Thought Leadership Series from the Institute

Retail Design Institute Organization Logo
Officer Election Schedule for 2022-2024 Term
June 13, 2022
In Memoriam: Kent D. Hensley 1960 – 2022
July 20, 2022

Thought Leadership Series from the Institute

In celebration of its 60th anniversary, the Institute presents an ongoing series of think pieces offering guidance, insight and inspiration for retail designers. The series kicks off with a look at the state of retail leadership written by retail veteran Eric Feigenbaum, Media RDI. Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. Find his full bio at the end of this piece. Member, we welcome your comments (just log in)! And, we welcome your topics for future columns. Email Janet Groeber in the International Office – [email protected] – for assistance. 

August 2022: The Art of Design
Enlightened retail leaders bring art, fashion and beauty to the general public

By Eric Feigenbaum, Media RDI

Fashion and art are spiritually united; both time-honored barometers, measuring the pulse of society, and the heartbeat of culture. As the two respond to the nuances of the moment and measure the temperature of the times, it’s important to recognize the inherent value of looking back as we endeavor to move forward.

As a young art student living in New York, the cobblestone streets of SoHo were my playground. In addition to the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the Upper East Side, SoHo offered a continuous source of inspiration. Back then, every door in the neighborhood South of Houston Street was an art gallery. The district’s turn of the century cast-iron buildings, relics of the burgeoning industrial revolution, were perfectly configured for the exhibition of art. As is often the case however, the long-reaching arms of retail eventually pushed the artists out and ushered in the trendy stores, luxury boutiques and fashionable shops that line the streets today.

The relationship between fashion and art has long been intertwined. In a 2012 exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “Impossible Conversations,” Miuccia Prada took on Elsa Schiaparelli’s bold statement that “dress designing is not a profession but an art.” Prada said, “Whether fashion design is art, or even if art is art, doesn’t really interest me. Maybe nothing is art.” If nothing is art, as Prada contends, what is art? Schiaparelli says, “It’s the way we live.” So, is fashion art? And if so, does art have a place in the retail environment?

The great merchant princes of the early 1900s used art as an enticement to attract customers into their stores. As the Gimbel brothers opened stores in the mid-1910s in New York, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Philadelphia, they proudly exhibited the works of Cézanne, Picasso and Braque in their new establishments. Additionally, paintings from the French impressionists to Georgia O’Keefe and Boardman Robinson, have notably graced the halls of retail stores from Paris to Pittsburg. In contemporary times, a stroll down pre-pandemic Fifth Avenue revealed the work of German-American illustrator Joseph Leyendecker in Saks Fifth Avenue windows, or a Harry Bertoia sculpture in The North Face flagship store.

In 1928, Dorothy Shaver started a retail revolution that still rings true today. Through her vision, she enriched and significantly altered the course of modern merchandising. In addition to being one of the first women appointed to head a major department store, she staged a grand exhibition of modern French decorative arts at Lord & Taylor. Her vision as president of the venerable Fifth Avenue emporium was to cultivate a connection between the art world, manufacturing, and retail. The overarching goal was to bring fashion and art to the general public.

The defining measure of her presidency at Lord & Taylor was her enduring passion for art. This enthusiasm coupled with an astute business acumen, led to a dramatic increase in sales during her 14-year tenure. In 1950 MoMA acknowledged Shaver’s devotion to art by inviting her to speak at the opening of “Good Design,” an exhibition of more than 100 everyday objects celebrating beauty and function.

As time progressed, the lords of merchandising continued to introduce shoppers to high art, intertwining two seemingly disparate entities – fine art and mass culture. In the galleries of the most venerable museums, and in the windows and aisles of the grand retail establishments, dreams, in the guise of culture, were being offered to the general public. And as merchants appealed to the consumer’s aspirational lust for status, display artists turned to the influence of fine art.

Art continued its profound influence on retail. In 1942, André Breton published his third surrealist manifesto. Seeking inspiration, display artists turned to cultural and current events. In 1945, a Saks Fifth Avenue window featured a mannequin lying on a psychiatrist’s couch while a “dream-dress” appeared through a transparent wall. Thought-provoking images abounded in show windows across the country. In 1948, a young Gene Moore used surrealism as a selling tool in Bonwit Teller’s window, and in the 1960s Raymond Mastrobuoni invoked images of Salvador Dali in Cartier’s windows.

