Move It Or Lose It, Let’s Talk Trade Shows

To the uninitiated, New York Fashion Week is the main event, but for most designers the week after is usually far more important. It is Market Week, and this is when retail chains and department stores spend the most money and the deals get done. There are multiple trade shows in New York during Market Week, from the massive Coterie exhibition produced by ENK at the Javitz Center and the Show Piers to the smaller more focused Designers and Agents show.

story and photo by Charles Beckwith

To the uninitiated, New York Fashion Week is the main event, but for most designers the week after is usually far more important. It is Market Week, and this is when retail chains and department stores spend the most money and the deals get done. There are multiple trade shows in New York during Market Week, from the massive Coterie exhibition produced by ENK at the Javitz Center and the Show Piers to the smaller more focused Designers and Agents show.

Major NYC Trade Shows For Fashion Designers…

Designers and Agents co-founder Ed Mandelbaum

“We serve the vendors and treat them nicely, and that’s important to us,” says Ed Mandelbaum.

I sat down recently with Ed Mandelbaum, co-founder of the highly-successful Designers and Agents trade show, to get some insight into his shows and how designers can find success during the crucial prime buying season. Designers and Agents, often abbreviated D&A, was started in Los Angeles 14 years ago as an alternative to the larger shows that accept anyone who will pay for a booth. They now host several shows a year in New York, Los Angles, and Paris. Mr. Mandelbaum labels their shows as catering to designers and buying agents of “advanced contemporary.” It is not Chanel, Proenza Schouler, Marchesa, or  Marc Jacobs that you find at the D&A shows, but rather the lower profile high quality but relatively more affordable lines that can be successfully paired with the top tier labels to complete an outfit. In fact, that is the specific category the screening committee is looking for, and this is intentional because that happens to be the market segment with the most growth in recent years, according to Mr. Mandelbaum.

The D&A acceptance committee considers the applications of hundreds of designers each season, but only about two out of every ten who apply to participate in the shows are accepted. You’ll find ready-to-wear women’s wear, shoes, jewelry, and other accessories on display. They host roughly 275 labels at the bigger shows and 40 to 50 at smaller events between seasons. Emerging designers and designers who are new to the New York market may wish to skip the main Market Week shows and instead focus on presenting during one of the D&A shows between the major seasons (Summer, Fall 2, and Holiday), which are more intimate and offer greater opportunity for designers and buyers to meet each other and communicate. A D&A menswear show, D&A MAN, will be launching in July. Their shows regularly attract buyers from stores like Barney’s Co-op, Intermix, Scoop, and the famously fashion-forward fifth floors of the Saks flagship on Fifth Avenue and their illustrious neighbor Bergdorf Goodman (owned by and having strong influence on the very high end Neiman Marcus chain).

Mr. Mandelbaum related the remarkable success story of two young men, one 17 years old and the other 18, who brought their denim samples to an early D&A show and had over $1 million in wholesale orders for their jeans by the end of the first day. Though, it should be noted that took place before the 2008 economic collapse and the current recession.

Here is a promotional video prepared by D&A, which should give you a better idea of what the show is like for participants:

All across the industry there has been an ecological imperative coming into play over the last several years. At D&A shows, you can now look at the uniform signage at the corner of each stall for either an outline or filled icon of a green leaf, which indicates the level of sustainability represented by each vendor’s materials and manufacturing practices. The show’s organizers consider this one of the most important trends in fashion in recent memory.

I also spoke with Annik Klein, president of the event management company KX Associates, which has been responsible for putting together production for dozens of trade shows and other major fashion events. Ms. Klein was formerly president of both the French RTW label Maud Frizon and the salon chain Jean Louis David, so she was around a lot of trade shows even before launching KX to produce them. She commented that a big change over the years has been that the shows now look a lot better. It is no longer simply pipe and drape, there is significant production value going into the shows and the individual booths. There are so many more brands than there used to be, and now there is real competition going on, so labels are much more competitive on the show floor, driving the innovations and this new showmanship.

Recently, one of KX Associates’ big clients, a show called The Train, along with their parent company Prêt-à-Porter, was acquired by the Paris trade show company Who’s Next. The new owners have shut down The Train and have not yet announced any plans for launching a New York show.

It takes a lot to stand out. Asked what she though the best strategies were for designers to make good sales during a show, Ms. Klein said the most important thing is to “prepare in advance, make appointments, announce to clients” and potential clients that you will be at the show. I would add, if possible also communicate what your booth number will be. It is important to get bodies into your booth, because if a booth is busy it arouses curiosity and draws more people. So, don’t expect buyers to just find you randomly in a show with 250 or 800 booths, have promotional strategies in play both before and during the show.

Ms. Klein also stated that if you are a designer coming to New York from out of town, you should contact a local fashion PR agency to promote your label to the right buyers before you arrive. New York designers should employ this same strategy when going to Paris or other international market weeks. Just make sure they have a proven sales department, not only success with general publicity.

From my own perspective, having attended dozens of New York trade shows for garments, accessories, and textiles, I would say when someone comes into your booth you should invite them to browse the collection, let them know you’re ready to answer any questions, but don’t hover or stare at them while they browse. Give them space to poke around. In the same vein, if a small booth is too full of product and decorations, people will avoid it, so if you have a lot of merchandise and can get a little more space without breaking the bank, do so. It’s good to have comfortable seating, because buyers do a lot of walking. You might get to have conversations you wouldn’t otherwise have, just by putting out a nice bench or two. Who knows what someone might achieve offering on-site professional reflexology and a margarita to anyone who places a good-sized order after noon.

Posters and other graphics can be very useful. Good photography draws the eye, as can press clippings on the walls or presented as handouts with a well-executed lookbook, but if your garments are really innovative the best thing could be a good model or two wearing the looks around the show and directing people to your booth. Celebrities making an appearance are even better, especially if you can promote their visit ahead of time. It’s good to do mini events, telling buyers to come at a certain time, but make it something worth showing up for. Don’t try to do a runway show in your booth, there is no way to get the right level of production value in that amount of space. Lighting can strike a great contrast with other booths; if everything is lit by those cool metal halide bulbs 40 feet in the air, a warm accent lamp will immediately draw the eye. Don’t blockade the front of your booth with tables. Plan ahead on where to store your personal items during the show, avoid that clutter. If you have friends who are also showing, consider joining your booths into one large space, the more open spaces are always more appealing to walk into; the smaller ones are basically cubicles with three high walls. Really think about creating an environment that is psychologically productive for drawing people in and putting them at ease.

I feel there is real value in having the designer themselves present to interact with customers and press, especially if they have traveled far or have a good story to tell, because sales is all about relationships. There is a relatively long wait between the purchase order and your delivery window, so buyers need to feel they can trust you to deliver. Stay upbeat and friendly despite the long days by pacing yourself a bit. Don’t let yourself get burned out. If your work is good, people want to know you. Invite buyers and press out for drinks after the show. Do what it takes to make an impact that will move your product.

Like the runway shows, the actual value of participating in trade shows has been in question recently. Is it worth spending $8,000+ on a booth, not including staffing and decoration and promotion for that two or three day window, or are there better more cost-effective ways to reach buyers during Market Week or between seasons? Let us know what you think in the comment section below or by emailing us, journal@modacycle.com.

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