In conversation with AllSaints Head of Creative Visual Merchandising, Sarah Buchan.
As Head of Visual for iconic British fashion brand AllSaints, Sarah Buchan is responsible for the retailer's in-store visual proposition alongside the creative delivery of wider physical touchpoints such as press events, product launches, fashion shows, pop-ups, and the East London HQ showroom. Sarah has worked at AllSaints for 8 years, starting as Head of International VM where she opened stores across Asia and the Middle East, moving to Head of VM Planning, responsible for product placement and storytelling before taking on her current role overseeing the wider consumer journey.
Previously Sarah worked at Topshop for a "huge" 12 years working her way up through the VM team to International VM Manager, enabling her to travel around the world opening stores in Australia, Japan, China, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, USA, Canada, South and Central America to name a few! Of her AllSaints role, Sarah said, "Having previously come from a purely VM background it’s exciting to work not just with the product (which at AllSaints is fabulous!) but also look at ways to transform our retail spaces and bring excitement, innovation, and new ideas to engage our customers - and ultimately influence them to buy!"
SDD: With your extensive visual merchandising experience, can you share some insights into the evolving role of the function in today's retail landscape, particularly in fashion?
SB: Things have definitely changed a lot in the last few years with the emphasis on sustainability being a huge part of driving this, and something we take very seriously in the Brand. VM has become not only about being the most visually and commercially appealing way to set up a store but also a more immersive and digital experience too. Brands are constantly coming up with new ways to display - it’s so exciting and inspiring to see all of the innovation on the high street. It’s also more and more important for the customer to get the same visual experience whether shopping online or in-store. I also find the AI world extremely interesting and this is also impacting retail - I am thrilled that at present Chat GPT is unable to do any kind of creative VM so I think our jobs are safe at the moment!
SDD: During your time delivering the visual strategy for Topshop during its peak, what were the key elements that contributed to the brand's visual success?
SB: Topshop was a wonderful place to work during its peak. It might sound big-headed but for years we could do no wrong! It was just the coolest place to work and everyone knew that. The key to the success at the time was definitely the team - from Jane Shepherdson at the top through to the Design, Buying, and Merch teams giving us the best product to work with, and the Store Design team who gave us such fantastic environments to work in. Within the VM and Creative team we had so much talent. We all worked very hard but we LOVED it and I think that showed. I think when you have a team of people who are all working together towards the same goal and are proud of the Brand then that will always come across to the customers.
Topshop Oxford Street
SDD: AllSaints is known for its distinctive visual identity. How do you maintain brand consistency while continually innovating the visual merchandising strategy to keep the brand fresh and engaging?
SB: I think that the reason that AllSaints has become so successful is because the Brand code is so strong. We are celebrating our 30th birthday next year, and when you look back through the archives of not only the product but the store design and even some of the VM and creative principles we have innovated but also remained true to that code. We constantly challenge ourselves internally to move the visual proposition on whilst retaining the core DNA of what makes us unique, ensuring that our signature and brand ethos are felt in all the physical elements that our consumers engage with.
London Fashion Week
SDD: Can you share a recent example of a project that the brand has undertaken to deliver a memorable in-store experience for customers at AllSaints?
SB: We always try and do something memorable to tie in with LFW. This year we brought the catwalk to our flagship and showed the runway on digital screens in Regent St windows. We tied this to an event in-store with a band and DJ, and customers could buy one-off samples - I think it’s something really special to own something that no one else has! AllSaints has a history of tying in with the world of music and we often invite bands to play in our LA store and more recently in our Brighton store. I am also SO proud of the collaboration we have with the charity Shelter and we have done some great pop-ups in partnership with them.
AllSaints x Shelter Pop-Up
SDD: In a world of digital domination, how do you see the role of physical retail? What strategies have AllSaints employed to make its brick-and-mortar stores stand out?
SB: I maintain that physical retail is still incredibly important, even more so in the post-pandemic world that we now live in where we have realised that socialising and just being around people has a positive impact on our mental health. Our high streets and malls are incredibly important to our way of life, and there are still plenty of people who prefer the bricks-and-mortar retail experience where they can really see, touch, and feel the clothes and try them on before they buy - myself included! To make our stores stand out it starts with having the best product and for that to be shown in the windows to entice our customers in. The teams have worked hard to get more exciting products right the way down the chain, so whether you are in our flagship in Regent St. or in a concession store in Fenwicks or Bloomingdales the product selection will be fantastic and will represent the key AllSaints themes/looks of the season. As a VM team, we produce monthly visual directives for all the different grades of stores so that they have really clear guidelines to follow.
Korea Beach Pop-Up
SDD: Like all industries, retail needs to be more eco-conscious. How does AllSaints incorporate sustainability into its visual merchandising and creative processes, while staying true to its brand image?
SB: This is something incredibly important to us. We make decisions very carefully and never invest in anything that we can’t either recycle or reuse. Christmas is a great example of this as we have some fantastic elements that we have re-used for the last 3 years and they still look amazing. I find it shocking that so many brands are still investing in huge schemes that are going to be destroyed straight after Christmas! Everything that we use in our showroom creative setups then gets transferred to be used in our stores and we constantly look at our fixtures and props to see how we can use them in a different way instead of investing in new ones. The VM team is excellent at up-cycling here! We constantly challenge all of our suppliers to find the best materials for us to use. Our printers use the most eco-friendly paper and card for our in-store POS and we also make sure that most of our window vinyls are printed in white so that they can be non-PVC.
AllSaints New Concept Store Format
SDD: Global brands often face challenges in adapting visual strategies to different regions and cultures. Can you share some best practices for creating visual merchandising that resonates with diverse audiences while maintaining brand integrity?
SB: Having worked Internationally for so many years this is something that I definitely have experience in. Whether it’s a difference in season/weather or cultural differences we always make sure that we tailor our VM guidelines to suit. For our warm-weather stores, we send out tailored window looks each month so that they are more appropriate for their climate. We also work very closely with our franchise partners to ensure we are collaborating with them on any important cultural events - a great example of this is Ramadan in the Middle East where we work with them to design fabulous windows that are in line with our Brand code and culturally appropriate. I think collaboration is really the key here, and not being afraid to embrace that someone else maybe more of an expert than you. It's all about embracing the local knowledge.
Leather Customisation Pop-Up Shanghai Taikoo Hui
SDD: For individuals aspiring to excel in the visual merchandising and retail display industry, what advice would you offer, considering your successful career and extensive knowledge in this field?
SB: Firstly I think times have changed, as when I was considering what profession I might like to go into I didn’t even know VM existed! Most people my age are creatives who just fell into VM completely by accident! Now there are some great courses at colleges and universities that you can do. Honestly, though I don’t think that anything is as useful as actual in-store experience. Get a job in a shop - ideally for a brand that you love, and tell your Manager or your Area VM that you want to get into VM. If you work hard and you are determined you will work your way up.
Sarah is the Head of Creative VM at AllSaints.
Click below to learn more.