There are a lot of fairly mediocre windows along Oxford Street currently, but a few retailers prove glowing exceptions to the rule, says John Ryan.
You can learn a lot about the state of play in retail by taking a look at shop windows.
If times are as might be desired, these will be brimful of new ideas and, over the past few years, a fair amount of technology.
The latter tends to cost money, and good window displays are expensive anyway. A challenge, therefore, for Oxford Street.
“This is usually where the best of the best (with the possible exception of Regent Street) is to be found in this country”
This is usually where the best of the best (with the possible exception of Regent Street) is to be found in this country, yet a lot of retailers putting their best feet forward are doing so in a distinctly modest manner.
The tech that has been a feature of many displays recently is signally absent. A more traditional and seemingly low(er)-cost attitude to visual merchandising is being taken.
But there are a few players who continue to turn heads.
Knowing the materials that a garment is made from is increasingly part of a customer’s buying process.
Underlining this tendency is what the windows at the Uniqlo flagship are about.
For those who wish to know about “French Linen”, from flax to the yarn that goes into weaving it, the window displays are instructive.
This series of windows is about storytelling.
Knowing that the shirt you are wearing is the product of “the finest long and smooth fibres” will not mean an improved wearing experience, but it does offer insight into the manufacturing of a ‘natural’ product.
The best retail storytelling leaves the viewer with the potential to learn something; it’s what the Dyson store, further along the street, does with its 3D exploded graphics showing how its vacuum cleaners work.
It also happens to be low-cost and easily taken across an entire chain.
Keeping with the idea of the maker, Selfridges has a series of windows along its front that also aim to show finished products and some of the materials that relate to their production.
The major window at the building’s south-west corner is an homage to crochet, or crochet-style, garments and mats.
This is a ‘maker’s’ window. Although the viewer will be aware that nothing on display will be cheap (this is Selfridges), the sense is conveyed of a retailer in touch with those at design’s coalface, with the inference being that Selfridges has an eye for new talent.
Another window that deconstructs the finished article is the denim one, where long strips of the fabric are draped across the length of the space, creating the impression of a loom-cum-workshop.
Emerging from the tube at Oxford Circus, this is one of the street’s more arresting pieces of visual merchandising.
Brightly coloured neon tubes create graffiti-like shapes behind six mannequins, while the window itself has yellow faux handwritten transfers telling shoppers about a collaboration.
This is actually simple stuff and follows a route back to old-fashioned displays without recourse to technology.
There is a danger with this kind of thing that the display overwhelms the product that is being shown, but that is not really the point at Topshop.
This window says ‘fashion is here’ – easy and of the moment.
Most shoppers will probably look at the garments, but even if this is not the case, they may well be drawn into the store by this piece of visual manipulation.
As one of the four department stores on Oxford Street, John Lewis has always had to contend with the visual competition from Selfridges, House of Fraser and Debenhams.
In the past it has frequently been a distant fourth, but these days it often vies with Selfridges for the top spot.
At the moment, there are two strands to the John Lewis frontage – one being composed of three wood-framed screens that advertise a new brand of denim dubbed And/or, while the other is a display of homeware under the title ‘Flourish’.
The latter takes the idea of spring and puts it centre-stage in a window scheme featuring everything from pepper pots to food mixers.
Like Topshop, this is not about selling specific items, but mood-setting and lifting the spirits of shoppers after the long winter nights.
Just across the street from Topshop is Inditex fascia Bershka, one of only a handful of the brand in the UK, and, like its rival, it has opted to use neon tubes as the basis of its window displays.
However, this is a linear neon arrangement that acts as a frame for the centre-ground mannequins, with the colour being in the clothing, rather than the display backdrop.
The idea of framing has been around as long as shop windows, but this is one of the more effective examples on Oxford Street as we move into spring proper.