Window dressers also dress mannequins and more

First impressions go a long way. Business interviews. Blind dates. Meeting the future in-laws. Shopping trips.

Think about it. When you're out shopping, whether it's for something specific or just as a means of killing time, your eyes roam. Perhaps you notice the ornately dressed mannequins, draped head to toe in the season's finest, configured in a way that tells a story within the confines of a 3-foot-by-12-foot store window. Maybe you spot unexpected artistic touches - vintage framed photos, a pile of distressed Western books or an assemblage of rustic antique clocks - that propel a display table beyond being just a stack of folded crew-neck tees.

Those first impressions are carefully thought out and executed by designers specializing in visual merchandising.

Their goal? To attract your eye, romanticize your senses, reel you in and make you buy.

"It's not just about dressing a dummy," says Larry Leathers, the merchandising and display designer for Ruby, a Texas boutique with two locations, in Fort Worth and Southlake.

The world of visual merchandising is ever-evolving _ ambitious and hopeful one moment, artfully implemented the next. These designers come from all walks. Some sought higher ed for training; others are self-taught. Some have long held the dream of design; others stumbled onto the creative path. All, though, gain knowledge through imagination and experimentation.

"Often I can see it in my head, but I hate to put it down on paper," says Mark Criswell, owner of Home to Garden in Fort Worth. "I just want to dive in."

While their display subjects may differ, designers seem to agree on one thing: Less is more.

"You want to make it as clear and simple as possible," Leathers, 51, says. "Some think that means minimal. But it means making sure your design can be understood. It has to be approachable."

In many ways, it's like summing up a two-hour film in a 60-second movie trailer.

"People have to come around the corner, stop, look and say, `Wow, I want to see more of that.' " says Jennifer Hutson, display designer for Leddy's Ranch in Fort Worth and M.L. Leddy's, north Fort Worth.

Hutson, who grew up thinking she would work at a museum, has made the four display windows at Leddy's Ranch a mini fashion attraction of sorts. About every three weeks, Hutson, 42, transforms the windows to showcase a new bounty of elegant Western fashion. Often, she'll bring in props from outside the store to flesh out the window's theme, while making sure nothing distracts from the focus.

"The main subject should be what I'm trying to sell - the outfits, the boots, etc.," she says. "If people only notice the painting hanging in the back, that's a problem."

People do, however, take notice of quaint touches added to displays. At Neiman Marcus, a high standard of styling is key to the store's fashion forward approach. Local and regional art, unique artisan pieces and fresh floral arrangements are just a few of the ways the store aims to set itself apart, says Ignaz Gorischek, vice president of store development and visual planning for the luxury retailer.

"Only fresh floral and vegetables are used in our stores," he says. "These elements add a visual texture and interest that are impossible to create using artificial elements."

Each Neiman Marcus store has its own visual team, led by a manager and supported by a team of stylists, Gorischek says.

"Each store is given the same creative direction," he says. "However, no two stores will ever look alike."

When it comes to narrative storytelling through window design, there is perhaps no grander example than the whimsical musings brought to life in the windows of Barneys New York in New York City. Overseen by the store's illustrious creative director, Simon Doonan, the windows at Barneys, especially at Christmas, are iconic to the Big Apple.

While Doonan has become a celebrity through his visual design work, others have dabbled in visual merchandising before hitting it big in other areas. Acclaimed fashion designer Giorgio Armani turned to the fashion world after working as a window dresser in a Milan department store in the early 1960s.

In addition to Barneys New York, the New York City windows of Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy's Herald Square also are not to be missed.

"I will go to New York four times a year - that's a real shot of B12 for me," says Ruby's Leathers, who also works for Cartier in Dallas and Houston. "It's a real shot of inspiration to see what they're doing."

It was 1981 when Leathers, then a hairdresser, received a call from a friend working at Neiman Marcus.

"They asked, `Do you want to dress mannequins for a living?' " he recalls. "I didn't hesitate a bit."

He stayed with Neiman Marcus for 17 years, working his way from display trimmer to special projects coordinator. He calls his experience there a "terrific grad school." He has designed windows and displays for Ruby since 2000. With just one store window to work with, Leathers makes the most of the small space, often using bright, bold colors and eye-catching background art that draws you in without being overwhelming. Store merchandise is shifted around or "turned" every two weeks to keep the shopping experience new and fresh for the returning customer.

While Leathers initially dabbled in hairstyling, Criswell of Home to Garden began his career as a landscape designer. Along the way, he found he had a natural gift for contemporary design. He opened his store, housed in a cottage-like building, nine years ago.

"I can re-create beauty," he says. "Often I'll be inspired by a new piece, place it somewhere in the store and then decorate around it."

It's all about educating and entertaining the buyer.

"It's crucial," says Christina Johnson, a member of the design team at the chic furniture store Simple Things in Fort Worth. "You have to keep people interested."

Johnson, along with April Cushman and Megan Branagh, and store co-owners Jim Van Antwerp and Sherry Griggs, collaborate on how to keep their University Park Village store a destination spot for not only custom upholstered furniture but unusual antiques and accessories.

In Simple Things, the store is broken down into more than a dozen vignettes that aim to showcase real-life settings, with a twist to keep things interesting.

One of the staff's most recent - and elaborate - creations is the "White Room," located in a back corner of the store. Aptly named, the all-white room, which will remain for six months, features a handpainted trompe l'oeil clock on the hardwood floor; free-hand black chalk lines representing moldings on the white walls; and an arrangement of 11 white plates and bowls on the center wall. A large chest, a white linen sofa and two white chairs help fill out the area without obscuring the special effects.

This type of creative showcasing of merchandise is what the store and its staff are known for.

"We have groupies," Johnson, 28, says with a laugh. "People will come in, not necessarily to buy, just to see what we've done and how we've moved things around."

As with most things, timing is important.

"You need to capture people's attention in seconds," says Leathers. "That's all you've got. They need to see something that pops out at them."

So, the next time you're out window shopping, take a moment to think about the time, thought and work that went into that small, enclosed space. Weeks of planning, preparation, labor and sweat fill those front windows. Mock-ups and failed attempts linger in the trash nearby. Outfits and accessories have been artfully selected, pinned, tucked and draped on specific mannequin forms. Background art, lighting and outside props have been carted in and strategically aligned. All in the hope you might be compelled to cross their threshold and browse.

Now, isn't all that worth another look?