GSN’s TV competition series “Window Warriors” puts visual merchandising designers and their skills on national display
Photos courtesy of Macy's
Timothy's Howe, winner of "Window Warriors," designed these Christmas windows for Macy's Herald Square in New York
It seems there is a competition show for everything these days, from cakes and cookies to fashion and sci-fi makeup. It was only a matter of time before visual merchandising got in on the action (and the viewers).
Putting the art and skillset of window design on center stage for a national television audience, “Window Warriors” premiered on GSN on Nov. 15, 2016. Produced by Michael Levitt Productions—the same team that found success with the network’s “Skin Wars”—the visual display competition show was inspired by the magnificent holiday windows in cities like New York, London and Chicago.
“The fact that these windows tell a story, and they’re rich with cleverness and detail, and they’re whimsical, and so creative, we knew that this was ripe for making a great television series,” explains Michael Levitt, executive producer of “Window Warriors.”
The production team went all in, studying every aspect of the visual merchandising world itself and spending two years developing the show before pitching it. “We reached out to FIDM [Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising], and they directed me to GlobalShop” says Executive Producer Jill Goularte. The team added award-winning visual merchandising icon Paul Olszewski as a consulting producer, and attended some of his classes at FIDM.
“We really went out of our way to immerse ourselves in the world, do our homework and make sure that we’re getting it right and that we’re honoring this craft with respect and authenticity,” Levitt says.
Another aspect of the development deal with the network was to get retailers attached to the show as well. “The show is really about art meets commerce, so to have the designers creating windows for a specific retailer we felt was really an important element,” Levitt explains.
Levitt and Goularte flew out to Chicago and New York to meet with retailers and came back with five—Macy’s, Lush, Anthropologie, Hot Topic and Sprinkles Cupcakes—as well as a partnership with General Growth Properties (GGP).
Levitt credited the enthusiasm of the retailers to the timing. “Retailers are looking for opportunities to celebrate the bricks-and-mortar shopping experience, and so our show does just that,” he says. “It celebrates how wonderful it is to go into a store and shop. It was a big win for them, as well as a big win for us.”
Macy’s ended up participating in two episodes, the first and the finale. “At Macy’s, we are always on the lookout for ways we can add to the shopping experience and environment through exciting, fresh partnerships that resonate with our customers,” says Roya Sullivan, Macy’s national director of windows. “As the brand known for beginning the tradition of animated windows at Macy’s original 14th Street location and our iconic windows at Macy’s Herald Square flagship in New York City, ‘Window Warriors’ offered a great opportunity to expand on our own traditions.”
To find actual contestants, the production team set up a booth at GlobalShop 2016 and soon, through word of mouth and social media, they had a selection of visual designers ready to throw down on national television. The top 20 prospects were flown out to Los Angeles for a mini window challenge, and that was narrowed down to eight contestants for “Window Warriors,” including eventual winner Timothy Howe, who had previously worked with Anthropologie, Neiman Marcus, Barneys New York in Chicago and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.
“I heard about it through a friend of mine, and after a bit of arm twisting, she finally was willing to give the producers my info, and they reached out to me,” Howe says. “It’s funny, because it was, and is, a very unlikely thing for me to do. I don’t like having my picture taken, let alone being on camera and mic-ed for days on end.”
Each episode of the show involved the contestants creating a window for the sponsoring retailer, and then the winning window was then re-created in the corresponding store in GGP malls.
While the contestants technically had three days to do the windows for each episode, Howe says it boiled down to about 20 hours of actual construction and design, between getting the challenge, developing a plan of action, sourcing what you needed, building, painting, props, etc. And, of course, each challenge had a twist or two. For the Anthropologie window, Howe was given the challenge of having to use red plastic cups.
“It instantly went from ‘Yeah, I got this,’ to ‘Oh crap, this is going to be tricky.’ It was a challenge. It wasn’t supposed to be easy,” Howe recalls. “I think it made it fun for us. That’s part of the job that I love. It’s a puzzle to be figured out.” Howe added that he even challenged himself by using materials he had never used before.
“I feel like windows should be theater,” he says. “It’s like the difference between looking at a picture from a big production play and reading a review and then actually seeing it in person. I think the windows are that opportunity to see it in person. To see this merchandise, to see this brand’s ideas come to life, so to speak.”
The season finale put Howe against two of his fellow contestants to create not one but two holiday windows for Macy’s. As part of his grand prize, Howe designed holiday windows for Macy’s Herald Square, which were on display on Seventh Avenue through Jan. 2.
The producers are hoping for a second season of “Window Warriors” on GSN, but are thrilled to have given a televised stage to the art form of visual display and merchandising. “To pull the veil off this world and expose it to the masses has been very rewarding to us,” Levitt says.
For Howe, who before the show had moved into more of a corporate role in retail design, dictating the process from afar, the experience reminded him of how much he loves the actual hands-on aspect of visual merchandising.
“In the industry as a whole, budgets are getting cut, windows have become more about showing promotional posters or directives that go out to all stores, as opposed to stores having an individual aesthetic or idea or story to tell of their own,” Howe says. “Hopefully, this gets people excited about what it is we do, and they will want to see more of that. Retailers, too, will see there really is something here. I hope it appeals to not just people in the industry, but to the next generation of people who are going to be doing this.”
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