Paul Symes – Head of Visual Presentation at Fortnum & Mason

The View magazine chats with Paul Symes, the Head of Visual Presentation at luxury department store Fortnum & Mason. How he got in touch with windows and creativity, the job and what makes a good designer, and much more.

TV: Hi Paul, how are you? What have you been doing lately?

PS: I’m really well and looking forward to summer, assuming we are going to have one this year! I was at the Venice Biennale a couple of weeks ago. I love Venice, it’s one of those places where, despite how many times you’ve been there’s always something interesting and ‘undiscovered’ to find around the next corner. I bought a silkscreen printed velvet jacket from Fiorella Gallery, I first tried one on ten years ago and again each time I have visited Venice since. This time I bought one, although I have absolutely no idea where I am going to wear it, it’s not exactly subtle!

We are currently installing our Summer Windows, it’s always an exciting time, I get to see the vision become reality.

TV: Tell us a bit about you.

PS: I was born in Darlington, so I’m actually a Geordie, but we moved south shortly afterwards. My parents divorced when I was four, my father moved to Islington in London and my mother, sister and I moved to Maidstone in Kent, where I spent my childhood and teen years.

I hated school; as far as I was concerned there was far too much writing and not enough making things! Woodwork, pottery and art were my favourite subjects.

I enjoyed my teen years immensely, we had a very secure family unit and I used to visit my father and stepmother in London regularly. On these visits I was taken to places like Biba, The Conran Shop and to the theatre to see shows like A Chorus Line, John Paul George Ringo & Birt. It was in Biba, Kensington High Street, when I realized that I wanted to do something creating sets or scenes, I thought I may one day become a theatre set designer.

My first job was as an apprentice electrical engineer; my parents felt it was important to get a trade to fall back on, as creative jobs were few and far between and not very secure. I was desperate to work in the creative field, and one day was sitting on a bus and I saw a man arranging some artificial flowers and creating a display in the window of our local House of Fraser department store I couldn’t believe that people were paid for doing that, so I got off the bus and went and asked him if I could have a job.


TV: How did you get in touch with creativity? Looking back to it, would you say it was a defining moment?

PS: My stepmother was a photographer and sometimes during school holidays I used to visit her studio when I was in London. She would create these amazing sets to photograph products in.

I distinctly remember on one visit she had built a set for a hair product range and created a stream and a waterfall. In the studio you saw buckets and hosepipes but when you looked thorough the camera lens it looked wonderful. I remember thinking that I wanted a job that involved creating things.

Being creative or ‘a sensitive artistic type’ does have its drawbacks. I find I often find myself seeking approval for things I’ve created. It also has made me a perfectionist, which can sometimes be a pain. I have now learned that sometimes you have to call it a day if a project or an idea isn’t working, its taken me a long time to realize that.

TV: Take us through your career.

PS: I didn’t actually get a job at House of Fraser, Maidstone but I did one at their store in Tunbridge Wells. It was a Junior position and had one day a week in London to study Display at The College for The Distributive Trades. I seem to remember spending a considerable amount of time hanging Sale banners! The store always seemed to be on sale, and there were endless promotional days, but it was a great place to learn. My boss, Sue had worked at Harrods and spent ages teaching me now to group products and helped me immensely. We were a small team, just three of us so you really did have to pull your weight, and able to adapt to any task.


TV: How have the windows been changing since the time you started? Do you reckon it’s improved in terms of proper communicating to the consumer?

PS: I think over the years there has been a greater dependency on graphics; the technical advances of digital printing have made this method of communicating more affordable. Anyone can hang a poster in the window, so sadly less need for a specialist window stylist. I have noticed that recently some shops are beginning to create window displays that have more than one dimension, and are becoming more creative; Hackett & Thomas Pink to name a couple.

Digital technology has also made it possible to create moving displays, and interactive windows that the potential customer can become involved with. I do think that technology should be used only when it enhances a brilliantly designed window, not just because it’s there.


TV: What makes a window dresser, a good window dresser? What are the aspects that always should be taken into consideration?

PS: Passion! Creativity has to come from the heart, and you need to be able to think outside the box. Above all, you need to be the sort of person that strives for perfection and doesn’t give up if the window doesn’t come together at the first, second or even third attempt! Being nocturnal is an advantage as there are an awful lot of late nights!


TV: Many windows are stories on their own, how do you develop the skill of great storytelling, or is it more like a gut feeling?

