When I think back now, it was the skinny lattés that started it all. I only took the job to supplement the meagre £67.50 I was getting from HM Government and to please Mum. Since Miss Duvall was an old school friend of hers, when she offered four afternoons work a week in her shop – just under the magic 16 hours – Mum looked so relieved that I just hadn’t the heart to say no.
I’d just got a Fine Arts degree from MMU and despite schlepping my obvious talent around graphic design studios, art galleries and museums in Manchester for months; I was still on Jobseekers, mainly due to the vacant spot under Experience. How you’re supposed to get experience when you can’t get a job is a mystery. I was also apparently part of a ‘lost generation’, as if trying to survive wasn’t enough without the sound-bites of overweight politicians: death-knells we didn’t need. So, working in a “boutique” wasn’t my idea of art heaven.
The shop itself was in a conventionally affluent suburb of Manchester that unbelievably, according to knowing estate agents, was one of the up-and-coming-just-starting-to-attract-yuppies areas. I, naturally, had to cycle there.
It was like every other one-off boutique I’d ever seen, unimaginative. I hated it. The coffee-dragged walls, the tinge of over-zealous candles, the woody coat hangers, the look-a-like linen curtains, the racks of perfectly apart dresses, trousers and shirts, the un-artfully arranged necklaces and scarves, the gilded mirrors with liver spots. Worst of all was the overwhelming sense that life marched by outside but never stepped over the threshold of Duvall’s Mini Emporium. I felt utterly trapped after only a week. Then there was Miss ‘don’t-call-me-Ms’ Duvall. She was a piece of work: twenty years in the trade, a memory like an elephant – she could remember everything a customer had ever bought; with an over-bright smile and a vicious tongue. She just issued orders most of the time and treated me like I was still an inept teenager
Eight months later, I was still there. The extra money was useful, I’d got used to the tedium of waiting for customers and Mum had almost lost her worried-about-you look. Miss Duvall’s idea of training was like something out of a 1950’s catalogue: I learned how to predict every woman’s size as she walked in; colour preference, style, married or single. I learned to pick out the perfect accessory and get a customer to smile yes. I got so good at it that La Duvall even let me serve some of the regulars.
By the end of the year it turned out that the estate agents were spot on. Gone were the plain-Jane cafés and the local trades. In their place were cafés of the comfy sofa, skinny latté variety; a posh deli, an expensive cup cake shop and a fancy new glittery bank-bar. The area changed fast but it was the new boutiques that really took their toll and it wasn’t long before Duvall’s was haemorrhaging customers and looking more tiny than mini.
To my surprise I felt a twinge of pity for the indomitable Miss D and I offered to help out in the only way I knew how: with art. She looked contemptuous at first, then sceptical but I got Mum to weigh in with a ‘what have you got to lose Dorothy?’ and she finally agreed to a trial period.
So I became the unpaid window dresser. It was a good sized window space but had always had the same trusty layout. My thirst for some sort of artistic succour kicked in with a vengeance. I draped, leant, bowed and angled mannequins, I looped, folded and languished scarves, bags, bangles and necklaces. I lavished paint, paper maché and photos on as many themes as I could get away with: ‘dress as sculpture’, ‘mannequin muse’; ‘country coiffure.’ I avoided bling and aimed for subtle sparkle. I drew, I sculpted – I used every skill in my armoury to bend that space to my will. I even shelled out for Martin M Pegler’s bible on visual merchandising; I gave myself up to the window.
So yes, thinking back, a boutique and a skinny latté changed my life. Five years later and Experience: None is now a distant memory. I’ve been at Harvey Nic’s for nearly 18 months as Junior Window Designer; I even won an award – only the local rag, but it made Mum cry. As for Miss Duvall, well she has three boutiques now and a full-time ‘me’, though she refuses to call her a window designer. Some things never change.
(This was my first assignment on my creative writing course).
Categories: Just Stories