Great and under rated wholesale shows (pt.2)

[Judging from today’s title, I still don’t have a good one.] This entry comes in continuation of Amazing (and underrated) wholesale tradeshow opportunities, the post I wrote on the OASIS trade show last week. To recap, I went to the OASIS show on Friday and Saturday. Sunday I attended another local tradeshow which has been held here for 25 years. While the OASIS show was gifts and of a southwestern flavor, the other show featured a mix of lesser known and major brands everyone would recognize.

I should backtrack a little. The real reason I went to the OASIS show was because I was hoping I’d get a line on this other trade show; it’s a hotel show or as reps call it, a “room” show. I’ve long known this show existed but it’s not listed in any of the fashion calenders and it doesn’t have a website. In other words, you have to know the right person to find it and then it’s a whole other hurdle to get in the door. So at OASIS, I did find someone who could tell me about it so I went. In the end it wasn’t hard for me to get in but I don’t think they’d ever had anyone from the press to show up for it. I do think it would be harder for a DE to get in; I don’t know how the show management would take to the concept of walking a show before deciding to exhibit. That’s the other thing. The smaller shows are often reps only so you couldn’t exhibit if you wanted to although it would be the perfect place to find a sales rep to represent your line. Like I said before, nearly all of the market shows started with a couple of sales reps getting together and pooling resources. Many of these sales clubs are non-profit membership organizations with by-laws and such. There was one manufacturer exhibiting at the room show but this firm has been at it for so long (easily over 30 years) that I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d joined the organization themselves, probably back when manufacturers still could have if they’d been of a mind to do it. But in those days, manufacturers called more of the shots so they didn’t need to.

Actually, I want to go off topic here for a minute so bear with me. I’m very worried about some manufacturers going out of business because there is no one to take them over. For example, this manufacturer (above) that I will call PW has been around forever. They do fabulous stuff. The nicest quality, all lined garments, great details and they do it domestically (in Texas). They have a loyal consumer following that other brands could only dream of having. The owners are getting older and I fear that there won’t be anyone to carry the brand forward once they retire. It would be a real shame too. They can’t find the right person to learn the business. There’s artists aplenty but as one owner told me, they never work out. No one wants to learn the business from the ground up, you know, from cutting and stitching on up. The designer owner would call me every other year for awhile saying she wanted to hire me to come and clean things up but said she couldn’t afford it which is sad, it would need a bit of finessing for transition and I can’t believe I’m saying this publicly, this is the only company I can think of that I’d work for just for expense money and product exchange in kind. The point of my off topic meandering is that some enterprises are going out of business or will be going out of business because there is no one to take them over. I’m hearing it again and again (from sales reps too), we have tons of designer grads but nobody wants to work. By work they mean the un-fun stuff like sewing or whatever. It’s a real tragedy. But whatever.

Back to my post. I interviewed a designer at the show I will call RS. She sells a line of southwestern style coats, jackets and vests although she’s recently picked up a few sportswear pieces to mix and match with her jackets. She’s been doing this for about 20 years and her background is a bit unusual. RS started out in Chicago as the owner of a fabric store. At one point a friend invited her to a wholesale show and she thought to herself that she could do that too. So she went to design school to learn pattern making etc. Then she got sidetracked and went on a trip to Utah and fell in love (with the state, she’s never married or had a family). She went back to Chicago and sold everything so she could move. Once in Utah and needing to make a living is when she decided to make a go of this.

RS does all of her pattern work and most of her sample sewing. She remarked she’d made all of the men’s vests that were on display in the booth (they looked great to me but then I wasn’t going to be a jerk by giving them the once over considering the time she was giving me). And we gossiped. Oh how we gossiped! She gave me the latest dirt on someone who had done me dirty circa 1993 and I confirmed those nasty rumors that had been circulating about the same for just as many. I tell you, you just never know who you’re going to meet on your way up and how valuable those contacts or insights are going to be down the road (the manufacturer PW above told me some other stuff -folks, never bite the hand that feeds you!). Anyway, I’d seen that RS advertised in a consumer publication and I asked her how that went over. I suspected it was good and she said it was great, that it was a great way to get retailers to reorder consistently because people were always calling or coming by to see if she had the latest or was going to get styles from the new line. She acknowledges that manufacturers are responsible for marketing demand for their lines but that with that magazine, she was well covered and didn’t do anything else. Her line is more moderately priced than PW’s, only her vests are lined (not the jackets etc). Most of her products are also made in the US. Her sportswear pieces, mostly mix and match blouses and skirts, are made in China because she can’t find a domestic producer that can do the effects she needs -mostly pleating and some shibori-like surface design effects. She also said she wasn’t 100% happy with her Asian sourcing go-between because she didn’t have transparency to know what factory is producing it or the working conditions there but says he’s always come through for her so it is something she has to live with at this time considering competing demands. Meaning, lack of transparency remains an issue for small to medium manufacturers because sourcing agents fear you’ll go around them to contract directly. Many smaller operations don’t have the financial wherewithal to avoid the middleman, contract directly and so, get the transparency and accountability consumers increasingly crave.

