Note: I’ll be out of the office today, I’m off to visit the denim processing facility in El Paso.
Today we have our much anticipated trip report from Cindy Graff Cohen who attended the Dallas Apparel and Accessories Market last week. Cindy -who I’ll describe as a former English professor for the sake of brevity- has switched career goals to enroll in El Paso’s community college fashion program. She attended the market with her friend Nan, the owner of Tres Mariposas. Now, I know what a lot of people from larger cities think, El Paso is a fashion podunk but you’d be wrong. Nan is very influential in the retail industry; she’s been interviewed by national and international publications too many times to count. This (pdf) is just one white paper worth a read . Her store is a target destination with many women flying in from all over the country to shop the selections of her discerning buyers. Getting into her store would be a feather in any designer’s cap. But onto Cindy’s story -which may be continued next week. Thanks Cindy!
Visiting the Dallas Apparel and Accessories Market (October 22-25) for the first time was an incredible experience for me as a new student in El Paso Community College’s fashion technology program. My head is still full of gorgeous clothes from the main market at the World Trade Center and the more contemporary so-called splinter market FIG (Fashion Industry Gallery) in the city’s thriving arts district. I was there to learn from veteran market-goer Nan Napier, owner of Tres Mariposas, a high-end women’s store in El Paso, Texas, and learn I did.
Nan, a CPA by training, brings both business acumen and fashion intuition to her work at the Dallas market, which supplements her regular visits to New York and other markets. Since she bought her store more than 30 years ago, she has turned the little boutique opened by three local social butterflies (mariposas) into a regional, bi-national mecca for women of all ages and all fashion comfort zones. Some of those customers come for St. John daywear and Escada evening wear; some come for Seven jeans and Juicy Couture tops. Nan segments her market strategy to cover them all. Before she sets foot in Dallas, she already has a mental list of specific features to seek and a mental picture of what ended up on clearance this season. Every Monday at Tres Mariposas (hereafter abbreviated as “TM”) begins with a buyers’ meeting to discuss what sold the week before; out of those meetings come the trends and the styles that fit the store’s highly differentiated customers.
With thousands of lines on display, Nan and her team also have a clear idea of who they will see before they get to market. “We always shop lines that have been performing for us recently,” she says. “It doesn’t mean we will continue to buy them, as they can be great one season, but weak the next. We also will have a list of lines we want to see that we aren’t currently carrying: either brand new lines that we’ve heard about that will fit into the store’s price, quality, and fashion parameters or lines that we’ve heard are performing for other retailers.” Once at market, Nan is continually gleaning and sharing market intelligence with her peers from other cities; networking is a critical market benefit. Nan introduced me to many of the friends she has made at market over the years; I especially enjoyed meeting long-time Dallas WWD bureau chief Holly Haber, who is delightfully down-to earth and, of course, incredibly insightful about market trends.
In Dallas, Nan typically does very little buying herself. Instead, as we say in West Texas, she rides herd over four other buyers. Three buyers cover accessories, dresses (including special occasion and MOB), and contemporary (including jeans), with the fourth buyer, the head buyer, responsible for everything else. Like most buyers, the TM folks are governed by their open-to-buy spreadsheets. Long columns of projections and expenditures by month represent the buyer’s allowance for each clothing category. The first questions in all sales rep interactions revolve around the delivery window. Will the item fit into the open-to-buy puzzle and the store’s calendar? You could fall in love with a gorgeous summer dress only to find it wouldn’t ship until May 30 — summer comes early in El Paso.
The whole buying process was fascinating to me, the wide-eyed student. In many showrooms, we sat at tables in front of walls with rods for hanging clothes, watching dozens of ensembles and separates come and go, only stopping for requests for a piece to be modeled or questions about release dates, price, fabric, or color ways. Showroom staff delivered lunch or drinks to the tables – Texas hospitality, to be sure, but the food also kept us still long enough to run through the whole line. Big-ticket items can take consensus-building – at Badgely Mischka, for instance, Nan and the head buyer joined the dress buyer to review beautifully embroidered and embellished party dresses.
With each presentation, Nan watched for the store’s current key features and projected trends, while following her own guidelines for what does and doesn’t sell. She turns down dresses with light skirts and dark tops (who wants to add visual pounds below the waist?) and dresses with empire waists above heavy gathers (no one wants to be asked if she’s pregnant, unless she is). Older women like sleeves, side slits on tops, and collars that cover part of the neck. El Paso’s fashion-forward customers like bright knits and close fits.
After tracking the store’s top-selling features, the rest is gut instinct, constant customer visualization, and the urgent need to fill the store’s huge and hungry selling floor. Nan and her buyers work fast and efficiently. “What’s new?” they ask. “What’s selling best?” As quickly as the yeas and nays come during each line’s review process, final orders take time. TM buyers fill out order forms on the spot with dates, style numbers, descriptions, sizes, and prices, but never leave them with the sales rep, even if (especially if!) they are pressured. At night and back at the store, all order forms are filtered through the discipline of the open-to-buy grid and the store’s need for balance and cohesiveness.
Gut instinct goes a long way, as do other stores’ success stories. If a sales rep mentioned that a comparable designer/better/bridge store in Houston or Dallas sold out a particular style last season, Nan listened. She won’t carry anything that another local store sells, but, hey, to us in the westernmost tip of the state, Houston is nearly as far away as San Diego. No problema.