How do you decide what to buy, and by extension, what to wear? You may choose an item of clothing based on fit, color or the latest trends. But even before you make that decision, before you step into that dressing room, or pick a hanger from a rack you see a blazer on a mannequin or in the window. Where in the store, how a sweater is displayed or what those jeans are paired with impacts what you pick up, try on and inevitably purchase. And who decided where and how things are arranged in the store? A visual merchandiser.
I got the opportunity to spend a day with the great Wayne Hirst, the National Visual Manager for the Italian fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo. Yep, he’s big time. After focusing on interior design at the University of Rhode Island, Wayne cut his teeth as merchandiser at Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodmanbefore joining Ferragamo. Wayne provides direction to those who run Ferragamo stores on brand standards for boutique windows and the interior displays. If we boil that down, he helps guide stores on how Ferragamo boutiques should look; how they design their windows and how they display the clothes and accessories. “Looks” come down the Ferragamo runway, and those looks should remain consistent in the boutiques around the world. Visual merchandisers help decide what items you see in a shop and what they are paired with.
Wayne, who is based in New York, was in New England to visit the stores in Massachusetts and I met up with him at the Ferragamo outlet in Wrentham, MA. Outlets are an even bigger challenge, Wayne told me, because they do not get every item that came down the runway. To create a “look” that is consistent with brand standards and the way it was presented at either a fall or spring show may not be possible, so some structured improvising is necessary.
Wayne and I started by attacking the mannequins in the shop’s window. Don’t worry, we were gentle when we broke off their arms to better fit the clothing on to their lanky frames. Wayne, who has an unbelievable knowledge of each Ferragamo line from season to season, set out to create looks that were either on the runway, or when a piece of clothing was not at the store, found the closest thing to remain consistent with the original look.
I know the mannequins were not real people, but working with them was one of the hardest parts of the day. I was being too gentle with them. I was delicately tugging these very expensive items made out of the finest materials over their heads and shoulders as if they were toddlers I didn’t want to hurt or annoy too much. I was just as concerned with the clothes as the dummies. That’s when Wayne encouraged me to take off their arms and just get into it. The message was received and I worked much faster after that.
It was so interesting to see and hear (Wayne was great about telling me everything that was going through his head as he tried to assemble these new looks), what goes into creating these looks. If the actual bag that was shown with the outfit could not be found in the outlet, then Wayne would mentally rundown the other looks shown side-by-side with that looks on the runway. It was fascinating.
Once we had the window in shape we tackled the nearly full wall of the store that was men’s shoes. When we arrived the shoes had been arranged to allow for a portion of the wall designated for a sale. Wayne took the approach that the entire wall should be organized by type of shoe (sneaker, driving loafer, hard-soled dress shoe, etc.). I started at one end of the wall and he started at the other. I was surprised that Wayne let me do this on my own, and I was really concerned that I would not do it right and he would have to re-do my work. Wayne shared with me some general rules (shoes should be grouped in twos and threes with pairs that have similar stitching or color, some should point out, some to the side), but I had been doing this for exactly…well, five minutes. I was almost panicked…then I was disappointed…in myself. Hadn’t I gotten over this need to be perfect? Wayne knew I had never done this before; he was not expecting me to be a wiz right out of the gate.
Wayne put my mind at easy by telling me that there is no real right or wrong answer, because it is very subjective (not counting the brad standards). Feeling liberated, I got back to work. At the end it really turned into a puzzle. If I had five shoes left but four had the same stitching along the toe, but they had to be in groups of two or three… You get the idea. It was like high fashion Sudoku.
Our shoe wall turned out pretty great if you ask this novice. Then we moved on to women’s shoes and bags and I got more confident with each project. And as we wrapped up our day Wayne said that it was fun to work with me, because its great to hear other people’s ideas on what shapes, sizes or colors go together.
As I walked out of Ferragamo at the end of the day, I was struck, not just by how much fun I had with Wayne, and how amazing it was to play with all these gorgeous pieces, but how much I learned. It was reinforced for the ump-teenth time that I should not be so focused on getting it “right.” And also I had a realization of just how much influence professional merchandizers, like Wayne, have over the decisions that consumers make. They are single-handedly the biggest factor in determining what you end up wearing whether at the high-end of Ferragamo, to your local J Crew or even displays at Target stores.
I didn’t see that lesson coming.
I’d like to thank Wayne Hirst and the folks at the Ferragamo Outlet for letting me spend the day with them. I was not compensated in any way for this post.