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July 1998

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A chat with Tiffany's Robert Rufino

To Robert Rufino, Tiffany & Co. isn't just a high-class, world-famous jewelry store. It's a fortress of sorts, one of the last bastions of old-world retailing. The flagship store, at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in New York City, stands in sober resistance to the loud and splashy world of "retail-tainment" practiced by newcomers such as Niketown, the Warner Bros. store and the Disney Store. He has one word for that brash new world: scary.

"Tiffany is one of the last stores that truly stands for quality," he says. As vice president of visual merchandising, he makes sure the Tiffany message gets across in the store's displays, windows and decor.

He began his retailing career at Henri Bendel, where he spent 11 years designing windows and outfitting the store-within-a-store shops for which Bendel was famous. He passed by Tiffany on his way to work, often stopping to admire the windows designed by Tiffany's Gene Moore, arguably the most famous display designer in the world.

In the early '80s, Rufino began a series of fashion-magazine jobs that lasted more than a decade. He returned to retailing to help relaunch Gump's in San Francisco.

Then came the call from Tiffany in 1996. Moore had retired; the store was seeking his replacement. After 12 interviews, many spent hammering out a job description broad enough to satisfy Rufino, he signed on. He's in charge of visual merchandising for all Tiffany units worldwide, as well as special event planning and designing the store's tabletop shows – anything requiring a knack for visual presentation.

The New Look
One of his big projects has been the creation of what he calls "the new look for Tiffany" – extending gradually as more branches open and existing ones are renovated. It's not a big departure, he says, just a softer version involving new fabrics, fixturing, lighting and wall art. Walls are a cream stripe-on-stripe fabric, replacing heavy wood paneling. The carpet is a warm "clubby" check in brown and gray-beige. The art on the walls is botanical drawings from Tiffany archives. "It's very luxe, but not flashy. It conveys quality without saying 'Hey, look at me.'"

Rufino also is working to make the branches' window displays consistent from store to store. When the company hired freelancers to design branch-store windows, the presentations lacked consistency. Now he hires regional display artists to execute ideas he uses in the flagship-store windows in the branch stores. A photo or sketch is sent to the regionals with a few verbal instructions. "There has to be a common thread that runs through all the stores' windows," Rufino says.

That common thread varies, but all good windows have some element of drama and surprise, he says, and should leave a positive impression on the viewer. Furthermore, good windows engage the viewer's sense of fantasy, pulling him or her into the imaginary world they depict.

Rufino calls on the experience he gained at the fashion magazines when he designs a window, looking at it as if through a camera lens. His goal is to create a perfect still life, he says. Windows don't necessarily emphasize product. Rufino's designs often challenge viewers to find the piece of jewelry in the windows.

If his sense of playfulness puts people in mind of his predecessor, it's purely coincidental. When Rufino first arrived at Tiffany, his office was filled with books showing Moore's designs. Rufino had them removed pronto. "I didn't want to look at them. I didn't want to be inspired," he says.

Break with Tradition
He broke with some Moore traditions. The older designer usually used subtle background colors; Rufino celebrated his first summer at the store with an array of lime green, orange, pink and electric blue windows.

He and Moore produce different looking windows because they have different mindsets, he says. "He paints his canvas one way and I paint mine another. And the critics are the critics. Some prefer it the old way, others the new."

If the object of windows is to delight potential customers, the object of in-store display is to sell jewelry, Rufino says. Displays need to be no-nonsense and to focus all attention on product. Accordingly, merchandise is always paramount in Tiffany's showcases. Each group of items – necklace, earrings and bracelet – is presented as a unit and given room to breathe. Some jewelers try to cram too much into a single showcase, he says.

Displays should be immaculate as well as simple, Rufino advises. Anything that could distract viewers from the jewelry is out – price tags are hidden, displays pristine. "If a form has a nick in it, it's out. If something is not 100%, it's gone." The jewelry must be perfectly placed on the form. "I hate it when anything's crooked," he says.

At the flagship, store coordinators, one for each floor, keep their eyes peeled for wayward displays. Rufino himself walks through the store each morning before opening to be sure all is in proper order. As he does so, he looks for additions or changes he should make in fixturing, lighting or decor. "I treat Tiffany like a grand, wonderful hotel that I just keep polishing," he says.

 
 The jewelry may not always be the focus of a Tiffany window.
 
Traditional subdued colors became more vibrant under Rufino's influence.
 
Rufino draws on a fashion-magazine background to design the windows.
 
All Tiffany branches follow the themes set in the New York City flagship.






Copyright © 1998 by Bond Communications.


 

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