Enlightened retail leaders bring art, fashion, and beauty to the general public
Fashion and art are spiritually united; both time-honored barometers, measuring the pulse of society, and the heartbeat of culture. As the two respond to the nuances of the moment and measure the temperature of the times, it’s important to recognize the inherent value of looking back as we endeavor to move forward.
As a young art student living in New York, the cobblestone streets of SoHo were my playground. In addition to the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the Upper East Side, SoHo offered a continuous source of inspiration. Back then, every door in the neighborhood South of Houston Street was an art gallery. The district’s turn-of-the-century cast-iron buildings, relics of the burgeoning industrial revolution, were perfectly configured for the exhibition of art. As is often the case, however, the long-reaching arms of retail eventually pushed the artists out and ushered in the trendy stores, luxury boutiques, and fashionable shops that line the streets today.
The relationship between fashion and art has long been intertwined. In a 2012 exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “Impossible Conversations,” Miuccia Prada took on Elsa Schiaparelli’s bold statement that “dress designing is not a profession but an art.” Prada said, “Whether fashion design is art, or even if art is art, doesn’t really interest me. Maybe nothing is art.” If nothing is art, as Prada contends, what is art? Schiaparelli says, “It’s the way we live.” So, is fashion art? And if so, does art have a place in the retail environment?
The great merchant princes of the early 1900s used art as an enticement to attract customers into their stores. As the Gimbel brothers opened stores in the mid-1910s in New York, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Philadelphia, they proudly exhibited the works of Cézanne, Picasso and Braque in their new establishments. Additionally, paintings from the French impressionists to Georgia O’Keefe and Boardman Robinson, have notably graced the halls of retail stores from Paris to Pittsburg. In contemporary times, a stroll down pre-pandemic Fifth Avenue revealed the work of German-American illustrator Joseph Leyendecker in Saks Fifth Avenue windows or a Harry Bertoia sculpture in The North Face flagship store.
In 1928, Dorothy Shaver started a retail revolution that still rings true today. Through her vision, she enriched and significantly altered the course of modern merchandising. In addition to being one of the first women appointed to head a major department store, she staged a grand exhibition of modern French decorative arts at Lord & Taylor. Her vision as president of the venerable Fifth Avenue emporium was to cultivate a connection between the art world, manufacturing, and retail. The overarching goal was to bring fashion and art to the general public.
The defining measure of her presidency at Lord & Taylor was her enduring passion for art. This enthusiasm coupled with an astute business acumen, led to a dramatic increase in sales during her 14-year tenure. In 1950 MoMA acknowledged Shaver’s devotion to art by inviting her to speak at the opening of “Good Design,” an exhibition of more than 100 everyday objects celebrating beauty and function.
As time progressed, the lords of merchandising continued to introduce shoppers to high art, intertwining two seemingly disparate entities – fine art and mass culture. In the galleries of the most venerable museums, and in the windows and aisles of the grand retail establishments, dreams, in the guise of culture, were being offered to the general public. And as merchants appealed to the consumer’s aspirational lust for status, display artists turned to the influence of fine art.
Art continued its profound influence on retail. In 1942, André Breton published his third surrealist manifesto. Seeking inspiration, display artists turned to cultural and current events. In 1945, a Saks Fifth Avenue window featured a mannequin lying on a psychiatrist’s couch while a “dream-dress” appeared through a transparent wall. Thought-provoking images abounded in show windows across the country. In 1948, a young Gene Moore used surrealism as a selling tool in Bonwit Teller’s window, and in the 1960s Raymond Mastrobuoni invoked images of Salvador Dali in Cartier’s windows.
In 1951, Stanley Marcus started the Neiman Marcus art collection, the largest of any retailer in America. In the ensuing years, Neiman Marcus continued collecting, considering art an important part of their store environments. Stanley Marcus was a visionary who created successful stores by promoting and believing in what was new in the world of art and fashion. Numbers-driven retailers today are less courageous, impairing their creative instincts. Shaver, Marcus, and innumerable retail visionaries presented the gift of art to all who visited their stores.
