Window Shopping

This is a great time of year for window displays, but I’ve long been fascinated by the windows at the Housing Works thrift shops. Thrift shops windows usually do not win aesthetic accolades. What’s to love about thrown-together hodge podge of semi moth-eaten fox stoles, beaten up red patent leather handbags, next to a lavender chiffon bridesmaid dress circa 1970s slumped on a wire hanger, beside the ever-present cardboard box of jumbled,tangled belts?

But the five thrift shops run by  Housing Works,  a charity that serves homeless people with HIV/AIDS, feature windows that rival some of the toniest department stores in the city.(Check out this window from the 17th street store.)  The cool thing is that the charity auctions off everything in the windows on its website. They say they’ve raised over a half a million dollars via these online auctions in the past year.

When I moved back to this neighborhood over the summer, I found myself going out of my way to walk past the windows of the 23rd street store in order to admire them. And then I got curious: how do they put these windows together? Those gorgeous displays couldn’t be the random result of the stuff that people in the neighborhood donated –could they?

It took me a while to track down the right people to talk to about it, but last week I caught up with the store’s current visual designer, Emily Hull-Martin. She told me that each of the charity’s stores have two windows, and she changes one of the windows in each store once a week. So, she’s designing a window almost every day.

And yes, it turns out that the displays consist of regular, every-day donations. "We get amazing donations in –from furniture from the 50s to antique settees to beautiful designer clothing, so I have a lot to choose from," says Hull-Martin. What she doesn’t have is any planning time — "we’re very different from other stores, most stores plan ahead for months for their windows," she says. "Because I’m in a different location every day, I don’t have too much time to plan ahead."

She told me that each window is an 8 to 10 hour process. "We have a merchandising coordinator each store, and they save the better things that come in for me, and I pull it together into a scene," she says. "I come in and pick out what we’re going to use, paint the walls if need be, put down flooring rug or fabric and an do drapes and do the room set up." It’s definitely a challenge, but it’s great experience for her –the charity’s last visual designer went on to work for Donna Karan.

I’m going to spend a day with Hull-Martin after New Year’s and watch her turn a bunch of Manhattan’s cast-offs into an amazing window display. (Sounds like a new show for TLC or HGTV, huh?) So more on this later.


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