Whimsical windows

January 31, 2013 09:01 am

Marlene Hays builds window displays that make people look  twice. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer
Marlene Hays builds window displays that make people look twice. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer

Marlene Hays puts her talents as a window dresser to good use as co-owner of The Royal Clothiers in downtown La Grande 

By Bill Rautenstrauch / The Observer

For Marlene Hays, there’s not much difference between setting up a retail display on the third floor of a huge department store in London, England, or setting one up at a little consignment shop on Adams Avenue in La Grande. Either way, it’s a chance to let the imagination run free and create something that will make people look twice.

It’s work mixed with play, art as an extension of business, and it’s never far from her mind. She keeps a notebook by her bedside, waiting for the next big idea to come along.  

“I think it comes from within,” she said of inspiration for her window displays that indeed attract the attention of people going by. “I do whimsical. My whole goal is to have someone look as they drive by, go back around the block and look again.”

Hays is a good-humored, 75-year-old Englishwoman who with Stephen Barton owns The Royal Clothiers on Adams Avenue downtown. She was born in Kent, and as a young girl in World War II was one of many civilians evacuated to Bristol. Bristol, on England’s southwest coast, was a frequent target of Luftwaffe bombers, and Hays well remembers hiding in a shelter as the bombs rained down. 

It was a hard life for a child, but it taught her something about imagination and creativity.

“You had no toys. As a kid, I always used to sketch and draw,” she said.

The war passed. At 15, Hays got her first job, working in a chocolate shop. It didn’t last long.

“Then, she said, “I went for window dressing.”

 Whimsy is the name of the game when Marlene Hays decorates the windows of her store. Here she shows off some of figures she might use for a Halloween-themed display.
Whimsy is the name of the game when Marlene Hays decorates the windows of her store. Here she shows off some of figures she might use for a Halloween-themed display.

Her initial training took place at a store in Kent and it involved standing by and watching a professional work. Hays held pins and handed them to the boss. She learned, and learned well.

“There came a time when someone was standing there handing the pins to me,” she said.

Hays also took up modeling, in London and later in Singapore. She immigrated to the United States in 1969, living first in Ohio, and later in San Diego, Calif. There she found demand for her unique abilities, going to work as a free-lance window dresser at a half dozen different stores. Later she ran a boutique at a yacht club in Newport Beach, yet another retail business where she could give play to her imagination.

Following a time living in Las Vegas, Nev., her daughter Tajah in La Grande sent her a photo of an English-looking house that was for sale here. Hays and Barton didn’t care much for Las Vegas — it was too hot — and they decided to give La Grande a closer look. They moved here six years ago, and bought the house.

Hays soon became acquainted with the owner of the used clothing store on Adams known then as the Clothes Closet. For Hays and Barton, it was the start of a whole new phase of life.

“I asked her if she’d mind if I did her windows for free. I did that every Tuesday for two years, and then she started talking about selling. We said ‘Okay, we’ll buy it,’ “ she said.

The new owners changed the name of the store to The Royal Clothiers, did some cleaning and renovation, and went on selling used men’s, women’s and children’s clothing by consignment. Hays started collecting props for the window displays, and the more she collected, the more came along. 

Her prop room, though well-organized, is chock full of mannequins, artificial flowers and plants, stuffed animals large and small, dolls and other toys. The prop most prized is an 87-year-old mannequin named Felicia. And not long ago, someone presented Hays with a collection of dolls, complete with 140 doll outfits.

“All these things, people have given to me. That’s how nice people are,” Hays said.

Hays’ challenge is to display used clothing in the best possible light, and she said it’s not hard to do. Some of the merchandise comes from local sources, and some is sent by relatives and friends who shop yard sales and estate sales in different parts of the country.  All of it is nice, still wearable and attractive even though pre-owned.

Hays said that when she starts a display, she cleans out the window for a fresh start. All the clothes and accessories going on display get tags denoting sizes and prices.

“I want people to know they can look good on little money,” Hays said.

Often, she builds up a window picture from a theme or an event. One famously  remembered display centered on the 2011 royal wedding between Prince William and Catherine Middleton, another commemorated the Pendleton Roundup with a show of Western style clothing, and still another featured dolls dancing around a maypole. 

Sometimes, Hays makes displays to coincide with a local charitable events.

“I tell anyone that’s around, if they’ve got something going on, bring me a poster and I’ll work a window around it,” she said.

And the ideas keep on coming. Hays will change her windows often between now and next summer, but then, she’s got something special to do.

“I’ll have to do a window for the royal baby,” she said.