Retail Displays: Putting on a Front

The headquarters of the Vancouver Police Department might seem an imposing neighbour, but, for James Williams of Wow Windows Display and Design Ltd., the cop shop provides a constant stream of surreal entertainment.

Appreciation for the theatre outside his own window is echoed in the extravagant window and floor displays he creates for his retail clients.

“The window is the first point of contact for a store, the calling card,” says Williams, who today is surrounded in his cramped workshop by hundreds of fluorescent orange cubes destined to showcase footwear. “I have three seconds to catch someone’s eye and entice them inside before they walk away.”

Williams has been enticing shoppers for more than 15 years. Born in Vancouver but raised in London, England, he began his training with Harrods and Alfred Dunhill. Working freelance across Europe, he designed windows for Chanel and Stella McCartney before returning to Canada in 2000 to head visual display for Birks.

“I was so lucky in London,” muses Williams. “One account, Jaeger, was going through a massive image change, and I was responsible for the display in their flagship location, which had an extraordinary two-storey window. I would have birds flying out of the window with gigantic hats and carved sinks with flashing lights – just jaw-dropping visuals.”

According to Williams, Canadian retail lacks the fairy-tale setting of the European shopping experience. Across the pond, visual display is a highly competitive field, constantly generating elaborate designs that keep the industry fresh. “There is no competition in Vancouver,” he laments.

He attributes that lack of competition to a small population that resists radical design, but nevertheless Williams has managed to carve out his own creative niche. A loyal client base in a diverse range of local retail outlets affords him the opportunity to create whimsical displays, if at a fraction the scale of European standards.

Still, it’s preferable to what Williams describes as the norm for visuals in Canada’s corporate realm: designs chosen in a boardroom then shipped to satellite operations across the country with a list of instructions.

With clients ranging from wine purveyors to urban fashion retailers, Williams adheres to his passion for ostentation. If approached by potential clients who lack his whimsical vision, he’ll pass them off to one of the few freelancers he knows.

“I won’t do convention,” he says with a laugh. “This is my art. I refuse to compromise.”