In 1951, Stanley Marcus started the Neiman Marcus art collection, the largest of any retailer in America. In the ensuing years, Neiman Marcus continued collecting, considering art an important part of their store environments. Stanley Marcus was a visionary who created successful stores by promoting and believing in what was new in the world of art and fashion. Numbers-driven retailers today are less courageous, impairing their creative instincts. Shaver, Marcus, and innumerable retail visionaries, presented the gift of art to all who visited their stores.

Successful business leaders understand the importance of the creative spirit in any business model. In 1945, Pierre Cardin made his way to Paris where he served as an apprentice to the couturier Jeanne Paquin. After a brief stint in the studio of Elsa Schiaparelli, he met a young man named Christian Dior. Working in the Dior studio, he helped usher in the “New Look” collection. Then in 1958, Cardin was the first couturier to be shown in a department store. Although controversial, Cardin democratized fashion with the launch of a prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) collection in Printemps, a popular Parisian department store.

In his youth Dior dreamed of becoming an artist. In contrast, Prada questioned whether fashion design is art. In some quarters art is defined as a creative endeavor that moves emotions. If so defined, Dior clearly lived his dream. Through the aesthetics of emotion, he created a fashion empire that greatly impacted our culture and sparked our aspirational desires.

While the SoHo I frequented in earlier days is forever changed, the vanquished artists left a legacy that embodies the intrinsic relationship between art and fashion. Art presented in a retail environment elevates the customer experience. The gallery-like footprints designed to present fine art, remain in the high-end shops and boutiques along the narrow streets of this tony retail enclave. These open floor plans allow retailers to do more than elevate the customer experience. In keeping with the vision of Dior and Cardin, they elevate their fashion offerings into the realm of art. And much like the visionary couturiers, they democratize fashion and art while celebrating the creative spirit.


July 2022: Design, Culture, and the Human Spirit

Retail designers must respond to the conditions of the day by simplifying the retail experience

By Eric Feigenbaum, Media RDI

Design is a reflection of our collective experiences; it’s a representation of the challenges and triumphs of the human condition. While some will argue that design informs culture, it should be noted that inspiration for creative design is everywhere; if you can’t find it, look again.

Design is a response to the ever-changing nuances of life. As such, design is not only charged with the documentation of the times, but also with providing critical commentary on the events of the day. In addition, responsive design thinking should provide solutions for the ever-increasing challenges of modern-day life.

In considering the impact and importance of design, I’m reminded of Raymond Loewy who designed everything from lipstick to locomotives. While many are unfamiliar with the name, Loewy touches our lives every day. His diverse portfolio includes many of the products, objects, signs, and symbols of everyday life, including, but certainly not limited to, the Shell, Exxon, TWA, and United States Postal Service logos; the Greyhound bus; Coca-Cola vending machines and bottle; the Lucky Strike cigarette package; Coldspot refrigerators and the Studebaker Avanti automobile. Additionally, Loewy redesigned the Air Force One livery. Convinced that a remodeled jetliner could become a standard bearer of the presidency, Loewy collaborated with President Kennedy to develop an updated, elegant color palette that is still in use today.

Before his illustrious career as an industrial designer, the Parisian-born Loewy had a brief stint in the retail design world as a window designer for large department stores such as Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Wanamaker’s. (He also worked as a fashion illustrator for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.) While at Macy’s, a young Raymond Loewy took a single mannequin, dressed her in an evening gown, placed her in the window with nothing else, and focused two spotlights on her. Loewy quit the next day before Macy’s could fire him, knowing full well that the merchants of the day instinctively pushed everything they owned into the show windows. Loewy knew that his window creation wasn’t necessarily about selling an evening gown that day, but rather, about projecting the Macy’s brand image to passersby on the street. To all who would listen, Loewy famously said, “Simplicity is the deciding factor in the aesthetic equation.”

The concept of simplicity has been championed by many of the great thinkers and visionaries in the art and design community. Mies van der Rohe told us, “Less is more,” while Constantin Brancusi penned the words that every designer should hold near and dear to their heart, “Simplicity is complexity resolved.” And while our world grows increasingly complex, it’s the successful retail designer who will simplify our lives by creating order out of chaos.

