Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Beyond the Glass: The Role of Window Displays in the French Fashion System

by Diana Vassar

According to Tom Beebe, the creative director of Paul Stuart’s menswear, “Stopping traffic is the goal for any window designer worth their salt.” (Droganes) Retail shops allot a significant amount of thought and, typically, money to the design of their window displays for good reason: would we as potential customers be inclined to venture through a mysterious, impenetrable door without first getting a peek of what is available inside? Would we even be able to discern a clothing boutique from a supermarket without store-front advertising? Windows offer a glimpse, a snapshot, a quick summary from which we can form the fateful opinion that determines our pursuing actions. To enter or not to enter is the question and window displays offer the answer. They wield power to reel us in, but the final decision is within our own control.

BCBG Paris 2010, What does this window say?

What is it that makes a shop window speak and customer compelled to act? Is power concentrated in the corporation, the brand, the shop space, or simply the windows themselves? Is power invested in the hands of the consumer? These are the questions that have led my study of shop window displays that frame the streets of Paris. The answers, I have discovered, rest in the inherently dynamic nature of fashion and shopping: the power of the window depends on the active participation of consumer, commodity, and place. As part of the fashion system, each constantly moves, changes, and negotiates power as quickly as fashion re-dresses itself.

Le Pantheon, rue Soufflot, 1877 and today

Beginning in the mid-19th century, both Haussmann’s physical redesign of and the World Expositions held in Paris contributed to the city’s new identity as the culture capital of the world. Vast changes had a profound effect on the everyday lives of Parisians who, in an attempt to reconcile the unrecognizable city, took to the streets walking. These walkers were flâneurs, as Baudelaire called them, engaging in an active, evolving relationship with their surroundings. Thanks to mass production, displays of fashion proliferated both in shops and on the streets. As the surroundings and fashions became familiar, they also began to change, thus trapping the street walker into the fashion cycle of differentiation and equalization, defamiliarization and familiarization.

The Louis Vuitton flagship in Paris, displaying a dream

Shops play a significant role in this cycle by means of their displays: they attempt to lure walkers and shoppers inside with a clear message, a spectacle, a dream. In response, the commodity and the consumer negotiate power between the panes of the glass window. The walker and the shop engage in a moving dialogue and the cycle begins again.

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