Speaking of accountability, I want to track back to the manufacturer I interviewed in the entry preceding this one. I asked him if buyers cared that his products were made in the US. He said “absolutely!” with great emphasis and then added “as long as it doesn’t cost 5 cents more”. He seemed a bit down about it. He’s another one who may go out of business without someone to take over. He is still relatively young (late forties, early fifties) but who knows. I do know he won’t manufacture off shore. It’s really sad. People keep saying you can’t manufacture in the US but everyone I spoke to is and they’re all making a nice living.

But back to RS. She works a lot. In real life, designers (especially designer owners) do not work a 9 to 5 job and she travels -a lot. I know a lot of you think being a designer and traveling is great… but it is exhausting. She said she sometimes wakes up in the morning and doesn’t know where she is and lies in bed and does a mental rundown of her travel schedule to check off destinations to figure out where she is through a process of elimination. I tell you all from the bottom of my heart, there is NO WAY I would want to switch places with you or her even though she is raking in the big bucks. Other things I find in my notes are that she does 2 larger collections a year and one smaller one. She doesn’t do all of the shows, she has six sales representatives to service accounts. Also, she doesn’t sell to department stores. A lot of people don’t but they do just fine.

Okay, that’s about all I can dump on you today. I’ll pick up where I left off tomorrow. Leave a few comments otherwise I’ll think this is boring you and won’t finish the series. Also, the details I can’t publish in public can be found here.

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  1. Jess H. says:

    Loving this series Kathleen, especially as I’m moving closer and closer to wholesale. I’ve been doing so many smaller consumer shows, with good publicity… I’m excited to move into the wholesale arena, but still have a bit of work ahead before I’m ready to go.

  2. Sherry4IS says:

    Where are these smaller manufacturers looking for new people? I live in NYC, for example, but I can’t even figure out how to find a stitcher job. I’m not stupid. I just don’t know where or how to look. I haven’t been able to figure out what reasonable expectations to have for such a job.

    I am drawn to learning and doing the very things they claim they need, but I have no idea where to look. Where do they advertise, for starters? How does one even approach these people when they don’t have the current skills they’re looking for, but are willing to learn? What would be a reasonable time frame for a newcomer to get up to speed? Are they looking for young recent grads, or is this something that anyone willing and able can do?

  3. Sandy Peterson says:

    I find this very interesting, Kathleen!! I can not understand why people don’t want to work, but I see it everywhere I go and it is sooooo frustrating!! I think technology can be a good thing, but I also think that it is making people lazy. People spend so much time on their “computers” and what do they have to show for it?

    I didn’t go to school to become a designer, but I consider myself one because I love to create things. What do you think the schools are putting in the heads of these designers? Didn’t they teach them that the best way to learn something is to start with the basics, “from the beginning?” That they might have to sweat a little? And enjoy it!!

    Not only that, but at what point did our work ethic change? Ugh!! And people wonder why manufacturing is going over seas!! I think there is more to it then “cheaper goods”.

    Anyway, thanks so much for what you do!!!! Please keep writing. I don’t usually post comments, but I had to this time.

  4. Greetings Kathleen, it was great to meet you at OASIS and to spend a couple hours with you. I love the Phoenix OASIS Show for my work. We are well supported there and it is a long established wholesale trade show. This Albuquerque Show is only in year #2 and not strong yet. It is very low priced to get in and the array of goods represented is great in my opinion.

    I appreciate you mentioning me in your blog, and yes, I truly love selling my work wholesale. We have made it into over 150 stores in 3.5 years. I now see women carrying my handbags who I have never met before, and it is a lovely feeling! Plus, I get an occasional fan letter from people affected by my art!

    I highly recommend wholesale, AND it IS a butt kicker work wise.

    Best Regards,
    Valerie A Szarek
    Breezy Mountain Leather

  5. Trish says:

    I love these posts on the shows. In terms of hard working designers, we have them at El Paso Community College. I am practically living in the fashion labs because the students are always there working. I know we have something special going on because the lazy “dream-designers” either change or leave our world. I am so proud of our ground up approach to both design and merchandising. We do use Kathleen’s book for one of our courses. We do not baby our students at all, and it shows. Reading this blog is just one of the many things that are considered to be a part of the daily learning experience. Now that we have added the HP Z6100 fabric plotter, our students are not only designing (to a target), pattern making and draping, costing, creating test fits and other samples, but they are now also designing and printing their textiles. It is really great. Maybe we can hook up some of our people with those who need read workers who love this hard-working industry.

    Kathleen, next week is our Advisory Committee meeting and I wish you were going to be with us. But we will talk about you and everyone will send you great vibrational hugs and kisses!!!! (Because you are the best!)

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