I have a friend who is a jewelry designer (I’ll be doing a profile of her soon) and talking to her is so addictive because she’s one of the most interesting people I’ve known in a long time. When she gets on a roll, I sometimes wish I had a tape recorder running because she’s spitting out these huge chunks of information; chunks so brittle you don’t dare interrupt (not wanting to lose the thread by going off on rabbit trails) but you can’t run tape and note taking can only be mercenary if you’re supposed to be providing emotional support (she did say I could share this story with you). Michelle was definitely on a roll last Friday.
Michelle was telling me the story of a trunk show she’d done at Bendel’s. She said it was a lousy experience and wished she’d known what it’d be like beforehand. Like me, she says it’s a big mistake for your default assumption to be that you want to do business with prestigious stores. She said the Bendel buyer had come to her booth during market, doing this big song and dance about how great a trunk show would be for her at the store. I mean, every designer would love to get name recognition for their line with the right kind of customers etc, so she agreed to do it. It was implied that Bendel’s would pick up her line (if the trunk show was successful) and they’re known for an average order size of $50,000 at least in jewelry.
Anyway, Michelle said the set up was totally unlike any other trunk show she’d ever done. Basically, she and three other designers were set aside in this kiosk thing that was divided four ways. There was no signage indicating the kiosk/display was a trunk show, presented and hosted by the designers themselves. She says that they weren’t allowed to wear name tags to identify themselves as the designers of their lines which was a rub because even the store employees had name tags. It is apparent that the “trunk show” was set up in such a way as to lend the impression that it wasn’t a big deal or a special event and that the kiosk was a merchandising display being staffed by ordinary (contract) merchandisers or perhaps, employees.
She said it was a horrible event that she didn’t think would ever end. It lasted four long days. The designers had to comply with a strict dress code (meaning, they had to dress like store clerks and could not stand out in any way) and had to remain on the floor at all times for ten hours straight except for one 30 minute lunch break. The latter is illegal if the person is an employee but Bendel’s could get away with it because they were treating the trunk show designers as contract merchandisers who just happened to be independent contractors (legally, you’re allowed to exploit yourself). Still, Michelle says that wasn’t the worst of it. She says the worst part of it was dealing with Bendel customers who thought she was a Bendel’s employee. She said customers were rude, would yell at her or wag their fingers right in her face, demanding to know where the bathrooms or lingerie were or complain about the store or whatever.
Sales-wise, Michelle says she didn’t do as well as she would have liked but that she did better than some of the others in the “trunk show” because she made enough to cover her costs and expenses. She says one of the other designers didn’t sell anything and that she had a lot of expenses. This other designer had never done a trunk show before and she went all out, staying at a nice hotel and everything, probably thinking she was on the verge of her first big break. Judging from what she’s heard from other designers since, Michelle thinks Bendel’s feeds the same story to all the designers, so some are probably convinced that they’re poised on the edge of greatness. Michelle says a lot of stores and buyers will feed you a line but that she didn’t expect that from Bendel’s.
Regardless of how prestigious the event or the store, Michelle says you must do it as inexpensively as possible because you do not know what -or if- you’re going to sell anything. Obviously, this is more critical the farther you have to travel to do the show (Michelle lives in LA). In NY she was able to stay with friends of friends so she feels she didn’t do too badly with regards to expenses. Stores will always try to convince you it’s a good deal and it is for them but it should be for you too. The store is getting free product (on consignment) and fully staffed displays that don’t cost them anything in the way of salaries or benefits. The event needs to be as good for you as it is the store but until such time that you can guarantee that’ll happen, don’t be impressionable, don’t assume the store will place orders. Be positive but it’s best to assume you’ll sell nothing and have to keep your expenses as low as possible.
I asked her if she would have done it again -in the context of sharing that advice with you- and she hesitated. That surprised me, I thought she’d say “no way” but she didn’t. Michelle says you can never tell in advance whether a show is going to be that big break for you. She knows other people for whom a trunk show under similar cruddy conditions was a winner. She says you can never tabulate the growth of consumer awareness of your product line easily and that everything must help; I gather that the downside to the event for her was preparedness and expectations because when I asked what she would have done differently, she says she would have started with a different set of expectations and she would have arranged to have help working the event. Having someone spot you for a couple of hours in the middle of the day can go a long way to reducing your fatigue, keeping your spirits up and remaining resilient and levelheaded if you’re confronted by a stream of rude people.