb-waiter like elevator, I immediately entered a futuristic, spacious, and extremely entrancing area. (The euphoria of the experience was something akin to Charlie and Grandpa Joe discovering the room in Willy's factory with the Fizzy Lifting drinks).

Twice a year, a creative team, headed by Luca from Italy, tears down the entire showroom and replaces it with an entirely new installation. The most recent theme is "Leave your Mark" a maze of red, white and black modish installations with a bit of a fun-house theme, balanced by a tasteful and streamline design.

Mabry introduced me to the "fixture industry" -- the world of racks, boxes, display cases, shelves, and drawers, that merchandisers hang, drape, set, and prop their products on--" We use our merchandise to showcase theirs," said Mabry. ALU prides itself on producing quality, aesthetically pleasing, and practical products that can be modulated to change the look or purpose of the fixture.

Mabry introduced me to the world of visual merchandising trade shows:
Euroshop, held annually in Dusseldorf, Germany, one of the largest.
Globalshop, held every March in Chicago -also gets a big part of the industry to spin out their latest wares.
NADI, the National Association of Display Industries is also a tremendous source of information and networking in the industry, especially via the conferences, conventions, and events that it holds throughout the year.

NADI's mission is to report the evolution of the visual merchandising industry, which seems to require a rather savvy pulse taker. Just 6 years ago, the visual merchandising industry found 80% of its clients in major department stores. This figure has now dropped to 35%. Mabry explained that this shift in figures is due to consolidation within stores -- they've begun to use in-house people to take care of all of their merchandising needs, and thus rely less on the expertise and products of outside companies. Interestingly enough, despite these changes, the industry has kept growing. Instead of department stores, companies like ALU have begun doing store installations for car dealerships (BMW) and technological providers such as cell phone companies (Virgin Mobile). They design booths and cases in which to display things, and as a result have skillfully adapted to emerging markets and expanded their business scope.

ALU still provides many Mom and Pop shops as well as larger retailers such as Sears, JC Penney, Saks, and Bloomingdales with in-store fixtures, however as the market for visual material evolves, so do the needs and the nature of their customers.