Today we are faced with unimaginable conditions and circumstances that have dramatically altered our lives. As retailers search for solutions and direction, customers are searching for safety and convenience in an increasingly chaotic world. Given the conditions of the day and the complexities of retail, designers would be well served to consider the perspectives of Loewy, Mies Van der Rohe and Brancusi.

In Brancusi’s iconic sculpture, Bird in Space, on permanent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the artist communicates the concept of a bird with a simple gesture; a single mellifluous line capturing the contours and spirit of our high flying friends. A bird is naturally a complex entity with wings, feathers, beaks and claws. In depicting the nuances of a bird, Brancusi made an enduring statement and emotional connection through the art of simplification. Much like a bird, it can be argued that a store is also a complex entity, with styles, sizes, silhouettes, and myriad sources of information and stimulation.

While simplifying the retail process is a must, it shouldn’t come at the expense of aesthetics. With the unrelenting march of time, politics, and bureaucracy, stores that once resembled palaces and cathedrals, are beginning to look more like factories. When designing an environment, whether brick-and-mortar or virtual, particularly in the face of change and challenge, retailers must recognize the motivational, aspirational, and persuasive power of aesthetics.

As Loewy’s illustrious career unfolded, he underscored the importance of design by illustrating the practical rewards of form and function in his book titled Industrial Design. The nature and aesthetic quality of a building affects its functionality and the ultimate experience of those engaging in the space. The beauty, grace, and elegance of physical form and mass, as well as that of augmented reality and cyberspace, greatly impacts the shopping experience and community relationships.

In his book, Loewy wrote, “Success finally came when we were able to convince some creative people that good appearance was a salable commodity, that it often cut costs, enhanced a product’s prestige, raised corporate profits, and benefited the customer.” As we wade through the muddy waters left in the wake of the pandemic, benefiting the customer becomes the most vital factor in the retail equation.

Effective design begins with an awareness of the times and an understanding of the human spirit; form and function must adapt to the conditions of the day. Loewy’s vision is as relevant today as it was when he penned his thoughts on simplicity. While customers search for comfort and safety in their shopping experience, whether brick and mortar or digital, designers should focus on simplifying the process and simplifying the aesthetic. Retail design must respond to the circumstances, flash points, triggers, and events that impact, and in fact, defined our culture.


June 2022: Fashion Forward Leadership

A new paradigm will inspire and motivate the next generation of retail designers

By Eric Feigenbaum, Media RDI

Retail designers are in the business of fashion, and by definition, fashion is change. While most discussions concerning the fashion industry begin on the runways of Paris, New York and Milan, it should be noted that there is fashion in everything, from designer handbags and couture evening gowns to stovetops, refrigerators and cell phones. Retail, whether brick and mortar or digital, is the showplace for the latest fashions; it’s the theater for new products, new concepts and new ideas. As such, retail designers are the choreographers, presenting the fashion of the day on retail’s grand selling stages.

Over the course of time, retail has demonstrated an unwavering ability to adapt to the latest styles, trends, and technologies. It has also responded to the events of the day, being a reflection and in some cases a bellwether of our culture. With change being the one constant in the retail equation, it’s curious that the approach to leadership hasn’t advanced at all.

The events that roiled the early years of the 21st-century, from the attacks on 911 and the financial crises in 2008, to catastrophic storms and political and social upheaval, have restructured society in long lasting, and in some cases, permanent ways. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic created challenges that we never faced before. The world as we knew it, from travel protocols and the way we shop, to real estate transactions, banking, and workplace dynamics, is forever changed.

Adapting to change can be empirical, particularly in the face of new technologies and existential provocation such as the vice-like grip of a worldwide pandemic. To move forward in challenging and changing times, successful retail leaders must have their hand on the pulse of our society and the heartbeat of our culture. They must recognize and understand societal shifts and current events, not only in their local communities, but across the world as well.

The hallmark of successful retail design has always been a quick and effective response to change; offering progressive new ideas, directions, and strategies. It’s disappointing however, that retailers seeking the latest in environmental design remain stagnant in their approach to leadership. While attempting to move forward, they continue to employ theories that are relics of the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. As we advance deeper into the 21st-century, we are still suffering from outdated leadership models that are harmful to people, which in turn is antithetical to the creative spirit.

While the pandemic exacerbated these antiquated approaches, it left a silver lining in its wake. COVID-19 brought to life what is truly important to those connected to fashion and retail: sustainability of the industry, stewardship of the planet, and the desire to make the world a better place.

