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The Trade Show – When to Show & When To Go

May 23, 2024 - May 23, 2024   

The fashion trade show – arguably one of the biggest challenges and pitfalls facing a brand hoping to fast track to success and catch a buyer or two en route, Paul Markevicius advises on the tradeshow minefield.

Perceived Holy Grail for some, ego catalyst to financial ruin for others, it lies in wait, ready to lure the unprepared and ill advised onto the rocks of obscurity. Cavernous venue halls with rolling tumbleweed, conspicuously shoe-staring shy of buyers can be found everywhere at one time or another.

London’s Olympia has had its duds despite Pure. Old Billingsgate Fish market doesn’t always want new fish to fry (WeAr same weekend as Men’s Fashion Week, it tanked); no pity in Pitti if you are in the wrong hall; banjaxed at new event in Berlin last week so I hear (no, The Kooples did not set up next to my stand); getting Shanghaied in Shanghai potentially this year? And sadly, many more across the globe. Venue graveyards littered with the debris of thousands of cherished designer dreams and limited blown budgets: bland stand chroniclers of brand failure. It’s brutal and it takes no prisoners.

The headlong rush to throw oneself off a fashion event cliff ’to see what happens’  (because, yes you won’t know until you try it) – does not preclude the watchword that should be nailed to your forehead: RESEARCH.

Spend time with designers and new brands and there’s an urgency associated with channelling pent up ambition into something tangible like a trade show. Ask trade show veterans and you will hear, “They say (the silently invisible they, incidentally) it takes at least (insert number usually no less than 3) several seasons before you get noticed by the buyers.”  What is happening in-between is that thing starting out you won’t have much of. The same thing that will bite you on the bum and leave ’told you so’  teeth marks. Something called EXPERIENCE.

What does the ’they say’ actually mean? Most likely, the experienced buyer from a reputable wholesaler is only allowed to work with established brands of X years standing, or Y number of existing stockists as policy, to de-risk the relationship. Can you fulfil the orders they have placed to fill their rails in their various stores and concessions when you have borrowed every last penny to make the collection on show? Embarrassing for the big guys if you fail to deliver and financially disastrous to the (one-store) boutique owner, who if they’ve *part-paid for the order in advance, (*starting out you must ensure you negotiate this with each buyer to mitigate risk and fund the fabric and production, thereafter to cover your exposure – some buyers will renege on purchase orders) relies on your fulfilment for them to make any money by selling onto their customers. So most of these guys you won’t need to worry about because outside of them going off-piste and taking a punt on your amazing designs, you are invisible to them.

No brand exhibiting wants to reveal how shoestring their whole set up is, for fear of losing potential buyers. Smoke and mirrors may suggest you are further down the road than you actually are, more experienced, more mature as a brand. They can buy into the sleight of hand that this is only the capsule collection – plenty more where this came from. Experienced buyers will see through this in an instant. It is better to be honest, so they can help you directly, financially, with the very thing that started the discussion – your designs. A buyer who knows their target demographic may potentially go the extra yard for you, because they are genuinely excited by your collection and its potential for their customers. (Kind of why we all do it). The skill now lies in managing this relationship with someone who wants to invest in you – producing to time and to a professional quality.

But how do you know these buyers are going to show and come anywhere near the event you have signed up for? A number of steps can and should be taken – absolutely – to pre-empt this being a complete unknown and there’s really no excuse for not doing this. Why this event and why now you might want to ask yourself?

Visit the event beforehand (and rival events) as a prospect exhibitor. The organisers are usually glad to see you, one step away from getting your signature next season and they should proffer useful decision-making information. If this is proving tricky, or you are not being courted, you should ask yourself why? Identify how many years has the event run, at this venue, and with what number of exhibitors? Is it growing, stagnating? What publicity have you seen surrounding it, inviting, creative, professional? Or none at all?

What kind of venue is it? Historical building that complements your brand story, or industrial, edgy and contemporary setting that captures the design aesthetic perfectly? Easy to access for you, the buyer, or wrong side of town logistically, too far from centre or airport etc? Any venue advertising and directional signage on or near the venue? Experienced event organisers choose the venue and manage the event with all these considerations in mind. If it is not performing on any of these levels, it may be the exception only because it has earned the right to do so. It’s that good. Or perhaps it’s a dud-in-waiting. Look to be proved wrong in selecting an event; a healthy scepticism can keep you objective.

One of the best identifiers of fit is from SPEAKING DIRECTLY TO THE BRANDS ON SHOW – probably the strongest recommendation. How many (consecutive) seasons have they been coming, with what level of buyer engagement? Try and find brand adjacencies to ask. They will soon tell you if the event is tanking (may be apparent from lack of visitors – but quantity is not always an indicator of quality). You can be sure if something is working they will come back. There’s a longer-term investment to recoup because the buyers get used to seeing you there – and you help them to consolidate your brand positioning around this specific event. If there are no brand adjacencies you can see, it may be that this is enough to tell you it’s the wrong event.  Or it’s encouraging – you want to stand out! All the R&D that has preceded your assessment of the event and venue is of potential benefit in a time, labour and cost saving way – use it. All the other brands went through the same assessment and collectively, their decision-making reinforces the wisdom of why this event for you and them. This information is available for free – just by looking at the list of exhibitors and asking a few back up questions.

Who are the event organisers? In the fashion industry, it really does help when the organisers have a fashion background, complemented with event management experience. For example, in Paris during men’s fashion week, there are many events and venues to select from, Tranoi (two events), Capsule, Man-Woman (not to mention Who’s Next) and it is incumbent on the brand / would-be exhibitor to select best fit. Speaking to various brands I asked how they had arrived at their event investment decision. Often, the organisers were a key aspect. How they had handled their inquiry and had made them feel wanted and most importantly, that they were interested in helping their brand succeed. It may seem obvious that this should be standard protocol, but often it’s superficial and the event organisers will only help so far, and it’s sink or swim. This doesn’t automatically make the event less successful or one to be wary of, just a consideration that could ultimately be very revealing. For example, you still have to send out your own buyer invitations, not just show up and wait to see what happens – though you may well be the beneficiary of the other brands endeavours in this regard. But not something to rely on!

