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VM Basics: Using humour in store window displays

For VM, humour is a tricky subject. Jokes and gags have to tread a narrow line in order to raise a smile, but to avoid offending. In addition humour is geographically and culturally sensitive, so what will be humorous to one customer may not amuse another.

Nevertheless, a sense of humour is deemed to be a sign of intelligence and therefore it is worth developing humour in VM as an added extra element to develop the character of a brand.

Paul Smith is perhaps the past master of humorous window and the classic carriage-window façade of the Floral Street flagship allows the VM team to play. In early 2015 this unusual novelty tape-measure, protruding from the nose of a Manga-style head, took pride of place on an old oak plinth on the parquet floor of the window. At Paul Smith, the windows frequently break the rules of conventional VM, containing no merchandise, and are often mirrored with a related item in the other window, as below.

From a 2014 Fall/Winter Paul Smith window: a telescope is positioned on the plinth to the right of the door, the lens looking towards the door and the left-hand window.

Over in the left-hand window is a shirt from the menswear collection with a constellation print. While customers tend to look from left to right – the way in which we read - in this instance, the main footfall towards the store must approach from the right, so that window is seen before the left. We smile at the idea that the telescope, or perhaps a customer studies the shirt just as they might the heavens.

Rumour has it that Paul Smith insists each window only costs £5.00 to produce. While this cannot be verified it would perhaps help to explain the prevalence of humour as a strategy.

Other retailers confine their sense of humour to occasional or seasonal displays. This graphic detail in Mulberry’s Regent Street store windows, from early January 2015, includes a corgi. Almost a symbol of royalty in itself - the breed is favoured by The Queen - it is appositely adorned with a crown, and positioned in front of a signpost towards Somerset, the original home of the Mulberry brand. We smile with recognition at the reference to The Queen, at the idea that the dog might wear a crown, and the endearingly cute corgi caricature, whilst being reminded of the brand’s British countryside origin.

The Weiss Gallery, a leading dealer in Tudor, Stuart, and Northern European old master paintings on Jermyn Street, reserves its sense of humour for Christmas, adding a Santa’s hat to a painting in pride of place in the window. We smile at the slightly irreverent juxtaposition of a costly painting decorated with an inexpensive Christmas decoration.

Sometimes humour lies just in the detailing of the props. This Christmas 2015 window from Burberry features miniature wooden figures including a row of City of London policemen, upper left, holding umbrellas. Again, we smile at the references to this icon of London, and Britain’s notoriously wet climate although, in truth, British policemen do not carry umbrellas.

More humorously still, the two punks on the lower right both hold large black city-gent style umbrellas to protect their scarlet Mohican hairstyles. Achieved back in the 1970s with hair spray and lots of gel, these hairstyles certainly would not have been rainproof, and an umbrella not in keeping with the punks’ tough reputations.

Similarly, Rag & Bone uses humour in its sci-fi teddy bear window. Sci-fi is usually a technology-driven concept, and adding a giant teddy bear’s head to the robot body adds a softness and touch of humour.

The theme is extended with body forms bearing teddy bear heads. While this is not an original idea - mannequins’ heads are endlessly replaced with those of horses, lions, or other animals - we cannot help but smile at the idea that a giant furry teddy bear is fashionably dressed.

Being slightly naughty, VV Rouleaux’s Christmas 2015 exterior display reveals a slightly suggestive sense of humour. Up close, the rosettes suggest that they might be awarded for some rather unusual prizes.

To conclude, VM humour in windows is usually gentle, designed to raise a smile, and not to offend. Safe topics include the related puzzles of the Paul Smith windows, and recognition of the tropes of British brands. To add an unexpected touch of levity brightens the day of customers and passersby, as all good VM should. VM humour in-store, of course, remains another topic and one that can be much more specific to the brand.