Trunk show at Bendel’s

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.

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  1. Karen C. says:

    I attended a seminar in San Francisco last month on trunk shows (apparel) by a gentleman who had been doing trunk shows for over 20 years. His arrangements with stores included a flat fee of $500 to cover his flight and hotel and any freight involved in shipping product to the store. He also had a contract with the store, and sent his press kit ahead. It was up to the store to generate the publicity and get customers into the store. But he also went to boutiques that were not in major cities or something like a Bendels. Well, word will get around about Bendels and no one will show there.

  2. Trunk Show Tips

    I found an interesting article this morning from the Fashion-Incubator blog about the experience of a jewelry designer at a trunk show. Her experiences are very informative for any designer who hopes to make it big with their jewelry designs.

  3. J C Sprowls says:

    I am interested to hear more about trunk shows.

    In my limited experience with retail (indepently owned shops) we (i.e. the store) invited artists or artisans to visit, provided room and board (typically at someone’s home). In addition, we promoted the event and also supplied refreshments (if it was appropriate to the scene). The store brought in additional staff to manage the “lease line” because of the extra traffic.

    I’ve been tinkering with ideas recently of “if I were to produce…” and one of the ideas was to open at a trunk show, in a hotel, for one of the style forums I belong to. Now, I’m rethinking the risk (i.e. push X pieces in a limited size run, presentation, expenses, etc).

    Beyond Michelle’s bad experience, what other business questions would you recommend someone be able to answer before making this decision?

  4. leslie says:

    I always ask fellow designers/business owners about their experiences at particular shows before going into one, bearing in mind that their style and pieces as well as experience will always vary from my own. Also, having a friend or two help you to staff your booth is a godsend so that you can go to the restroom and chat up and network with other vendors. My handmade work is a relatively niche market so I bootstrap it the best I can, learning from every experience, what worked, what didn’t, and keeping on the cheap. This isn’t glamorous work by any means. The worst show I did in terms of profit later on gave me a custom order. Exposure is exposure.

    Questions to ask others and the promoters:
    * Where is the store located? (foot traffic is vital)
    * What type of press will the store/promoters use to publicize this event?
    * How many people regularly show up to this event?
    * What’s the demographic and (if possible) style sense of those that attend these events? (I’ve put myself in an event where I knew right away that I didn’t belong there in terms of the fashion sense of people who are likely to buy my work and those actually there at the event. The promoter should have known but perhaps they had to fill the space somehow.)

    * If possible, scout out the event first before committing to it. Check out who shows up.
    * Bring a friend to help you staff the booth.
    * Ask others who’ve done this show before.
    * Bring food and water, it’ll be a long day or days.

  5. Thomas Cunningham says:

    I did one of Gen-Art’s shopping events where they have a big party and all their designers sell their wares — it was in the Puck Building — I marked at wholesale and I sold something like 20 suits. If my friend Carl hadn’t shown up to help fit I would have been completely overwhelmed — it was a blast. but it’s easy to sell when your prices are below MSRP.

    In general I’m a believer in the push method. If I have the inventory (within reason, of course) I can find a way to sell it. I figure I can ALWAYS sell it at wholesale to consumers — they get a great deal and still I get my margin. Plus, consumers PAY RIGHT AWAY. I mean how much is that worth? A lot I figure.

  6. J C Sprowls says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Thomas and Leslie.

    If anyone is interested, I also started a discussion thread on the bulletin board under “Discuss Blog Topics”.

    I see there has been a few hits; but, no feedback from viewers, yet :-(

  7. Karren says:

    I’ve done trunk shows, good and bad. My business is unusual in that I sell both retail and wholesale. The wholesale price points are high because they are handmade in the USA. I keep the wholesale price points as low as possible so that shops can sell some. If I did only wholesale I would have to raise my prices and I know the public’s resistance to that price since I’m out there selling too.