PS: It’s definitely a gut feeling, but more layering than storytelling. There is an overall seasonal theme, and each window must have a relationship with the next, but the relationship can be quite subtle. I try when designing windows to take the viewer deeper into the display, so that if you look into the display there are smaller elements that are not immediately obvious. The visual team uses this technique when dressing the window, the products are layered and there are subtle idiosyncrasies hidden below the surface within each display that the eye has to look for.

TV: You are Head of Visual Presentation at Fortnum & Mason, very nice title, but can you tell us what you do?

PS: The role can involve anything from overseeing how our products are displayed on the shelves in Piccadilly, St. Pancras, Dubai and Terminal 5 to window schemes, floor layouts and even what colour the walls are painted. You have to hit the floor running each morning and more often than not plan as you run, experience helps, as there as everything is achievable providing you know where to go.

Many times you have to work unsociable hours, as a lot of what we do has to be installed when the store is closed, but that’s when the fun begins. Being a perfectionist helps and I often tell my team that you should set and work to your own standards. One thing I have learned is that, when it comes to creativity, no matter where you are, everyone has an opinion on your work. The great thing about the job is that I get to see vision turned into reality, and I get to work with some pretty amazing and talented people.


TV: How many times do your windows change in let’s say a full year? How does it relate to the more general marketing schedule?

PS: We have four major seasonal window schemes a year, but in between the scheme changes the products changed several times. We also have promotional windows that change more frequently. I work alongside the Marketing team, and it’s important that we are aligned so that an outstanding customer experience is delivered in all areas of the store.

The Visual Presentation Team also design and install our famous Christmas Shop and last year we designed and installed 16 rooms and a hospitality space for Skate, at Somerset House. There are numerous floor moves and changes during the year within the store, along with various exhibitions and in store pop ups, we are also involved with several external events that Fortnum & Mason do each year that require creative input so the role can be pretty varied, but one of the best things is that no two days are ever the same.


TV: Can you introduce the rest of your team and what they do?

PS: Sallie has been here the longest and started just after me, she manages the visual presentation within the Piccadilly store and the visual team. Sallie is extremely talented and very well organized and will never be seen without a ‘to do’ list! We have worked so closely together over the years that we could be installing windows in separate continents, following the same brief, and they would have the same style.

Kerry and I have worked together for years, and again is really on the ball when it comes to product presentation, although she is freelance she is very much part of the team, and is always there with a creative solution when needed. Kerry could also be dressing a window on the other side of the planed and it would like like Sallies and mine, which is scary!

We also have Rose, Kayleigh, Emily & Ameel who have been in the team for about 16 months, each of which has an individual skill or talent. They all work really well together as a team, and each one has their own responsibilities within the department, but they all support each other which is great. Despite having their own responsibilities in the store they all dress the windows. They work really well together as a team, one of the most important things is that all the displays in the store especially the windows should look like they’ve been dressed by the same person, and the team have achieved that in a very short period of time

TV: How do you keep yourself and the team educated on what is out there and possible, in terms of props, trends, technology, etc? For example, do you do anything with 3D printing?

PS: Mostly through trade shows and the Internet, and of course looking at what everyone else is up to. We have used 3D printing to create some small models of hands that were then scanned, enlarges and made into fiberglass for our last scheme.


TV: In your view, how would an ideal path to become a window dresser/creative director look like?

PS: Start at the bottom and learn your skills from the people above you then work up. There is nothing worse than someone who doesn’t know the practical side and the limitations designing windows.

TV: What advice would you give someone who wants to be a head of visual presentation, someday?

PS: Think outside the box and share your thoughts with your creative colleagues, allow others to contribute, no one has the exclusivity on a creative project. Above all remember that you are there not just to create fabulous displays but they should help sell products, it’s what pays your wages.


TV: Like many jobs in fashion, I assume this is not a 9 to 5 job? What kind of hours should I think of?

PS: Most if the time the hours are quite normal from 08.00 until about 5.00, but you have to be prepared to put your life on hold when installing major schemes or in the run up to launching the Christmas scheme. Occasionally there are weekends, but with good planning and a dedicated team we manage to get through the late nights and weekends without too much heartache.

TV: After a week of hard work, what do you love to do to relax?

PS: I love to entertain and spend time with friends. My partner’s an amazing cook so he looks after the food and I’ll create the atmosphere and work out the playlists, we make a brilliant team. Most of my friends don’t work in the same industry so it’s great to hear about their lives over a really great meal and a gallon of wine.


TV: Thanks Paul!

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Check out more images on the website, including Fortnum’s flagship on Piccadilly.

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