Successful business leaders understand the importance of the creative spirit in any business model. In 1945, Pierre Cardin made his way to Paris where he served as an apprentice to the couturier Jeanne Paquin. After a brief stint in the studio of Elsa Schiaparelli, he met a young man named Christian Dior. Working in the Dior studio, he helped usher in the “New Look” collection. Then in 1958, Cardin was the first couturier to be shown in a department store. Although controversial, Cardin democratized fashion with the launch of a prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) collection in Printemps, a popular Parisian department store.
In his youth, Dior dreamed of becoming an artist. In contrast, Prada questioned whether fashion design is art. In some quarters art is defined as a creative endeavor that moves emotions. If so defined, Dior clearly lived his dream. Through the aesthetics of emotion, he created a fashion empire that greatly impacted our culture and sparked our aspirational desires.
While the SoHo I frequented in earlier days is forever changed, the vanquished artists left a legacy that embodies the intrinsic relationship between art and fashion. Art presented in a retail environment elevates the customer experience. The gallery-like footprints designed to present fine art, remain in the high-end shops and boutiques along the narrow streets of this tony retail enclave. These open floor plans allow retailers to do more than elevate the customer experience. In keeping with the vision of Dior and Cardin, they elevate their fashion offerings into the realm of art. And much like the visionary couturiers, they democratize fashion and art while celebrating the creative spirit.
This thought piece was originally shared in August 2022.
Revisiting This Thought
AN UPDATE FROM THE AUTHOR
If one were to hold a mirror to the face of fashion, the reflected image would be us. Fashion, much like art, is a bookmark of our times. It should be noted that the relationship between fashion and art has long been intertwined. Italian-born surrealist fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli said, “Art is the way we live.” With an understanding of Schiaparelli’s viewpoint, the question must be asked: Does art have a place in the retail environment?
Art has long graced the halls of the most venerable retail establishments. Industry leaders from Dorothy Shaver and Stanley Marcus, to visual merchandising icons including Gene Moore and Raymond Mastrobuoni, have consistently fostered a commingling of fashion and fine art. These retail visionaries, along with other impassioned influencers, brought art to the retail stage in order to elevate the customer experience. Showcasing the creative spirit, in any form or fashion, is a vital component of a successful retail model.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ERIC FEIGENBAUM, MEDIA RDI
Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. His career includes working in four different sectors of the industry. As a retailer, he served as Corporate Director of Visual Merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a Division of Federated Department Stores, for fourteen years. In that capacity, he played a key role in the design and development of seven new stores and ten major renovations. He also served as the chair of Federated’s Visual Directors’ Team.
On the design side, he was the Director of Visual Merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design consultancy located in New York City, specializing in retail design worldwide. In that role, he helped bring visual merchandising to Asia and South America and was involved in the design of stores in South Korea, Japan, Chile, and Peru. He was also a key contributor in the application of WalkerGroup’s proprietary service Envirobranding®, which promotes the physical store environment as an integral component of a company’s projected brand image.
In the educational sector, he was the Chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College in New York City from 2000 to 2015, where he created the first four-year BBA degree program in visual merchandising, and the first masters degree program in visual merchandising. A pioneer in advocating an eco-friendly approach to visual merchandising and store design, Feigenbaum is responsible for conceiving and designing the state-of-the-art LIM College Green Lab – a sustainable materials lab and research center. Additionally, he was an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Currently, he is the president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design. With many responsibilities, he also works in the editorial sector as the Editorial Advisor/New York Editor of VMSD Magazine, and the Director of Workshops for WindowsWear.
Feigenbaum has been the recipient of numerous prestigious industry awards. In 2012, he was awarded the industry’s highest honor, the coveted Markopoulos Award. Professor Feigenbaum has lectured all over the world on visual merchandising and store design including presentations at the World Retail Congress and the National Retail Federation as well as presentations in Seoul and Ulsan South Korea; Fukuoka, Japan; Santiago, Chile; Hong Kong; Sydney and Melbourne, Australia; Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba, Brazil; Dusseldorf, Germany; Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, Canada; Monterrey, Guadalajara, and Mexico City, Mexico; Madrid, Spain; Lima, Peru; Bogota and Medellin, Colombia; and Milan and Ancona, Italy.
Feigenbaum is also a founding member of PAVE Global (previously known as, A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education) and is regarded as one of the top experts and visionaries in the Visual Merchandising and store design industries.