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VM basics: Back to black

The past decade has seen a massive increase in customer adoption of the fashion industry’s favourite colour: black.

People in the fashion industry wear black because it is not uncommon for them to be working in three future seasons at the same time. As merchandise for the seasons that they are most interested in is not yet available, they resort to black as a compromise. A similar adoption by retail customers has created problems for visual merchandisers: laying out a store or developing windows with a larger proportion of black in the range, without colour to declare change, means they must develop other strategies to attract attention. Along with movement, colour is the prime tool with which to achieve attention.

One strategy for windows is to treat black as a colour, and to use a contrasting backdrop as here at the Comptoir des Cotonniers store on the Left Bank in Paris. The giant fairground star on a pale pink rendered wall, with a strand of illuminated light bulbs on the wooden floor, apparently taken from the Fall/Winter 2014 marketing campaign, is nicely echoed in the window with a foil of a row of stars on the glass. Against the image of the shell-pink wall the black outfits look great. Good spotlighting enhances the textural contrast between the wrinkled, puffy, down-jacket on the left, and the smooth, flat leather jacket in the right.

Besides good lighting, as in the Comptoir des Cottonier window, the Emporio Armani store in Bond Street had a recent installation of white neon light, which drew attention to the black-clad black mannequin. Extremely bright lights are unexpected in store windows and therefore attract attention. The repetition of the grid filling the smaller neon square in the quilted jacket, and the white trainers and white neon frames links the window together.

Akris has used a variation of the same idea with its window, which includes a clever effect across the glass on which are set very small lights. The wires connecting the bulbs are just visible as swirling lines against the plain black evening dress. A ball of formally-clipped box topped with small sparkly Christmas lights in a black container beside the door underlines the theme. A black backdrop and carefully-positioned black accessories convey more about this understated, family-owned Swiss brand than many advertising campaigns do. It may have been more effective if the three bags were positioned on a low plinth. Raising merchandise up from the floor, even though it is on a platform in this case, make it look so much more special.

Louis Vuitton, for a recent window in its Sloane Street store, used reflections to draw attention to a black pinafore dress featured in the window. Cleverly, as the customer walks past a reflective window, the reflections appear to move, thus creating the illusion of movement at a fraction of the cost of true movement. As I have mentioned previously, this window works particularly well as the circles force the customers’ eyes to the centre, exactly where the pinafore is positioned.

Still with black garments, a past Christmas window in Nina Ricci’s flagship store on Avenue Montaigne, featuring a black dress on a body form, was positioned with a single panel of brushed but gleaming gold on one side of the adjacent window reveal and floor. Two panels, one either side of the body form, would have created a chocolate-box effect and looked very glitzy, which would have been out of keeping with Nina Ricci’s image as purveyor of tasteful luxury. One panel just looks chic. Very simple, very understated, the smooth rectangle of gold also contrasts nicely with the delicate textural surface of the lace dress.

In comparison, Prada’s F/W window in Bond Street uses a wooden perspective to enhance its male mannequin in black menswear. The perspective conveyed by the converging wood creates an illusion of depth for this fairly shallow window. The chestnut-brown sandals echo the warm tones of the wood, while the man-bag on the shelf at the back echoes the black coat.

Lastly, in a window that was also used in Chanel’s London flagship store, this window for Chanel in Au Printemps features a white frame in which a number of black-dressed mannequins and black hanging merchandise are positioned.

For Chanel, black and white are iconic colours, and this monochromatic palette is enhanced by the inclusion of black and white marketing images. As readers will know, some of the larger Chanel stores include this same famous mirror-lined turning staircase, now a Chanel trope. While corporate brands might be tempted to add panels of seasonally-associated colour, there is a certain purity in Chanel’s catholic monochromatic choice, perhaps underlining the eternal nature of the merchandise range, whilst at the same time conveying its supremacy in terms of fashion brand.

To conclude, black is both back and unlikely to disappear. Finding strategies to make black look as good as possible is critical to the successful display of a range. And while black has become more prevalent throughout all seasons, spare a thought for Visual Merchandisers of the South Korean corporate brand, Mook, which only ever sells black merchandise. At least Yamamoto or Anne Demeulemeester, both known for their attention to cut and silhouette and so both working predominantly in black, include some colour in their ranges.