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Behind the scenes of a luxury Visual Merchandiser

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After initially starting her career in communication and working in an advertising agency, Marion Agouridas changed paths and entered the world of fashion. With experience at brands including Yves Saint Laurent, and SMCP (Maje), we wanted to focus on her position of Visual Merchandising Manager at Elie Saab – one of the world’s leading names in Haute Couture and bridal designs. MiND had the opportunity to talk to Marion in Paris to find out more about her role.

When asked how she came to be a visual merchandiser, she explains that she knew she wanted to work in a creative environment, but didn’t know exactly how and where. “Later on, destiny brought me into something new because one of my friends left his job for a production agency, and I realized that it was actually the right job for me! This is how I entered the world of fashion.” She then went on to complete an MBA in Management and Marketing of Luxury which is where she discovered visual merchandising and that it was perfect for her. “You have to think and act at the same time, so it was the perfect balance that I was looking for.”

“I could not imagine myself behind a laptop all day inside an office. I learned a lot through people; they pushed me and taught me to trust myself.”

During her experience at Lanvin, Marion explains how she learned from creative people who followed their intuition and how the team and environment made it an unforgettable experience. She worked closely with the creative director on store concepts. “I was involved with the architectural layout of the stores, their adaptation to the business plan and how to display the products and represent the brand image.”

At Elie Saab, Marion explains that the team is smaller and the experience extremely rich as it is a family business. She works with people from all over the world. Since she started working for the brand, when there were around 10 retail stores worldwide, she has been involved in the opening of more stores, taking part in all aspects related to the openings, therefore she works closely with the artistic director – Mr. Elie Saab himself. She says “The idea is for me to respect Mr Saab’s vision for each new project, to create a synergy within the stores but as well to make sure each of them reflects in a different way the vision of the company.”

“I’ve always been willing to work for companies where I could express myself.”

Marion’s role in the company is to ensure that the image of the points of sales are aligned with the values and DNA of the brand. She describes that this can be expressed through elements such as the way the collection is displayed in store, the colour theme of the collections, how you show the products on the mannequins, etc. Equally important is the architecture and the way that the store is designed. “We work upstream with the architectural and design department of the brand. It’s multisensory, so it involves the music, what you smell, the way the sales staff is dressed, etc. My day goes with the flow of the needs. I’m always in touch with the store managers to make sure that the store network is properly displayed. This job requires a highly adaptable, reactive and innovative approach to take action.”

We asked Marion how the Elie Saab store concepts reflect the fashion designer’s collections, to which she answered that they reflect the style and the brand’s key values more than a specific collection – which is usually the case for brands. With all of the seasonal changes, it would be almost impossible to adapt the store concepts so often. Instead, Marion explains that they adapt certain elements for new collections. For example, with pop-up areas or graphics.

“The basics of the store concepts are more a part of the designers’ spirit.”

The Elie Saab brand pays a lot of attention to architectural design: it is a part of the store DNA. The materials can contrast with the femininity of the collections and the dresses. Marion explains that the architecture of the stores is often contrasted by second hand furniture that Mr. Saab finds. Those hints from the artistic direction are key and give extra personality to the stores. “At Elie Saab, we don’t mathematically duplicate store concepts.”

With Elie Saab offering collections for Haute Couture, Ready to Wear and Bridal markets, Marion tells us that the vision for the visual merchandising differs depending on the type of collection to highlight. For example, she explains that for Haute Couture, the focus is done on the details of the unique pieces displayed. “Usually we really work close to the way Mr. Saab built the collection (story telling). It is capital to focus on the quality and craftsmanship of each dress.” For Ready to Wear the approach is different, as we have to be more innovative and commercial in the approach. We don’t talk to the same client as well. “We take inspiration from the way we can make the collections more dynamic. We define the color theme of the collections for Ready to Wear, and we work upstream with other departments.”

In terms of bridal, it’s another story. Marion explains that there are specific showrooms to present the collections to the clients. Only the newest collections are displayed in store, so they are not mixed. She maintains that the environment is specific for bridal because it’s a specific process of selling. “We make sure that the lighting is correct, the environment is intimate, and that there are flowers and all the accessories that the sales staff might need. It’s a protocol that we need to respect – you have a specific client with specific requests.”

With the constantly adapting retail environment, we asked Marion for her opinion on the way it is evolving. She believes that the changes are going to be a challenge in a good way and also an opportunity. Most customers today are getting more and more into online shopping. “We see that some brands that started online are investing in the physical retail market. Online is not enough for a business – maybe for the figures, but a brand is not only about figures, it’s also about image. We have to show and reflect the brand image and this cannot be done online in the same way as when you are in a physical store.”

Marion maintains that the experience of the client is key and that physical stores are the best solution for that. Though she admits that the points of sales might adapt, for example by having more pop-up or temporary stores, or even by mixing physical and digital stores, she still believes that retail is key, especially for luxury brands that need to provide an experience for the client.

“I believe we are going to go more for ‘phygital’ orientations, meaning that brands will need to mix more and more their physical and digital strategies. I believe that store design will remain key for brands because we will need to create a real experience for clients to really involve them in the brand environment. We are going to work around store design being able to share and transmit emotions to customers more and more.”

With her invaluable experience, we asked Marion to share some advice about visual merchandising. She describes how it’s not simply about being creative, but also about understanding markets. “You need to have rationale to understand that you are providing a service with a lot of creativity and a lot of your heart, but still to answer to a request. For me this is key nowadays.”

We at MiND thoroughly enjoyed finding out about Marion’s role and experience, and wish her the best of luck in her future projects.

By: Lisa Zanon & Isabelle James