    So here is some of my take on trunk shows. For me there is not enough profit to sell my wares wholesale and pay for the all expenses of the trunk show (air fare, room,…). So in the successful trunk shows the store pays for the airplane ticket and puts me up somewhere. I can usually travel with enough stock, 2 big suitcases checked, carry on personal items. I take a large selection of what they buy regularly plus many special/more expensive pieces. I’m basically donating my time to enhance the relationship I have with the store, so these are long standing buying stores in good standing with me. We talk about if there will be a opening or not and what hours I’m expected to be there. These need to be conversations. Opening/special events are good– they tell the customer to expect more than the usual. I gladly supply something to be mailed with my images, they do/pay for the mailing.

    They pricing is detemined by the store, I get wholesale, 30 net. Sometimes the store will buy extra from the stock, I sometimes leave one-of-a kind pieces on consignment –if a customer has expressed interest in that piece.

    Most sucessful trunk show: they paid airfare, put me up in a delightful little house near the shop. Opening night (2 days after major flood in the shop that damaged the air-conditioning) was a nice event but heat/sweat inhibited sales. They had full staff on board that night. We sold the equivalent of 5 years worth of sales during the weekend (after the airconditioning was fixed), and 2 more years worth in the following month I let them keep extra merchandise. They took me to dinner, theater…

    The worst was during the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City just after 9/11. They paid for the airfare. Air travel was diffficult in this moment. It was a new account, less than 1 year old but 2 others, who I knew where coming in for the event. No customers came! I don’t think that sports fans are interested in handmade anything. I asked how big of a mailing they did… none. They bought the hype of the Olympic committee that all those people would buy everything. They bought everything with Olympics or team something on it. I did the best of the 3 of us there, one jeweler left early.

    All 3 of us got to stay in an apartment under construction nearby. There were 3 beds but no heat and 2 blankets. I slept in fully clothed in my coat…. The store went out of business soon afterwards. Don’t know the details.

    The store needs to invest in the event too to make it a sucess. If it just a freebie they are likely to take advantage.

    A nice thing that usually happens in a trunk show is that the staff learn a lot more about my product and the sales usually stay at a higher level for a while or until the staff turns over.

  8. Cerebella says:

    I have a trunk show at Henri Bendel for high-end caps. They sent me an agreement which seems fine except for this little item that I am not quite sure about: it says I am responsible for all receipts and if I lose any receipts I will not be paid for those items. Does anyone know what this means exactly? Will they hand me each-receipt after they ring up a customer’s purchase?

    A concern I have: the trunk show is right before Thanksgiving (on Nov. 21 and 22). I found myself wondering if any shoppers are going to show up; I mean normally I would be busy either cooking or traveling on those two days. Does anyone go shopping just before Thanksgiving?

    Also, any specific advise about the day of the trunk show will be most welcome! I will be playing sales-lady for almost 12 hours which seems quite a daunting prospect! My expectations are rock-bottom; but I am going anyway because I think the exposure will help build credibility for my company.


  9. Leila says:


    I just read your post. I’m interested to know how it went for you. I have one this coming month. Any suggestions?


  10. Lameka says:

    I’m very interested in this topic but can’t find it on the dicussion blog. Will someone tell me what it’s under? I looked under Disscusion Blog topics but didn’t see it. Thanks

  11. deb says:

    Hi! I am doing a trunk show at bendels and would never even think of asking for plane fare or hotel costs…they would laugh in my face! I would love to know how people have done with trunk shows in June at bendels-this is for woman’s handwoven accessories…!

  12. Lisa says:

    I’m curious how Deb did at the Bendel’s trunk show in June? Did it meet your expectiations? Also, how did the Open See event go prior to scheduling the trunk show? I’m about to attend the next HB Open See and would love any input or advice.

  13. Shirley says:

    I went to HB’s Open See in October and we were invited to do a trunk show for our scarf collection which will take place just a few days before Christmas. This is our first time doing any trunk show and I’ve heard & read both disconcerting and successful stories about doing trunk shows at HB’s and I wondering if anyone had any specific advice on: what’s the best way to help publicize/market the event, what to expect from the HB clientele especially around the holidays, and if the show is a success how likely or how soon could we expect HB to place an order afterwards. I know every line is different but it would be great to hear from those who’ve gone through all of this before.

  14. KristinaV says:

    I am a interested in doing a Trunk Show at HB. How would i go about getting invovled…
    girls please share how you got your Break, and How it went. Thank you much,

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