May 16, 2013 4:46 pm

Design therapy for retailers

Working Lives: Shop window designer Gary Card. Photograph: Rosie HallamWorking Lives: Shop window designer Gary Card.©Rosie Hallam

Forward planning: Gary Card is already working on Christmas store concepts

It is an unusually sunny and warm day in London. Gary Card is making the most of the bright light at his flat-cum-studio in a converted factory in Dalston, east London. A friend is sunbathing on his balcony.

In a month’s time while everybody else hopes to be stoking up their barbecues and eating ice lollies, Mr Card will turn his attention to snow, Christmas trees and Santa. Christmas is big business for the 30-year-old, who wears heavy, purple-framed spectacles and slicks his hair back in a 1950s fashion. He styles shop windows and dresses restaurants for a living. Christmas is his peak season. And preparations start in the summer.

As more people shop online, retailers are seeking the help of stylists to remake bricks-and-mortar shops as a customer experience rather than merely a place to buy clothes and products. When Jessops, the UK camera store chain, went into administration at the beginning of the year, one redundant employee stuck a notice in the store’s window, thanking customers for shopping at Amazon. “The likes of Net-a-Porter and Asos are giving everybody a run for their money. Actual shops have to provide something else,” explains Mr Card.

A 2011 report by Deloitte, the professional services firm, says: “Consumers expect the store to enable an experience which online cannot deliver, that is, providing the in-store theatre and the ‘touch and feel’ experience . . . The role of the store needs to evolve . . . providing inspiration and emotional engagement.”

This is why Mr Card’s work on Christmas store concepts starts so early. Last year he undertook campaigns for Lanvin, the fashion house, and Chinese department store Lane Crawford. He also made a 20ft “gigantic, glowing” robot Christmas tree – a prop for Vauxhall, the GM-owned car marque, which was promoting its Ampera electric vehicle.

One of his favourite projects has been designing the interior of LN-CC, a London-based retailer that started life online before deciding to set up a physical store. According to Daniel Mitchell, the company’s brand director: “We wanted to create a real experience . . . as far from a traditional shop as possible.”

The result is a series of underground rooms, which are also used as a party space and exhibition area.

“The shop is their showroom, providing an experience,” he continues. “There’s a bar, it’s by appointment only, you’re only allowed two people in there at a time, so you’re free to wander. It’s about providing a feeling of what [the brand] is about.”

Commes des Garçons, the Japanese fashion house, is his favourite client because they are “super, super flexible and super willing to let me experiment. That’s the best kind of commercial job.”

The worst kind of client is one that does not trust him. “That’s always really confusing. You’ve been brought in because they like your stuff, then they don’t let you express your stuff, because there are so many different brand guidelines that you’ve got to adhere to.”

Mr Card hates micromanaging clients hanging about while he works. He also detests design by committee, whereby his ideas need to be sanctioned by multiple departments with different and sometimes contradictory concerns. He cites a recent brief as his worst ever job. “I had to go through four different tiers and everybody had a different idea and it was awful . . . they brought me on because they trusted my instincts, they trusted my style, and yet they hadn’t wanted me to do that at all. That was really tough”.

He was born in Bournemouth, the coastal town in southwest England. “I hated the beach. I didn’t like sunshine. I was obsessed with drawing and playing with Plasticine in front of the TV watching cartoons. Trying to get me out of the house was almost impossible because I was constantly drawing.”

His mother is a cleaner, his father a builder. “They were always super supportive. They knew from a very early age that there wasn’t anything else. It had to be something arty.”

He studied theatre design at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, drawn there in part by his admiration for graduate, Alexander McQueen, the late fashion designer.

Stints working with his father have given him a hard-working ethic. “Building sites are not fun places. They’re quite aggressive for a nerdy, drawing-obsessed kid . . . very homophobic and tough.”

A chance conversation with a photographer friend made him realise he could make a career out of his hobby making headpieces and props for friends. “I said: ‘It would be great if I could just make stuff for a living.’ He said: ‘You can – it’s a set designer, it’s a thing.’”

His biggest break came from his relationship with Nicola Formichetti, the Italian-Japanese fashion director, whom he contacted through MySpace and who commissioned him to make headpieces for Lady Gaga. “A lot of what I’ve given to Gaga has been made entirely out of masking tape. [She has worn] three rolls of masking tape on her head.”

He also makes accessories for her from materials including Plasticine, wood and wax. Some of his creations are never worn and go straight to the Lady Gaga archives – or the “Garchive”, as it is known.

Dalston is the home of hipsters. The building he lives in comes alive at the weekend, with parties. The corridors on Saturday nights, he says, are full of empty beer cans and people throwing up. The derelict area is crammed full of Generation Y creatives. Some are flaky and some are entrepreneurial multi-talented DJ-designer-stylists. Mr Card is disdainful of whimsical wannabes.

To relax, he pores over a copy of The Vault, a book that charts every detail of the pop star Prince’s career: a chronological list of every song released and unreleased, every concert played, every aftershow performed, every television and radio appearance made. Sharing the musician’s passion for purple, Mr Card dresses in the colour every day.

But if he really wants to unwind he will take a trip to his favourite retail experience: Liberty, the department store, known for its paisley prints. “I’m not buying anything. I just love that space.”

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