As the industry evolves, there is a new paradigm for effective leadership. Before and during the pandemic, “empathy” was the buzzword bandied about by executives across the retail sector. “We have to care about our customers,” was the rallying cry. While this may be true, most retail leaders never directly interact with customers. Rather, their appointed associates provide the vital connection to the shopping public. Although the concept of empathy is heartfelt, it’s almost universally misunderstood and largely misdirected. To be effective, leaders must have empathy for the dedicated team members, whether frontline associates or back of the house designers, who offer direction and comfort to their customers in these challenging times.

Retail strategies and leadership roles must be reshaped as tools for facilitating social justice, environmental sustainability and emerging ethical workplace standards. A new level of awareness is inspiring a social revolution within the retail industry. Those in positions of leadership must understand that the next generation of industry professionals, including designers, will seek, and in fact demand, a sense of purpose and personal value in their careers. Going forward, responsible leadership must listen to and disseminate the voice of a new generation with initiatives that are meaningful to them, such as diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, to create a more welcoming environment for all.

Albert Einstein reportedly said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” In a post-pandemic pivot, it’s vital that all retail leaders, including store designers and visual merchandisers, know and understand the priorities of their employees, team members, suppliers, and investors as well as the priorities of their customers. Responsible leaders will define new benchmarks and standards for the workplace. They will explore a more humanistic approach to leadership in these challenging and rapidly changing times and seek alternatives to that which has long been considered tried and true.

Leadership is an art and a science. The science is collecting and analyzing data. The art is responding to the findings in creative ways. As the industry evolves, well-intended management is not enough to propel an organization forward. A distinction must be drawn between leaders and managers. Managers will tell subordinates how they did it, insisting their way is the right way. Leaders will cultivate an inquisitive culture within the organization. While a manager will detail the way it should be done, a leader will encourage experimentation and a search for ways that it could be done. Managers rely on their authority and positions of power, while leaders accept responsibility and promote individual growth, inquisitiveness, and experimentation. Leaders empower; managers merely direct.

To be an effective leader, one must create a sense of trust and an atmosphere of cooperation. It’s not about who sits at the head of the table, it’s about nurturing, inspiring, and letting one’s natural talents blossom. Leadership is empowering associates so they can respond to any challenge and perform at their inherent best. A company culture that promotes growth, inclusion, equity, and empathy will build trust and cooperation. Human resource development is a vital component and strategic imperative of an organizational culture. Relate to the people in your charge. Empathy is where true leadership begins and success follows.

About the author: Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. As a retailer, he served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s, the Paramus, N.J.-based department store division of Federated Department Stores (now Macy’s), for 14 years overseeing new stores and renovations. As a consultant, he was the director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, a New York City-based architectural firm, specializing in retail design worldwide. Clients include retailers in South Korea, Japan, Chile and Peru.

As an educator, Feigenbaum, was chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College in New York City from 2000 to 2015, where he created the first four-year BBA degree program in visual merchandising, and the first masters’ degree program in visual merchandising. Feigenbaum is responsible for conceiving and designing the state-of-the-art LIM College Green Lab – a sustainable materials lab and research center. Additionally, he was an adjunct professor of store design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Feigenbaum has been the recipient of numerous prestigious industry awards. In 2012, he was awarded the Markopoulos Award, the industry’s highest honor. Professor Feigenbaum has lectured all over the world on visual merchandising and store design including presentations at the World Retail Congress and the National Retail Federation as well as presentations in Seoul and Ulsan South Korea; Fukuoka, Japan; Santiago, Chile; Hong Kong; Sydney and Melbourne, Australia; Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba, Brazil; Dusseldorf, Germany; Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, Canada; Monterrey, Guadalajara and Mexico City, Mexico; Madrid, Spain; Lima, Peru; Bogota and Medellin, Colombia; and Milan and Ancona, Italy. Feigenbaum is also a founding member of the Planning and Visual Education Partnership (PAVE) and is regarded as one of the top experts and visionaries in the visual merchandising and store design industries.

Currently, Feigenbaum is president and director of creative services for Embrace Design, which he founded. He is New York Editor of VMSD magazine, and director of workshops for WindowsWear. He is a media member of the Institute.

Comments are closed.