“Looking at store windows,” Andy Warhol once proclaimed, “is great entertainment because you can see all of these things and be really glad it’s not home filling up your closets and drawers.” Warhol knew first-hand the allure of window displays. In the 1940s, he designed department store windows for a living. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg also orchestrated window displays during the early part of their artistic careers.
San Francisco has a rich tradition of window displays, which are usually directed by people who stay behind the scenes and remain nameless to passers-by. For more than a decade, I’ve walked by one of Haight Street’s most prominent window displays –- the one for the Wasteland vintage clothing store — and spent time looking and looking and looking. Every six weeks, Wasteland offers a new thought-provoking display that makes creative use of their clothing while often commenting on the culture at large. Coffins. Beds. Hospital rooms. Dog houses. All of them have appeared in Wasteland’s windows over the years, and all of them have been done by Janay Rose, an Oakland artist who curated the store’s windows for 16 years (from 1998 to May 2014.)
Through her displays, Rose tries to appeal to a general audience, not just those interested in fashion. And Rose completely changes her windows every time, as she feels that relying on the same theme –- and even the same mannequins –- leads to boring windows.
“I try to target as many people as possible,” says Rose. “Sometimes I’ll approach it with, ‘How does it look from across the street?’ and then, ‘Ooh. I want to grab them with all these details.’ It’s a balance of forcing myself not to do it one way. It’s really fun.”
It can also be unnerving when passers-by think that Rose has gone too far and misinterpret her display, which is what happened a few years ago when Rose did an unconventional Halloween window for Wasteland.
When coming up with ideas for it back then, Rose says, “I was trying to think, ‘What scares the hell out of me?’ And I thought, ‘Oh, child birth.’”
The resulting display utilized both of Wasteland’s giant front windows, broken up by the store’s front door.
“So on one side was birth. I showed a woman having a child. And on the other side was death – a woman getting ready to jump off a chair with a noose around her neck,” says Rose.
Guess which one caused the most consternation? Yep, the “birth” window, which showed a beautiful half-naked mannequin on her back, legs spread, and a (bloody) baby emerging from beneath a strategically placed white hospital sheet.
“People were insisting it was about abortion,” says Rose. “It wasn’t at all. It was a Halloween display. No one complained about the (‘death’ display). So it was accidentally a social experiment. I didn’t know it was going to be like that. They had to cover (the birth display) when kids were walking by. My boss almost made me take it down, then realized I had captured the idea of birth with the mannequin’s pose.”
“It wasn’t your typical Halloween window, with pumpkins and all that. (Society) doesn’t talk about birth very often, but everyone is born, you know?” says Rose while laughing.
Rose says that her favorite displays “make people laugh” and plenty of them do that. For example, consider Rose’s dog-themed windows. In one window of a Wasteland display was a dog house, titled “The Dog House,” with a man apparently inside, his shoes sticking out of the house’s red curtain door. In the other window: A woman in bed with a snarling dog.
Then there’s the elaborate window she did with a Statue of Liberty theme, with small parachutists raining down from the sky, and silhouettes of small business men around the rim of the window. The display centered around a tall, red-haired female mannequin, that was wearing an elaborate yellow gown that looked like it could be from 19th-century France, the period when the French government gave the Statue of Liberty to the United States. And instead of holding a torch, Rose’s interpretation of the national landmark was holding an automatic weapon. And the window also featured an image of a blonde Hollywood vixen from the early 1900s, and she was holding a gun, too. And there were blue downtown buildings everywhere.
The whole scene was beautifully surreal. Did it depict the United States being invaded? The history of cinema? Capitalism? Interpreting Rose’s windows is half the fun, as they never have text explaining the displays.
“By not defining it, you don’t label it,” says Rose. “And everyone can have their own interpretation.”
Rose has done window displays for many other San Francisco stores, including Held Over, another Haight Street used-clothing store. For a while, she even did some windows at Macy’s downtown San Francisco store.
“I never had a day off,” says Rose. “I wanted to get the big picture of what I was doing. I really didn’t like working at Macy’s but it was good for everything to get broken down, and I was doing the table saw, the lighting and the hair. It tossed me around in all the different positions. You had to wash the windows and everything.”
“I was doing Held Over, and then Sparky’s trading company, this funny robot place. He used to have me make Martians out of papier mâché,” said Rose. “I used to do one window every week. But it’s really hard on your body, being cramped up in this little area. Whether you realize it or not, you’re trying not to knock things over.”
Rose has an ideal academic background for window displays. She studied visual presentation and space design at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. And besides doing window displays, she makes her own line of recycled clothing under the heading of “The Window Lady.” According to Rose, The clothing uses all recycled materials and is partly inspired by “colonial menswear, as well as 1800-1980′s clothing and fashion history.”
Rose’s interest in colonial fashion history has influenced her work at Wasteland too. One window inspired by the theme consisted of a male mannequin in colonial menswear and white powder wig, lying in his study while books flew off the shelves and landed on him, covering him like a blanket.
Another big influence on Rose’s work at Wasteland is her materials, more specifically her mannequins. Despite having a stockpile of them to choose from, Rose says she is always trying to use new mannequins “so people don’t get bored.”
“I switch them out,” said Rose. “We don’t have as many men. We have a few. I try to mix in more abstract men – not have the same realistic looking men. Sometimes people look at the clothes. If you did every window the same, it would distract from the clothes. But you don’t always want to do the clothes because you want the sets to be really good.”
“Sets” is the operative word. At their best, window displays resemble movie sets and like movies, displays inspire people to dream big, if only for the few moments that one spends staring into the storefront window.
Rose’s last display at Wasteland’s Haight Street store had a travel theme. Her 16-year tenure ended this month because, she says, Wasteland no longer wants to emphasize window displays with vintage clothing themes.
“It breaks my heart,” said Rose. “This was the reason I was proud to work there so long.”