A Fashionista’s Dream Job: Visual Merchandising

surrounded by dummies
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Ever notice how certain stores have the power to evoke certain emotions? It’s hard to walk past a dimly lit (and highly cologned) Abercrombie & Fitch without feeling like you’re about to hit the club. The various frothy potions and lotions that The Body Shop places in the front door remind you of your favorite spa and help you to de-stress, even just for a minute in the middle of a busy mall. And the appetizing displays at Williams Sonoma inspire you to whip up a gourmet meal—or at least buy all the kitchen accessories you’d need to make that happen.

It turns out that it’s no accident that window displays and store interiors have certain effects on us. In fact, there’s a whole team of people behind the scenes of your retail experience who plan out all the details from which color chandeliers to use to where the sale items should be displayed.

We caught up with Lily Alegria, Visual Merchandising Coordinator at lucy Activewear to learn about the creative and challenging field of visual merchandising, why this job involves being surrounded by dummies, and why she’s totally okay with it.

Where did you go to college and what was your major?

I actually started at UC Santa Cruz majoring in Film (I wanted to be a director), but once I figured out my heart was in fashion I put my schooling on hold to work in the clothing world. After a few years of retail store management I decided to go back to school for Visual Merchandising and attended SF State. I received my B.S. in Visual Merchandising in January of 2012.

What is your current company name and job title? If you’ve changed titles since you started at your company, what was your job title when you started?

I’m the Visual Merchandising Coordinator at lucy Activewear. I started at lucy as the Retail Operations Coordinator. I was the point of contact for all of our 60 store locations. It was a good position for me but I was really looking for something more creative and in my field.

Eventually the Visual Merchandising Coordinator position opened and I decided that this was a great chance for me to get into my passion of Visual Merchandising. I applied, interviewed, and was hired! It was one of the most exciting days of my life when I found out I got the position.

What’s a typical day on the job like for you?

I would say 65% of my time is in the office and 35% is spent at the floor set store or traveling. Every day tends to be a little different but a typical day in the office is spent:

  • Putting together visual communication to our stores regarding things like windows, store marketing, floor sets, mannequin outfits/styling, promotions, etc.
  • Responding to store emails with any visual concerns/questions/issues
  • Approving invoices and updating our department budget
  • Writing creative briefs to request to have signage created for things like product launches and marketing focuses. After I write the creative brief I have a kick-off meeting with our creative team to review and then I am the project manager for that particular project for its lifespan.
  • Working on remodeling select store locations. This includes things like ordering the store’s chandelier, décor, mannequins, and putting together frame install layouts for General Contractors.

A typical day at our floor set store consists of:

  • Merchandising new products on the sales floor (We take the product and place it into each section of the store. Where we place each item is very intentional, considering things like silhouette, styles, and colors, ensuring everything looks great together and is complementary.)
  • Updating mannequin outfits
  • Photographing the entire floor set
  • Then I head back to the office to type up the floor set execution document (we call it our “Vis Com”) that will be sent to our 60 stores so they can execute the floor set. It is a huge document that takes two to three days to put together.

What are your favorite aspects of your job? What are some challenging aspects of it?

I love that I get to use both the right and left side of my brain. I get to be creative but also still have those administrative aspects of my job. I really enjoy both, so it is great to have a mix.

The most challenging aspect is you are constantly putting your work on display for all to see and you might have to hear what others think about it. They could love it or have adjustments you need to make.

What advice would you give to college students who are interested in working in your field?

It is a challenging but rewarding field. You have to have thick skin since you are putting your work on display constantly. It also is a very physical world, which they never told me in school. You are on high ladders, carrying around heavy mannequins, you are moving heavy fixtures. You need to be tough.

Also, you need to be able to experiment and constantly change. When putting together a visual presentation there are 100 different ways you can lay it out and present it. You need to be willing to try all those ways (okay, maybe not all 100) to make sure you have the best presentation possible.

What type of education, qualifications, or skills are needed to be successful in your field?

A degree in Visual Merchandising gets your foot in the door. You need to have an eye for details and a great eye for aesthetics. You need to know that something can be seen 100 different ways and that is okay. You need to be able to multitask, have a strong ability to project manage, you need to be adaptable, and, again, having a thick skin helps.

What’s something surprising that most people don’t know about your job?

In my position there are a lot of interior design aspects, which I love but was not expecting. I never thought I would be picking out chandeliers for stores or putting together seating areas!

Homework time! Lily mentions that when she was going to school to get her degree in film, she realized that her true passion was in fashion, so she took some time off to work in retail stores. If you have an idea of the field you might want to work in, it’s never too early to go out and get experience. See if you can job shadow someone, conduct an informational interview, or even get a summer internship or job to try it out.

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