Meet an expert – Barry Thompson

What does it take to succeed in visual merchandising and brand communications? We spoke with Barry Thompson, Central Visual Merchandising and Communication Manager for Europe at GAP.

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Whilst doing my degree in Fashion and Textiles I worked part-time in the menswear department at House of Fraser. I always thought that the visual team’s role looked creative and exciting, so after supporting them (on my days off!) I applied for a full-time role when one came up. It was a good grounding for the start of my career, as I gained experience across windows, styling, home wares, children’s wear, as well as men and women’s fashion. After being at House of Fraser for over a year I wanted to pursue other opportunities in the field and joined BHS, which at the time was experimenting with a stand-alone furniture store. Then came Arcadia, in a ‘city visual’ role covering all of their brands – this was unusual and challenging, trying to get your head around different brand each day! From there I went in-store at H&M, focusing on visual set-ups while another team member concentrated on windows. This was fast-paced with daily floor changes as stock sold out – it certainly taught me not to be precious! I could merchandise a strong set-up to see it trashed as soon as the doors opened and customers entered. After a year I decided I wanted to broaden my horizon and applied for Visual Coordinator roles, ending up with Levi’s covering 80 doors in the South West corridor. From there, I’ve never looked back.

A major challenge that I’ve faced over the progression of my career is globalisation, when your guidelines, creative voice etc. land in front of you from a global hub. I’ve experienced this at Levi’s, Dockers, Calvin Klein and now Gap, but it’s become a normal way of working for me. It’s so essential that you build close relationships with global teams to ensure that the business runs smoothly. Don’t alienate – collaborate, open your thought process and be strong and firm about your needs. We all work for the same company – it’s the customers and locations that are different, and sometimes the product.

I think my greatest achievement was being given the chance to relocate to Belgium with Dockers whilst their business model transitioned from European to Global. It was a new, challenging way of working, and my first experience within a Global set-up.  If anyone gives you the opportunity to relocate to another country, I’d highly recommend it!

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At GAP, my tasks change on a weekly basis. Currently, I’m busy with a GAP fit project, as we want to grow GAP fit in the European market. I’m also working on a bespoke fixture package for a selection of stores – this is evolving and I’m excited to start seeing the results. Just last week I started working on the “image change out” within our 150 stores – this happens every 3 months. It’s a huge job and sees me working closely with the studio department and the production team. People don’t realise what goes on behind the scenes when you need to have 150 stores looking the same every season. I’ve now been at GAP for 2 years and a lot has changed; the business has transformed into a global model and the product buy to a global range. For my team this means that all the VM guidelines are set in NYC and then we adapt them (as much as we can, but minimally) for our European stores. The GAP brand will continue to evolve – we have a new designer on board that will be taking it back to its roots.

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I feel really lucky as I get to work on some really exciting projects. This year it’s been Remix and last year we had Visionaire. With Remix we gave a worldwide collective group of artists the task to create a t-shirt incorporating the GAP logo. The results are amazing and the 11 designs are available in selected outlets in London. Our Oxford Street flagship has a bespoke pop-up area dedicated to the Remix story, and our white space concept at Boxpark has seen the entire store turned into a wall of mirrors, with each box incorporating a t-shirt. Boxpark is great for us to seed these projects through social media and gain some really influential feedback and reviews. People don’t expect GAP to do things like Visionaire and Remix.

Visual Merchandising is a huge role – it’s not just dressing mannequins or hanging window banners.  Try out all aspects of the role and then decide which suits you. Gain as much experience as you can – work in small companies, blue chip companies and specialist stores. Maybe you want to focus on the training side or communication, or your flair may be in the creation of guidelines or windows. Do you want to be hands on, office based, or field focused? For me the important thing was to find my strengths and figure out what sort of brands/companies work for me. As VM evolves I’d say get some experience of online, as this is now getting bigger and bigger with companies like ASOS and NET-A-PORTER… It’s a completely new strand to the visual world. To succeed in the field of Visual Merchandising and Brand Comms you need to be creative, organised, driven and reactive – things change constantly. You also can’t be precious, as a project you’ve worked on for months can get dropped or changed at the last moment. Expect to work unusual hours, as a lot of work is done while stores are closed. Finally, many companies now are globally driven so you have to be open-minded and embrace this way of working.