Celebrity sell

The use of famous faces shot by well-known photographers in the store environment has changed the fashion retail experience beyond recognition

Back in the 1980s you could walk through the women’s underwear department of Marks & Spencer and never see a photograph of a woman – apart from on the packaging. Now, in place of the simple pictograms, we see photographic enlargements of scantily clad females in the style of La Perla and Triumph ads – no surprise, given Agent Provocateur is doing ranges for M&S.

Over the past 20 years, the retail landscape has changed radically. The pressure to shift product is enormous, and brand managers and merchandisers need to maximise the images commissioned for ad campaigns and packaging. Consistency of message is crucial – across all media. The main vehicle to convey brand values and product information is photography, and in a competitive market the battle for customer attention (and money) hinges more than ever on photography.

It started with window displays. In the late 1980s Barneys in New York broke new ground, commissioning photographers such as Henny Garfunkel to create backdrops for its windows. In London, Harvey Nichols and Harrods both produced some memorable window sets, but Selfridges not only commissioned photographer David LaChapelle to design window displays, it has also installed attention-grabbing photographic images by, for instance, Derek Ridgers.

Such displays certainly get our attention, but do they sell us a particular brand? Of course not. To see that in action we need to look at how different companies and designers use photography in their pitch to an audience. Take Belstaff as a prime example – recently revitalised and made over, away from its motorbiking functional/ utilitarian image towards a highly fashion conscious audience. Who did we see modelling its product in a larger than life-size flagship-store window blow up? None other than the ubiquitous Kate Moss.

M&S has used celebrities in its latest print and television campaign. Iconic models Twiggy and Erin O’Connor set against a backdrop of London landmarks and Brian Ferry in Autograph menswear. All courtesy of David Bailey. A celebrity fest that’s good for the balance sheet too.

Gap has harnessed celebrity power for years. Store and window displays synchronise with advertising campaigns. Whether it’s archive images of Steve McQueen in chinos or Madonna in denims, it knows the value of celebrity – take the label’s sponsorship of the upcoming National Portrait Gallery show, Face of Fashion.

Given that digital print technology allows quicker, easier and cheaper enlargements on all manner of substrates, we can expect to encounter Elle Macpherson’s underwear range as huge images on Oxford Street windows. Then there are the billboard-scale monochrome male torsos outside Abercrombie & Fitch’s soon-to-open store on the corner of London’s Savile Row – a huge slab of homoerotica right opposite Gieves & Hawkes with dapper David Bailey portraits.

For years chain stores and major fashion labels have maintained central control over point-of-sale imagery. United Colors of Benetton has always projected a coherent global brand and has been imitated by the likes of Uniqlo, New Look, Topshop, Matalan, Reiss and TK Maxx.

It’s all part of the prescriptive approach to shifting product. After all, fashion magazines and colour supplements run endless and regular features on the latest head-to-toe looks. There was a time when the editorial was there to make the advertising look good. Now it often serves to simply reinforce the advertising and give the customers a complete style guide to the latest fashion uniform.

At the high end of the market, by contrast, Prada and Louis Vuitton use photographic imagery sparingly in their retail environments. Audiences for upmarket products resist the crudity of how-to-wear-it photographs. In more exclusive shops, the only photographs are in collectable photo-books or art installations.

Just like museums and galleries, shops have always exerted powerful influence over public taste. At a mass-market level they are the new centres of culture. We consume the point-of-sale images as well as the product. Whether it’s commerce on the high street or art at the upmarket level, photography dominates the retail landscape.

With thanks to fashion consultant Danielle Inga

Face of Fashion runs from 15 February to 28 May at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2

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