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Window dressing reboot: high art (and high tech) at a retailer near you

Frankly, the miniature kinky maids lined up in loyalty to a Louis Vuitton bag might have done it for me.

They would have given me pause – even longer than the 3.5 seconds that retailers have on average to captivate today's harried, distracted passersby, according to Lana DeCosimo, principal and window-display artist at Display Attic in Toronto.

With the popularity of online shopping, retail stores have a new challenge on their hands. "The retail environment is more competitive than ever," Molly Leis, a New York-based luxury-retail consultant and principal of MRL Communications, explains in a phone interview. "To get us into a store is more challenging now. Window displays have become much more engaging."

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And who wouldn't have lifted her dear, distracted head from her mobile device to contemplate the significance of the No Noise windows earlier this year? They were at Selfridges on London's Oxford Street; the size of a small town, the department store is known for its clever, artistic window displays, which change seven to eight times a year. Harry Gordon Selfridge, who founded the store in 1909, understood that retail is theatre, an approach that the current owners – the Irish/Canadian Weston family – continue to embrace. The No Noise campaign, which ended in February, was a comment on the fact that, in a world of 24/7 information overload, simplicity and serenity are the greatest luxuries. For one of the world's largest department stores, a palace to consumerism and the desire for more, it was a provocative exercise in debranding and decluttering, an "initiative that goes beyond retail," as the store's website explained. "We invite you to celebrate the power of quiet, see the beauty of function and find calm among the crowds."

If irony was at play, it was unspoken, not even winked at. The conceptual complexity of that particular Selfridges window-display communication could have been an academic dissertation on the intersection of culture, fashion, art and spiritual well-being. (Yes, it has come to that.)

One area in the window was stripped to its bare, white walls. On a plain box sat an iconic yellow Selfridges shopping bag. There was no logo. There were no products on show. Some of the other window displays in the series were created by Katie Paterson, a Scottish conceptual artist whose work asks the viewer to contemplate time, space and the universe. One, called All The Dead Stars, an installation currently featured in London's Hayward Gallery, is a simple map documenting the locations of nearly 27,000 dead supernovas, the total observed by humankind.

In New York last Christmas, an enrapt crowd in front of Cartier's Fifth Avenue store was able to open up bauble-filled red boxes in the windows from the street – simply by waving their hands. To create the effect, Cartier adapted Microsoft's Kinect technology, a motion-sensing input device used in the popular Xbox 360 video games. By gesturing with their hands at the window, pedestrians could control the lifting and closing of boxes in the display, effectively becoming a "conductor of movement and transformation," according to an explanation on the website of Zigelbaum + Coelho, the firm responsible for the installation. Called Reach, the conceptual display was a play on what is usually out of reach, in both a literal and figurative way. Cartier was inviting even those consumers who could never afford one of its gifts to be part of the delight.

Not surprisingly, Kinect technology has transformed several other window displays. In 2011, Nordstrom's flagship store in Seattle used Kinect's infrared technology to enable people to draw illustrations using light on a white backdrop. The same year, consumers in Moscow were able to use Kinect to browse for products and information in catalogues, all through a store window. During the Summer Olympics in London last year, Selfridges partnered with Nike to create a series of interactive windows. One, featuring Nike's Hyperdunk+ shoes, encouraged shoppers to stand on a blue dot marked on the sidewalk to see how high they could jump. The system then asked them if they would like to record their score in order to rank their jumps online by inviting them to touch a "yes" or a "no" decal on the window.

Of course, a good ol' low-tech installation, such as a live human body, can sometimes also work wonders. That's what was used for the inaugural Fashion's Night Out event, an annual celebration of shopping (now on hiatus) aimed at getting consumers into stores, which was launched at the height of the Great Recession in 2009. For an hour, designer Zac Posen worked with a model in the window of New York's Bergdorf Goodman, directing her makeup application, accessories and posing style. What is usually a behind-thescenes tableau had been put on public display – a clever peek behind the curtain of a wizard of fashion. "It was so engaging and interesting," Leis notes. "The glass was both [a] boundary and a form of access."

It turns out that spring is the second-most important season for window displays after Christmas. "We have the need to see life. We have the need to see colour," enthuses DeCosimo, whose 20-year career in window display draws from her education in art school and her former work as a model. Right now at London's Harvey Nichols, another iconic department store famous for its windows, mannequins are growing out of flower pots. And at some Anthropologie stores, recycled tins and tires have been hanging artfully in the windows in celebration of Earth Day.

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Meanwhile, at Holt Renfrew on Toronto's Bloor Street, there's a swanky evening party going on in the windows, with ever-so-slim Gatsbyesque flappers in divine dresses accompanied by handsome escorts. Clearly, they're hoping to leverage interest in 1920s fashion that is expected to accompany the film adaption of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby, to be released on May 10.

After all, a display window, like film, can be an agent of magical (and aspirational) transportation.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More


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