I recently participated in a six week short course in the subject of Visual Merchandising & Display with the London College of Fashion. Now I feel that the time is right to share my thoughts on it. First of all, I really enjoyed the course. I found actually studying fashion to be enthralling and completely different from anything else that I had ever done. I actually thought how lucky people were that got to do that at degree level (hopefully me someday). Secondly, the short six week structure (one lesson per week) meant that you got a little taster of that section of the industry and allowed you to decide if it was the right place for you.
I enrolled on the course with the intention of finding out if Visual Merchandising is something that I want to do and found it valuable to learn about what a Visual Merchandiser actually does on a daily basis. I know that others on the course enrolled for similar reasons also: some people already worked in retail and wanted to progress their career, others had degrees and wanted to know if they should do a Master’s in the subject, others were just doing it for a bit of fun. It did confirm to me that I wanted to study fashion. If I ever doubt myself, or my choice to study a subject matter that many deem frivolous and a waste of time/money, I will make a point of reminding myself how much I loved this. Whilst it wasn’t in an area that my main interest really lies in, it was nice to speak to like-minded people and somebody that actually worked in and had experience in the industry.
Our tutor, Sarah Manning (who I think does the traditional short courses as well), has worked in Visual Merchandising for over a decade and has worked with major brands in the London area including Harvey Nichols & Selfridges. I’d say her personal experiences made the course more valuable as she shared personal experiences and insight throughout, whilst combining it with the knowledge that was needed for the course. The actual course covered a variety of topics ranging from display theories to lighting, colour schemes and sale windows. The first thing to make clear is that the role of VM is not just a window dresser, but actually a lot more. The VM is responsible for the inside layout of the store too and help, not with just merchandising the clothing, but also is in charge of ticketing, graphics and the direction of customers inside the store (creating walkways and aisles). They work with the sales and merchandising teams to help boost profits and present unpopular items in a way that makes customers want to buy them. Clever visual merchandising can make a massive difference in terms of sales, it can really make or break a store.
Now whilst I don’t actually want to work in Visual Merchandising, I found doing the course infinitely valuable. Working in retail means that there are often terms thrown around that until I did the course, I had no idea what they meant. I’d say learning the basics of visual merchandising is key to working in retail and actually helped me understand what was going on in-store a lot more.
In terms of the structure of the course, there were six lessons. Once a week on a Monday night from 6:30pm to 8:30pm, but every week without fail we went overtime. After the first two weeks, the tutor hosted a Q&A starting from 6 o’clock, meaning that if we had anything specific to ask, we could outside of class time. This meant giving up more of her own time to help the class which I found an admirable thing to do. The classes were all online, in a virtual classroom environment that UAL uses for its online short courses. The classroom was set up with a video and audio feed which the tutor spoke through (and you could too), a chat bar, and a presentation screen on which slides were uploaded. We were taught primarily using the slideshow. I made notes throughout, which may have been a little unnecessary considering the slides were uploaded onto our class forum page afterwards, but I felt that it helped me to stay focused on the class and take in more information. The classes were mainly theory although there was a practical element involved, albeit not mannequin dressing. For our coursework each week, we created window displays on a program called NN4M (No Need for Mirrors). The idea was to create displays based on a certain theme that was set for us each week. Examples include a sale window, an autumn/winter window & an Alexander McQueen window. Our instructions were to create the window, complete with outfits, lighting and props and upload it to receive feedback on at the beginning of the next lesson. On top of the window created, we also had to make a moodboard with images that inspired us. This meant that we had to do research based on things that have already been done in the industry, which was actually helpful and interesting to see. The windows that I see in-stores are often not as exciting as what is seen in London, purely because there is a higher concentration of luxury stores there and also because they are the trend-setters for displays, so by the time it reaches Edinburgh, London has moved on. I found the feedback at the start of the lessons to be the worst part of the course, purely because it was so time consuming. I understand that we were to look at the work of others, probably to inspire us and make the class feel more connected, but I would’ve rather just received personal feedback and had more time for learning. That was really my only issue with the course.
You may be thinking, how is using an online programme practical? Well, it meant that you could easily produce a vision of what your window would look like. You chose your mannequins and poses, backdrop, colour scheme, props, lighting – everything. All shown on one simple image, it made the entire process of window designing much easier. It would’ve been good to gain some practical experience in mannequin dressing but obviously that was impossible as it was an online course. Unless I had gone out and bought myself a mannequin (which, by the way, are not at all cheap) I would be unable to do so. We were told how to dismantle and dress a mannequin and were given clear instructions on what to do, and what not to do, so I felt that the instructions given were sufficient to give us a basic understanding of the matter. I think if you were ever to handle mannequins in your workplace, they would give you training on how to do so beforehand.
Basically, I’d say that doing a short course is a great idea. I did the course with the intention of finding out if this is what I want to study (they do a Visual Merchandising & Branding degree at UAL) because I didn’t want to apply to, and then pay £9000 a year for a course that I wasn’t 100% certain on. Whilst I have discovered that VM probably isn’t for me, due to various reasons (for one, lack of real creativity unless you’re at head office), I did realise that fashion is what I want to study. I realise now that I would rather do a degree more suited to buying and merchandising, I thoroughly enjoyed the course and would definitely do another short course, or real degree course, with the London College of Fashion.
You might think, what is the point in doing a short course? They aren’t accredited so you don’t actually get a recognised qualification from it, so I can understand why some people may not understand why. I did it for self discovery, which many others did also. I think it is a good step in the right direction. They provide you with a basic understanding of that subject area, and if you feel compelled, you can study it at a more in-depth level. Furthermore, having the name of London College of Fashion on your CV can really open doors for people. It is one of the most respected schools in the fashion industry and almost everybody will know the name. One of the girls from my session was hired for a Visual Merchandising position and was told a major factor in that was that she had completed the course. Finally, doing something in your spare time like this just shows your enthusiasm for the subject. It shows that you are willing to invest in your career and yourself. You show commitment to bettering yourself and furthering your skill set. Now I can’t see any negatives in that, can you?
Short courses with UAL, in a wide variety of subjects, commence regularly and cost on average £500. “Visual Merchandising & Display” online learning courses commence on 2nd February (Monday night for 6 weeks) and 29th April (Wednesday night for 6 weeks) at £450. Book online with the London College of Fashion. There are also on-site (in London) short courses, for example: “Visual Merchandising & Space Management: Intensive” – a 4/5 day course that runs at various times throughout the year for £575 (not including accommodation).