The Pulitzer Fountain used to be synonymous with market week. These days, dodging traffic on Eleventh Avenue is the most New York sightseeing a buyer will get. As the fashion market expanded, so did the trade shows. But are they really doing us service?
Elyse Kroll set out with a vision to create a new type of fashion experience with the goal of driving retail traffic to its rightful place in New York City. In 1980, the garment district was much more than a strip mall of chain hotels and, unlike the convention hall booth shows that existed, ENK International brought together handpicked designers, buyers and press to The Plaza Hotel.
The accessibility of the Internet and the ever-impressive array of smartphone and tablet software have made life faster and easier. Today, Eloise would be playing with an iPad instead of her dolls, Sabine and Sailor.
With the rise of business-to-business platforms such as Joor and The Runthrough, the traditional trade show model may be becoming irrelevant. Is walking down the aisles a necessity or just a superfluous promenade?
An established jewelry designer, who has been exhibiting with ENK since the beginning, says “it was intimate. [Kroll] created an edited presentation curated for the buyer. It wasn’t for every store. But, the stores that it was for could come knowing that they would find a lot of products that were just right for them.”
As attendance and the demand for catering to specific sectors, such as womenswear and accessories, increased, so did the number of shows and venue size. ENK International currently produces over sixteen trade shows annually. In New York, they are held at both The Piers and the Javits Center. It takes days to walk the entire show booth by booth. Would it be wrong to imply that ENK outgrew its original intentions?
At first, everyone was on the same page: editors would go to see the current collections and buyers would go to buy it. We were on an American calendar (which seems fitting). However, editors slowly shifted to a European calendar, requiring collections unseasonably early. A rift formed between “majors” (department stores, chains, etc.) and specialty stores’ buying patterns. While the majors want products earlier, most specialty stores are buying closer to the season and based on need.
If everyone is on a different schedule, is there not a simpler way? We live in a time where you can have garden soil delivered to your door with just one click of the mouse, trackpad or tap of the screen. A business- to-consumer e-commerce platform is almost a given on a brand’s website and they are good for shopping 24/7/365. Business-to-business ventures have provided answers and are changing the industry’s mode of mode. Are they the rebirth of the traditional trade show?
In 2004, Megan Crum and Mandy Tang were both working in the accessories editorial department at W magazine. During their tenure, individual look-books and images were the norm. In 2009, Crum was the accessories director at Instyle and Tang was getting her MBA at Columbia University. They decided to create something new and the Runthrough was born.
Their goal was to extend the retail e-commerce platform to better orchestrate exchanges between designers and editors. Companies pay a fee to upload images and descriptions of their product while editors sign up for free. Editors can shop for their shoot the same way you would on Amazon—by category, season, designer or price—adding items to a cart. What is placed in the basket finds its way onto the set or a computer screen in the form of a high-resolution image.
In an age when ad pages are down and smaller editorial staffs are working harder, simple and organized is put on a pedestal. The ready-to-wear editor at one of the most-prestigious fashion magazines has been using it ( Runthrough) since her start. She says: “I love The Runthrough!”
What The Runthrough has done for press, Joor has done for retail. The founder, Mona Bijoor had experienced the archaic and lengthy wholesale process while working at Chanel, Elie Tahari and other international retail offices, and in 2010, she decided to do something about it. Joor uses a similar model to The Runthrough in that designers make their collections searchable for buyers to pick and choose and ultimately write orders online or on an iPad. Joor also provides unparalleled back-end analytics. The software is integrated; both brands and stores can input data about sales, shipping and inventory.
While buyers source new product, designers research new retail opportunities. It is a win-win. The president of a company on Joor is quick to note the increase in exposure as well as quality of content. He says, “[Joor] is like online dating. You are going to see designers that are vetted so, you have more security knowing that what you are going to see is at a certain level.”
Even with the utility of these programs, the heart of the wholesale shopping experience lies in the trade show. The longstanding ENK exhibitor claims, “we still live in an environment where buyers and editors need to feel something physically and emotionally. They need to really see product.”
Anna Fuhrman, owner of Proper Topper, says “I need to touch and feel…the things I am bringing into my shop. I want to see things in the context of other goods (jewelry alongside clothing, kids’ gifts alongside games and toys, etc.”) Kristina Richards of Kristina Richards agrees, exclaiming, “I prefer to see everything in person!”
Both storeowners and editors need to source product from new designers to stay relevant. Tina Huynh, the assistant jewelry editor at W Magazine, and Richards are constant figures at the trade shows. Richards says, “I can see a ton of lines in one place and stumble upon new lines I might not have found otherwise.” Huynh is quick to note, “It’s [a great way] to see…emerging talent.”
Stores are buying multiples of things that are not returnable. There is much more risk if you are unsure of what or from whom you are buying. And, in this economy, there is less money to spend on the unfamiliar. Fuhrman says that “if it’s a new line, I want to see packaging and meet the people I am buying from [to] get a feel for the company.” Hearing someone talk about the inspiration behind his/her work is far more powerful than reading it on a screen.
In reference to why editors have stopped going to shows, Huynh says “I believe they think they can just see everything via PDF…online or at previews. Honestly probably laziness as well.” But, where is that laziness getting us? The answer is detached. Richards questions: “I don’t understand buyers that want to do everything digitally! I’m not a fan of all this technology! What happened to the importance of building relationships with people you do business with?”
Joor may be the haute du jour, and The Runthrough may be way past due, but the trade show is about working together. It is about humanity of craft, interaction and ultimately, publicity or transaction. Fuhrman may have put it best. She says: “we are partners in this endeavor.” If you have been getting your fashion to go, maybe it is time to try dining in.
By Gabriella Yosca