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Holiday Windows

Beyond the Glass

Show window design trends aim to captivate today’s consumers and entice them to shop in store




Retail is changing faster now than ever before: Fueled by technology’s unrelenting momentum, trends are coming and going faster than the speed of social media. Significant architectural trends at the turn of the 19th Century also dramatically altered the course of retail, and the technologies of the day helped create what we know today as the department store.

While these commercial juggernauts were being built in the great metropolitan centers of New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, cast iron architecture made it possible to span vast streetside expanses, and the availability of affordable plate glass made enclosing those expanses feasible – the result was the show window. And the merchant princes who ran the early department stores used enticements like windows, architecture, advertising and art to bring customers into their stores. Today, the show window is reestablishing its significant role to draw shoppers.

Saks Fifth Avenue, New York / Photography: Romer Pedron, New York

“I have always believed, and will continue to believe, that the most valuable advertising opportunities for a brick-and-mortar retailer are its own windows,” says Mark Briggs, evp, creative center of excellence, Saks Fifth Avenue (New York). “Windows are important at each and every one of our stores across the country, no matter if it has one or 36, as we do in our flagship store.”

As the art of the window continues to evolve, philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s words ring true: “The medium is the message.” Long-time window creator and aficionado Tom Beebe, creative director consultant, speaks about the medium as a reflection of our times. “Today, Instagram and other image-driven platforms are shaping our aesthetic sensibilities; we have been trained graphically,” he says. “Going forward, windows will feature powerful graphics.”

Coach, New York / Photography: Brian Silak, New York


Known for his theatrical presentation style, Beebe says there is no longer a need for glitter and fluff (although it will return). He refers to a new approach, currently seen in windows around the world from Barneys (New York) to Gucci (Florence, Italy), Louis Vuitton (Paris), Salvatore Ferragamo (Florence, Italy) and J.Crew (New York), as the “soldier effect”: “Window designers are using a technique where rows of mannequins show multiple looks. We only have a New York minute to make customers stop and look. The ‘soldier effect’ makes a strong merchandise statement.”

Windows are also taking cues from architectural trends; open glass façades are the order of the day. This vernacular is seen in new builds and existing stores alike, where enclosed windows are being opened to allow visual access into the space from outside, extending the visual excitement beyond the glass. A peek into the windows at H&M’s (Stockholm) Fifth Avenue flagship in New York reveals a regiment of mannequins drawing attention from the street into the store.

Dolce & Gabbana, Milan / Photography: Angelika Franc, Munich

Advances in technology are also driving interaction with window displays. Denis Frenette, senior vp, merchandise presentation, Hudson’s Bay (Toronto) and Lord & Taylor (New York), says, “We are adapting to the customer’s desire for change and new experiences, with technology playing a major role. Our design process emphasizes the emotional connection first and foremost. We then incorporate technology if the spirit of the windows calls for it, which can enhance the emotional direction we have taken.”

Briggs agrees, explaining that a crucial part of window design today is evoking certain feelings and emotions, not just showcasing product. He cites Saks’ latest partnership with 20th Century Fox, celebrating the premiere of Tim Burton’s “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” which merges Marc Jacobs apparel with video screens that “bring the movie to life.” Saks has also incorporated this branding through social media with a custom Burton-designed Snapchat filter.

Madison Los Angeles, Los Angeles / Courtesy of ChadMichael Morrisette, Los Angeles


Interactive windows with touchscreens or motion sensor technology help create instant “selfie moments” for customers to share on social media, says Leigh Ann Tischler, director, window design, Bloomingdale’s (New York). “Social media is the most immediate way to see other store windows all over the world,” she says. “Technology gets our trend messages out so fast – I’m not sure how the world functioned before Instagram!”

Frenette sees windows as a critical part of the visual merchandising arsenal for many years to come. “We design for the moment by staying on top of what is current and delivering that in all of our displays. [Windows] are and always will be essential, since they are the first thing the customer sees when coming into our stores.”

As retailers strive for authenticity and transparency in order to cement a relationship with their customers, windows will retain their vital role as portals into the hearts and souls of the stores they represent. 

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MasterClass: ‘Re-Sparkling’ Retail: Using Store Design to Build Trust, Faith and Brand Loyalty

HOW CAN WE EMPOWER and inspire senior leaders to see design as an investment for future retail growth? This session, led by retail design expert Ian Johnston from Quinine Design, explores how physical stores remain unmatched in the ability to build trust, faith, and loyalty with your customers, ultimately driving shareholder value.

Presented by:
Ian Johnston
Founder and Creative Director, Quinine Design

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