Queen of Shops crowns students best visual merchandisers

Two students from Hugh Baird College in Bootle, have been named the best visual merchandisers in the UK, receiving their prize from the Queen of Shops herself, Mary Portas.

26-year-old Lesley Armstrong and Cora Kavanagh, 24, struck gold at the live grand final of skillVM, the UK’s only live window dressing competition, held at the In-Store Show in London’s Olympia. On hand to congratulate the two students was Mary Portas, star of BBC television hit Mary Queen of Shops.

Lesley and Cora, who have both just completed the first year of a Foundation Degree in Visual Merchandising and Promotional Design, competed against four other student teams from across the UK, all building full-scale windows in four hours and with a budget of just £200, under the full gaze of thousands of retail industry insiders.

They pitched their designs to the judging panel before the winners were announced to a crowd of well over one hundred people which had gathered at the end of the two-day competition on Wednesday, 30th June.

The contestants made it to the UK finals after a long process which launched back in October 2009. By April, they had submitted initial designs on the theme ‘Future of Retail: 2060, before being selected to take part in a heat stage in May and then making it into the final five.

The students, whose course is delivered at Hugh Baird College in Bootle and approved by the University of Central Lancashire, wowed judges with their show-stopping and flawless window dressing. The display was realised through the use of key graphics and a mannequin dressed in traditional pyjamas adorned with a retro polaroid camera. Accent pastel colours created a fresh and modern feel alongside the nostalgic props which represented a hazy reminder of past and present dreams.

Lesley, from Skelmersdale said: “I feel great, happy, overwhelmed and surprised. The other four teams were really good and it must have been hard for the judges to choose a winner. I am so proud of this achievement and it will give me the best foundations to build a successful career in the future.”

Cora, from Grassendale added: “The skillVM experience has been eventful, hard work and fun. Keeping to a time limit and working professionally has made me want to do it even more. It’s amazing to be recognised for the creativity of our window display and to know I can achieve something great.”

Lesley and Cora were not the only Hugh Baird College team to make it to the final. Alongside them were Emma Harris and Toni Becker, whose bright, colourful and animated display just missed out on an award. This is also the second year a gold medal has come back to the college, after the success of Nicola Birchall and Carolyn Green at skillVM 2009. Both have now completed their Foundation Degree courses with distinction.

Head Judge Alan Westcott said: “Competition is good, it’s what retailers do every day of the week. skillVM is a mini version of the high street all brought into one arena so people can see what’s taking place. The presentations this year from the students have exceeded our expectations – it’s just awe-inspiring.

“Lesley and Cora created a very exact and well-presented display with excellent standards of finishing and detail.”

Speaking at the awards, Mary Portas said: “I think today retail needs VM more than ever and it’s the visual merchandisers who bring a bit of magic to retail. Don’t underestimate the power of visualisation. There is enormous creativity and I say to retailers, let your display teams sing.

“I get asked to do about 30 or 40 of these presentations a month and I turn most of them down, but I believe in this and I believe in the future of it. To all of you retailers, listen to the creatives!”

If you are interested in pursuing a career in visual merchandising or promotional design, find out more about the courses available by using the course search on this website, or telephone our Student Advice Centre on 0151 353 4444.

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