Visual merchandisers and store designers converged on New York in December for A.R.E.'s Retail Design Collective. During the course of the three-day event, the industry exhibited signs of life that it hasn’t enjoyed in years. Showrooms were bustling, and early evening parties and late night extravaganzas abounded. The city was alive with holiday cheer and the stores glistened with Christmas trim. The banter among colleagues at the Visual Merchandising Roundtable held at the Algonquin Hotel was alive with discussion of holiday windows and visual extravagance.
Retail is a bookmark of our society and a reflection of popular culture. It's a clear representation of our wants, needs and aspirations, and a litmus test for the state of the economy. And if retail measures our economic health, then Fifth Avenue is the instrument that monitors its pulse. After all, the iconic avenue is the heart of the fashion industry.
To understand Fifth Avenue, it’s important to understand its history. It was the result of a stroke of brilliant urban planning; the design of Central Park by Frederick Law Olmstead in the second half of the 19th century. Soon after the park was completed, Fifth Avenue was lined with mansions belonging to some of the wealthiest families in America. The park was the catalyst that propelled Fifth Avenue to its position as one of the most elegant addresses in New York and one of the toniest retail districts in the world.
Today's economic conditions have opened the doors for more accessible retailers. And all of them are eager to have a presence in New York, but also a flagship on Fifth Avenue. Fifth Avenue has become their window to the world. "If you can make it there you can make it anywhere."
Visual merchandising is the language that retailers use to communicate the attributes of their brands and the excitement of their products. And today's retailers are beginning to speak up. The buzz at the Roundtable in December was about how mannequins are back – they're back because visual merchandising is back.
A stroll down Fifth Avenue reveals a multitude of silent sellers in almost every store. Uniqlo's new flagship boasts almost 400 mannequins in an 89,000-square-foot space. A visit to Guess, Lacoste and Juicy Couture finds them following suit. And with Saks Fifth Avenue leading the way, more retailers are mixing mannequins, as realistics cavort with abstracts, and those with matt finishes share window space with high gloss beauties. "Why not?” says Harry Cunningham, vp, visual and store design at Saks Fifth Avenue. “People are diverse, why shouldn't mannequins be diverse?
Retailers who do more than sell will be rewarded. And mannequins do more than sell a blouse or a sweater, they project an image, they tell a story, they provide an experience. That’s why Barney’s was able to put Lady Gaga in their window. People want theater, they want excitement, they want Gaga.
For a look at retailers' 2011 holiday windows, click here.