Do You Believe in Magic? Then You Might Be The Perfect Window Dresser
Remember when your favorite part of the holidays was visiting Macy's Christmas windows in the big store downtown? It was your family's special tradition. You'd breathe in the frosty air and race toward the sparkle in the distance, heart pounding. Then suddenly you were there, standing in the glow of a thousand twinkling lights and toys come to life. You wondered: where did this magic come from? Who created this? Was it Santa?
Yes, Virginia, Santa surely gives it a wink and a nod. But the real (earthly) magic comes from those artistic experts known as window dressers. These visual professionals have been a pivotal part of retailing since the 1890's when store owners used plate glass to publicize specials. The venerable RH Macy himself began the tradition of animated windows in 1899 at Macy's original 14th street location. The industry has always been touched by magic; the legendary Wonderful Wizard of Oz author, Frank L. Baum, created the first National Association of Window Trimmers.
Thanks to today's retail revolution with its emphasis on customer experience, careers in this field are booming. Workers with relevant education and experience plus a talent for the creative arts have their pick of a broad range of jobs in all corners of the country. These in-demand positions may be found under a variety of titles: Visual Merchandiser, Display Associate, Visual Stylist or Visual Display Manager.
Or in the case of creative rockstar, Roya Sullivan, whose official title is Macy's National Director of Window Presentation. AOL Jobs spoke with the award-winning designer as she was preparing to launch "Santa's Journey to the Stars," this year's Macy's Herald Square Christmas window spectacular. We were lucky enough to get a bit of an inside look at the enormous amount of talent, expertise, and energy it takes to produce this "celebration of old school artistry with new digital elements." While installation of the Christmas windows takes 21 days and nights, the project is nearly a year in the making.
What's Roya's secret sauce? Besides a sleigh-full of her own boundless creativity and genius?
Santa Helpers. Macy's Christmas windows has a "dedicated team of over 250 Santa Helpers that bring the windows to life." This list includes Macy's display artists, graphic artists, sculptural artists, animators, carpenters, electricians and music and sound experts. From full-time to freelance.
Creative gurus, all. But Sullivan stressed that these positions have another key element. "It's one of those things that's not only arts and crafts oriented but also a business."
Other prized visual merchandising jobs within the many Macy's stores include a "partnership between the visual manager and store manager. It's not only making the store beautiful but also business savvy about items."
We asked her about the one quality that stands out as the most important in a coveted job like hers: "Actually it's three qualities that are necessary. They must be extremely creative, highly organized, and a really good leader."
The Right Start: Art
If you studied art in college or went to a specialized art school, you might have the ideal background for a career in visual merchandising. Sullivan studied painting and photography in art school, and then advanced to a Masters degree at Pratt. Some of the schools you may have heard about via TV hit Project Runway include FIDM, Pratt, and Parsons. FIDM (the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising) has an Advisory Board that includes industry giants such as Tim Gunn, Diane von Furstenberg, Emanuel Ungaro, and Fred Segal.
That insider approach to education may boost a job applicant's appeal.
"Our students are taught and mentored by the industry," Lyn Tobman, chairperson of the Visual Communications department at FIDM in Los Angeles, told AOL Jobs. "We bring experts in to teach. Our courses involve getting practical experience. Our students are also required to learn and understand collaboration. To create their windows for class presentation -- which require them to research, source, build and install -- they must work in teams."
She stresses the importance of collaboration. "If you can't get along with people, you're in the wrong field."
Another integral part of the visual thinking process in FIDM's classes is exploration; from museums to theaters to digital and tech experiences. "To design for that box, you need to get out of that box."
Not surprisingly, Tobman and colleague, Cindy Patino, FIDM's Director of Visual Communications, are also renowned experts in entertainment set design.
All of this innovative, hands-on training helps students go on to successfully land the plum design jobs. "Right now, our graduates are working at Saks in Beverly Hills, Barney's, Bloomingdales, Forever 21 and more," says the chairperson.
Director Patino offers a rare opportunity every year to ten select FIDM students. Upon meeting stringent academic requirements, these fortunate future visual gurus travel to New York, where they meet closely with industry leaders. This year the trip includes a visit with Macy's Roya Sullivan.
Secret Sauce: Getting Social
It's no secret that knowing the right people and word-of-mouth is one of the best ways to find a job. But in this very social era, "meeting" the right people may be easier than ever. The popular social channels, particularly the highly visual Instagram and Pinterest, deliver powerful opportunities to build an engaging personal brand and then tap into the platform to connect with creative insiders.
"Instagram has been amazing," Sullivan told us. "Especially with the window dressers. We'll post that we're looking, using the hashtag #Macys and immediately we'll hear from artists."
Macy's corporate account currently has 225,000+ follows on Instagram. Other top retail brands on Instagram include Victoria Secret and Urban Outfitter. A quick way to immerse yourself in the fashion side of visual arts is by clicking #mbfashionweek which includes "all things fashion from around the world."
True originals can position themselves as an Instagram IT Girl and hope to catch well-trained eyes like Sullivan's or her fellow visual design leaders. The secret to pulling this off? Develop a uniquely ownable look and feel. Textile artist and designer @KindahKhalidy did this so successfully that Instagram featured her. Kindah's fresh, original visual approach attracted the attention of 44,000 follows and counting, some from key retailers and visionaries.
Tobman agrees with the importance of social media for creative professionals. The college will add a Social Media degree program next year.
More Macy's Magic: 10,000 people per hour will pass by Macy's 2014 Christmas windows. Here's why: This year's seasonal spectacular traces the adventures of Alex, a young boy who receives a magical and mystical telescope that enables him to experience the wonder of Christmas on other planets before landing back on Earth at the iconic Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Accompanied by his pug, Bella and escorted through the galaxy by none other than the one-and-only Santa Claus, Alex's otherworldly voyage will amaze and enchant children of all ages as they too embark on their very own out-of-this-world adventure.
Could this be you next year? Could you help make Macy's magic? Refresh that resume and start applying now.