Window of opportunity

“A window dresser should be artistic, creative and able to inspire confidence in their clients. Window dressers should also be friendly and outgoing,” says Georgina Jones, course leader leader of the BTEC national diploma in display and design at West Herts College. Former student, Louise Felgate – now in charge of visual merchandise at high street giant and Swedish success story H&M – encapsulates this to perfection.

There are two types of workers in the world. On the one hand there are those thousands, maybe millions of whom do a good job but only find real satisfaction and fulfillment when they are engaged in their hobby. On the other there are those lucky few that find all the stimulation, satisfaction and challenge they could possibly want in their employment.

Louise Felgate falls into the latter category, having escaped humdrum dreariness by turning her passion for fashion, into a day job. “I love my job,” she enthuses. “Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like work at all!”

The elfin like young woman that shows me around the Uxbridge store, which like all branches of H&M resembles something of a jumble sale, is an enthusiastic, engaging, bubbly blonde.  Effortlessly cool, clad in distressed denim turn-ups and a chunky, duck blue coloured cable sweater, Louise is a walking advert for H &M. (“80 percent of my wardrobe derives from Hennes.“) None the less she retains her own distinct sense of style through her big hair, brooches, bangles, studded belt and over sized earrings.

At just 22 years of age and in sole charge of Hennes innovative window displays, Louise is making big strides with petite feet. (“A good window dresser is a creative individual - H&M hire on common sense, not on age and paper qualifications.”) Yet for a while she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. “After my GCSE’s I chose display by sticking a pin into my college careers book.”  (The pin analogy gains prominence upon entering the airy office. Tacked determinedly on one wall is an unusually large world map complete with pins. The pins indicate the ever-increasing number of countries in which H&M has retail outlets. Adjacent to the world map, is a smaller scale version of the UK, with the pins revealing the towns Hennes has hit over here. An inspiration and ironing board to boot, plus a rack of potential display clothes add the finishing touches and makes for a picture of productivity.)

Following an enjoyable week’s work experience at John Lewis, Louise took up West Herts’ offer of a place on its display course. The “worthwhile” course covered all the basics; teaching its tutees how to assemble props and displays to attract customer attention whilst imparting knowledge regarding different art techniques, materials and fashion trends. It gave her “a good grounding in all areas” through its emphasis on varied practical work placements. With the help of her tutor, Georgina Jones (“just brilliant”), Louise landed a much coveted placement at Mohamed Al Fayed’s world famous Harrods emporium – “a strange set up.”

She subsequently secured placements at Dickens and Jones (“A great crowd proving people really do make a place”) and esteemed mannequin makers Adel Rootstein. Here Louise painted mannequins and made wigs “a real eye opener.“ Her final placement was spent prop making at Pinewood Studios, on the set of Tomorrow Never Dies alongside 007 himself, Pierce Brosnan, and national treasure Dame Judy Dench.

The two year course gave her the confidence to “hit the ground running” – which she did becoming the first amongst her peers to bag a job as a display junior at John Lewis. One year later and she was promoted to window dresser. During her spell at John Lewis, Louise and her team were responsible for six windows. Each window has a two week cycle –  (“although some such as school promotions last longer”) – takes three weeks to prepare. “Two weeks are spent prepping cutting, painting, sewing and so on in the studio, with one week devoted to actually putting the window in.”

Doing the displays for every department under the sun from toys to table wear forms an integral part of a display job at John Lewis. Having well and truly tried this formula – and found that her real passion lay in fashion “something reflected in my work”, Louise decided it was time for a change. Fashion favourites Hennes were in need of a tonic and recruited Louise to apply the treatment.

She hasn’t looked back since and seems to relish the freedom she has to run the show at H&M, as well as the chance to travel that onlyinternational companies such as Hennes can offer. On top of all the trends, Hennes receives a new delivery every day. Last year it managed the feat of becoming the only shop to make a profit; beating its supposed competitors- Topshop and Spanish stores Mango and Zara, hands down. The frenetic fast moving pace and the challenge of working to a much tighter deadline can be stressful “there aren’t enough hours in the day” but at the same time “wonderfully exciting.”

Askwhat the best aspect of her job is (aside from the huge discount!) and her face lights up: “When people point at my displays and then enter the shop. Watching an item you have selected for display sell like hot cakes is also incredibly rewarding. Creating a display is like putting on a play- I love the build up.”

Ask her what the worse element is and she seems genuinely stumped. There is a long pause as she twiddles her hair, a look of concentration on her tiny face, before coming up with “customer clichés. If I am in the window and painting, people always inevitably say “you missed a bit!” At a push she continues further: “It can be irritating that people don’t realise how much work and effort goes into a window display. People’s perception of my job is often misinformed. They seem to think that I just ‘dress dolls all day.’"

Far from it. Louise’s day is spent sourcing magazines and resource materials for inspiration before putting the stock together. Armed with props, building materials wood, cardboard, wire, glue and paint tools such as staple guns, scissors, hammers, ladders and trolleys, Louise is then faced with the mammoth task of transforming her vision into reality. It’s a physically demanding job and in carrying heavy display torsos, Louise obviously possesses a strength that contradicts her diminutive stature.

In what is an uncertain job climate, the outlook for window dressers is bright; bright enough at least for Louise, her partner (who also works in retail) and their two kittens to have recently bought their own property; a “delightful” two bedroom house in Harefield.  Whilst there remains something Darwin-esque about working in the fashion industry – it’s about survival of the fittest – working with fashion in the retail industry seems a safer, securer option. Or as Louise terms it: “Job turnover is low. As long as there are shops, there will always be a need for window dressers.”

For the time being, she is happy at Hennes. Yet whilst she might be small in size, this dainty blonde is big on ambition. Her dream job? “Working as a fashion buyer –possibly for H&M, or as a stylist on a teen magazine.” Watch this space.