The Makers is a new column on Seattlemag.com that explores different Seattle creatives and their crafts. These artists live to design, connect and create.
Anthropologie is the Mecca of vintage-boho charm. Its two floors brim with everything from printed silk blouses to overstuffed retro armchairs--all intertwined with fanciful displays and artistic creations, turning each shopping trip into a Wonderland-like escape (complete with hand-painted ceramic teacups).
Magical as it may seem, there is a very human element behind the store’s design: district visual manager Sam Leffel and senior display coordinator Kirsten McElfresh, visual merchandisers who, along with their visual team, flex their creative muscles to plan and implement the store's displays and window designs.
At retailers like Anthropologie, visual merchandisers have the task of intermixing product with non-merchandise displays to showcase the brand’s clothing and decor. This can be done in a variety of ways: posing mannequins in a tableau, displaying product on kitschy shelves or--in Anthropologie's case--giving the store a gorgeously hand-crafted look every season.
The downtown location is not only the largest store in Seattle, but also the largest store in the company; photo: Hannah Letinich
No two Anthropologie stores look the same, something that’s unusual for retailers with multiple locations. (Most retail chains provide visual direction from their corporate headquarters and store employees execute per that guidance.) While its Philadelphia-based parent company Urban Outfitters sends each store “inspiration” for its in-store designs and displays (often in the form of photographs or fabrics and sometimes even in poetry), the implementation is left up to the visual teams in the individual stores.
McElfresh, who studied studio art in Orange County and created sculptures with wood and other materials, came to Anthropologie as a display artist almost six years ago after a stint at sister retailer Urban Outfitters. She's the store's resident builder. She plans and constructs displays, finding materials (she says Craigslist is a go-to source) and repurposing them to suit each season’s theme. She’s also responsible for the store’s fantastically intricate window designs, covering them with everything from forests to detailed cityscapes every season.
Leffel began working for Anthropologie almost 10 years ago. She worked her way through the company, starting as a sales associate in Chicago before ending up in Seattle (by way of Boulder, Colo.) in a visual manager role. She handles the details for the Seattle Anthropologie locations, arranging merchandise to perfection. Everything serves a specific purpose; custom-built furniture can provide a charmingly rustic surface on which to rest dinnerware, while lighting fixed just so can paint a wedding dress with an Instagram-worthy filter.
These visuals do more than just create Anthropologie’s dreamy aesthetic: they craft a story that informs and inspires shoppers.
“We're telling the customer who we are and who she can be with us,” Leffel says.
Clothes hang against a wall hand-painted and papier-mâchéd by Leffel on the store's top floor; Photo: Hannah Letinich
The downtown Seattle store is the largest Anthropologie store in the company. Because of this, the merchandisers have more freedom than usual in their design concepts. “We kind of have a license to do things a little bit outside of the norm,” Leffel says.
One such freedom is localization.
At the time of this interview, the corporate-dictated window theme was rainforests in recognition of Earth Day. In a nod to the Pacific Northwest, McElfresh constructed a miniature version of the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park, making the foliage out of recycled newspapers (this is Seattle, after all). She gives most of her creations a local spin (the previous display was a life-size map of Seattle’s neighborhoods), making walking by or into the store a treat for shoppers and employees alike.
"By doing Seattle-themed things, we have a way to connect with our customers," she says.
The previous window display built by McElfresh: a map of Seattle; photo: Kirsten McElfresh
The indoor theme changes every couple of months.
While the entire store always has an overarching theme, the individual levels typically have their own apparel concepts. The current theme is grasslands, a look that's most evident on the top floor. There, towering wooden grass gives way to paper flower curtains cascading from the ceiling, while appropriately earthy clothing is scattered throughout. Downstairs has a more nautical aesthetic; vintage sails hang over brightly printed tops that would be right at home in Martha's Vineyard.
Neither Leffel nor McElfresh could imagine working anywhere else. Whether they’re hunting down materials, tweaking a planned display or borrowing a schoolteacher friend's die-cutting machine to make hundreds of paper flower petals, every day spent at Anthropologie is a fun, creative challenge.
“There’s always something new that we’re trying,” McElfresh says. “I think that's what so great about the company...we’re always changing for the better.”
“It’s been a fun ride,” Leffel says. “It feels like home.”
A grasslands-inspired display on the store's top floor; photo: Hannah Letinich