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Sunday, 5 December 2010

Do What You Love interview: Russell Crook

One of my favourite parts of Christmas shopping in London is staring at the mesmorising window displays in places like Liberty's of London, Selfridges, Harrods and Harvey Nichols.  I have often thought it would be a wonderful job to create those window displays, digging deep into the imagination to come up with something more magical, more sparkly and more inspiring than the Christmas before.  So I thought I would ask a professional window dresser (or 'visual merchandiser' as they are called in the trade), to share some insight into this life. 

(image courtesy of Russell Crook, window of Liberty's of London)

This Do What You Love interview is with Russell Crook, a freelance visual merchandiser whose client list includes Liberty's, Nicole Farhi, L'Oreal, Disney and British retail giants BHS and George at Asda.  Russell is from my home town of Southampton, but now lives in the arty town of Brighton on the south coast of England.

How did you get into this profession? 
When I left school I took a job as a steward on a round-the-world cruise ship.  My first voyage was from Southampton to New York!   Although I loved seeing the world I have always been artistic it got to the point where I had had enough of waiting on people.  I just thought "what do you really want to do?" and came up with dressing windows.  The first step was to move to London, so I got a job at The Ritz Hotel, then the Park Tower Hotel in Knightsbridge and always admired Harvey Nichols' windows as I walked passed them everyday. 
Serendipitously, just as I was wondering how to break into the industry, I met someone at a party who was working at Liberty's of London.  He said "Hey, we are looking for someone that we can train up.  Come in and see Paul Muller for an interview."  Paul Muller was the god of display at the time and his background was at Selfridges.  So I went, got the job and haven't looked back since.  I was also offered work experience (without pay) over Christmas at Harvey Nicks. Mary Portas (who now presents prime time TV show Mary Queen of Shops) was there at the time as display manager, so that would have been another way in, but I got the full time role at Liberty and dived straight in.
While I was at Liberty's back in the 1980s I took a day release course at St Martin's studying retail visualisation. I was extremely lucky as I could take Liberty merchandise to do my displays - all the other students were so envious of me as all the props at the college were so old and tatty but my displays looked amazing!

(image courtesy of Russell Crook, window of Liberty's of London)

Window dressing for Liberty's sounds like a dreamy job, especially at Christmas when you get to use your wild imagination on the windows. What is the reality of the job like? Yes it was a dreamy job, but it was also very physical and hard work.  Christmas was the worst as the team would work eight weeks without a day off to set the Christmas windows and the whole interior.  Every department on every floor had to have a touch of Christmas.
The best bits were choosing the themes and then doing the actual dressing.  Pulling it together it would take a whole day just to set one window.  There would be endless tweaks and then the rest of the run of windows would follow that format before being professionally photographed

Once a year around the 5th Dec a few of us would go on a buying trip to New York where they host an amazing retail show ... it was a very exciting time with lots of showroom parties.  All the big name retailer display reps would be out there so we would all network and catch up.  We also used to go around all the big name stores in New York to get inspiration (note from Beth: sounds like my kind of business trip!)

How do you go about planning a window to make it original and eye-catching? How do you choose what to display from the thousands of products in store?
You start with the Marketing Department's promotional calendar for the year along with your allocated budget for the year, which you split into chunks.  Then it's all down to using your imagination, utilising old props and looking at product samples.  Sometimes you have sponsorship money to promote a certain brand.  Sometimes you literally do rough scribbles of ideas on the back of a napkin when inspiration comes, and you have team meetings to brainstorm.

More often than not you set up some things in advance - the main colours and the props, lighting ideas and make up and hair on the mannequins - and then you play with the composition and lighting on the day of installation. 

Which window are you proudest of and why?
The window I did in the flagship BHS Oxford Street store - I won an award for it.  I also had one of my Nicole Farhi windows used as a front cover in a book called 'Store windows that sell" - I couldn't believe it when I saw it for the first time for sale at an exhibition in New York.

(One of Russell's windows on the front cover of the book
'Store windows that Sell: Volume 7', image courtesy of Russell Crook)

What was the most valuable thing you learnt at college? Composition, lighting, project management and taking ideas from the window concept throughout the store - right down to the carrier bags.  We were taught how to gel it all together.

How do you promote yourself as a freelancer?
Apart for my website, it's usually word of mouth.  The visual merchandising industry is relatively small and I've have built up a good reputation over the years with suppliers and other colleagues within the industry.

(image courtesy of Russell Crook)

What advice would you give to someone starting out who wants to get into your specific area of work? I would suggest a college course, as this will not only teach you valuable technical information, but will also get you work experience within the industry.  The British Display Society has more information.

(image courtesy of Russell Crook)

Thank you Russell, for sharing a rare insight into this industry!


1 comment:

  1. Excellant Beth! Very interesting! I worked for a dept store when I was younger and I always found so cool how these guys would decorate the windows. And transform these tiny spaces. It truly is an art. What a great job that would be.


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