The organisers of Tranoi (Cite de la Mode et du Design, on the Seine) had told a number of brands I spoke to about the named wholesalers they could expect from previous shows, and those most relevant from the key markets they were interested in – not the actual named buyers – no-one will offer or guarantee this. These may be ‘feel good’ details to close an event contract, or they may be genuinely supportive, fact-based information to help you decide. It is still wise to cross-test and check independently with as many relevant, adjacency brands as you can before choosing.

Tranoi is ‘very selective in who they choose to exhibit,’ with strict criteria for selection – even if you have selected them, they may reject you. Like a buyer who wants to see you have an existing track record, they too want to know how long you have been in business. Having business criteria for selection should bode well, if it is carried through in the professional promotion of the event. Keeps the riff-raff out and maintains the quality aspect of the event.

Some brands I spoke to preferred the other industrial venue Tranoi used to show at and were not particularly desirous of any handholding to get there. Almost like, ‘if we need that kind of help we shouldn’t be there.’ To put it into perspective, ‘new’ brands to the show tend to be invited by the organisers (earned on merit, publicity, referral with negotiated terms) and the other brands predominantly more established, higher-end. Cost of entry is a great leveller of course. Tranoi is not cheap and they will try and lock you into a two event conditional deal.

At Man (Man-Woman), a more intimate venue that has a close relationship to the original Montgolfier hot air balloon factory in Paris, there was altogether a different, relaxed atmosphere. Anyone I spoke to mentioned this aspect as part of his or her decision-making and comfort level rationale for staying and coming back. “The buyers feel more relaxed here, less pressurised to see brands and often stay to chat in a way they don’t at other events.” While I was there, Selfridges and Liberty’s buyers were in the house, as a clear affirmation of the quality of the event.

One of the things that stood out from speaking to people was the sense that the brand-organiser engagement at this event was about a partnership. Organisers who took very seriously the brand positioning and development through participation in their event. And how being there felt like it was part of a family – even among fellow brands. When you consider the same event organisers will host events in key fashion cities (New York immediately after 26-28th for Man and Women in Feb and back again in Paris in March) it makes sense that they would not play devil-may-care with your budget as they will want to cross-sell you into the other city shows – based partly on them helping you to succeed in the other cities.

I spent a lot of time quizzing incumbent brands on their selection of Capsule, fashion and lifestyle event (new venue, Maison de la Mutualité) which seemed to combine established mid-tier and a few high-end brands with a few street style labels, and a little harder to pigeonhole in that regard. One brand was less happy that the event was now on several floors, diluting the energy and buzz. The layout on 3 floors included what appeared to be ‘invitation-only’ rooms. And even though this was not so, it was kind of off-putting that as an obvious target buyer, you may feel like you’ve walked into a retail trap.

With time permitting, perceptions should be tested with a before and after event questions: did the show pan out, deliver expected levels of buyer interest, improve on previous season etc. At Man the paired-back stand aesthetic worked, in keeping with the historic look and feel of a more architecturally engaging building with open atrium. At Capsule the stands in the main halls just looked bare and un-finished, with each brand’s product ranges blending into their neighbour’s. Not good. But in the main, the brands were comfortable in their shoes and felt they were with their peers and had made the right decision of event – the venue, look and feel and administration they are not in control of. And like Man, Capsule was jetting off to New York with some of the same brands in tow (snow storm permitting).

We shouldn’t forget buyer attendance and interest at different trade shows is a clear barometer of market conditions – what the consumer wants, is/ isn’t buying and it will have repercussions all the way along the supply chain. It’s also extremely useful to try and see where the buyer fraternity are going. They now say (yes, they) that London is for media, Paris for buyers – for women particularly. Attending Pitti in Florence – which for a men’s show has no equal, it’s clear this is where the international buyers attend, reinforced by a plethora of Italian retailers – a unique characteristic of its domestic market. How can you not be here, sort of thing?

At Pitti you will still need to choose where to go within the many options and halls – it’s huge, but super cool. And it needs to be about your brand adjacencies. The organisers can seriously help you avoid making a rookie error here. But you may not always agree with their selection of where you should go. And you should not necessarily accept the first offer for position or price. You may not win the negotiation, but it should sharpen your skills. In each exhibition space, the ‘standard price’ will have been negotiated to varying degrees, from free (by invitation) to healthy discounts to the full wack. This is often about buying power – size of stand, number of events attended with same company, who the parent behind the brand is, or just what you think you can get away with! Booking last minute can get last minute deals. Or rubbish any chance of good positioning with decent footfall. Getting there is one thing – making it work is another. Can you be spotted in the main hall? One brand Little White Lies at What’s Next, Paris had deliberately high(er) signage boards that stood above the stands of their peers – they could be seen from way across the hall from all directions. Smart marketing.

With the bigger events there’s a not ill-founded impression of one-size fits all, (Pure London and What’s Next, Paris) and the organisers can’t hope to finesse customised brand development and positioning. So being self-sufficient as soon as possible is a good thing. Reports of emails not answered, phone calls not returned, promises made not kept are the back story for some of these bigger events and it really is ‘buyer beware.’ But for many brands, those that have matured into 4-5 years with a prominent showing, the big shows can yield very healthy order books. It becomes far less about the organisers and more about your staying power and credibility in the market, and of course the all-important design interest in the first place.

By Paul Markevicius

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