The Digital Future of Fashion Weeks and Trade Shows

This post was originally published on InsideFMM.

stylex2012_runway_001In June 2011, Joah Spearman, co-founder and executive producer of Style X, contributed an article to the Huffington Post that asserted that fashion weeks and trade shows are industry relics soon to be replaced by digital platforms that are democratizing the fashion industry.

“Fashion week events are still everywhere and rampant with budgets,” Spearman wrote. “They represent the TV of the fashion business; yes, people still watch them and there’s still a lot of money behind them. Highly paid executives will ensure they live much longer than they have reason to. But the innovation is gone. So is the genuine intrigue and pure inspiration.”

“As for the major trade shows, the story is much the same,” he continued. “Sure, there are wholesale buyers looking for new brands to discover and designers to meet and greet. The MAGIC trade show and others of its kind will continue to exist, especially as more brands launch and seek out national retail presences. Still, with more and more brands seeking the attention of fewer and fewer buyers (at least the kind with sizable budgets), the role of the trade show is greatly diminished because small-time buyers are basing decisions on what they like and what sells, not what they saw in booth Q36 in a Las Vegas convention center.”

His assertions, of course, are highly controversial. We’ve been taught that fashion weeks and trade shows are the backbone of the fashion calendar. They are positioned as the only ways for designers to make a name for themselves in the fashion industry by getting small and large store distribution and driving consumer and celebrity demand for their product lines. Industry-only events are positioned as the premiere way to give buyers an opportunity to see seasonal merchandise in one convenient setting. More than simply a marketplace, aren’t trade shows and fashion weeks the networking hubs of the fashion industry?

digital fashion trade showsThe answer is yes, but the industry is changing. Now, in addition to trade shows and fashion weeks, there are digital platforms for buyers that give them 24/7/365 access to brands; digital extensions of established trade shows; and fashion and lifestyle components to large events like Coachcella, The Sundance Film Festival and SXSW (Style X, specifically) aimed directly connecting consumers with designers.

Can trade shows and fashion weeks be replaced?

Major players in the fashion industry don’t see fashion weeks and trade shows going anywhere. André Warren, founder and owner of the branding and marketing firm Warren Creative, has worked both sides of fashion trade shows: he was a buyer for Ron Herman, creative director for Fred Segal and a marketing executive with MAGIC trade shows. Warren told FMM that people in the fashion industry attend trade shows for many reasons.

“As a buyer, you go to a show to conduct business and write orders, but brick and mortar trade shows are a social event,” Warren said. “People walk the aisles looking for new brands, they see industry trends, connect with people they work with, go to parties at night. If you can find a brand, make a connection and get a sense of the industry, that makes a show worthwhile.”

In addition, Warren noted that clothing is such a tactile experience: at a trade show, a buyer can hold a garment, feel the fabric, the way that it’s draped, see a model wearing it. While digital platforms may offer some conveniences, they can’t put a garment in a buyer’s hand. In addition, buyers can get exposed to new trends by chance.

“Sometimes when you’re walking down an aisle, you see a booth with a bunch of people crowded around,” Warren explained. “Even if the line is not right for me, I want to see what it is. I want to know what all those people are interested in. That’s why the physical shows are important.”

Fashion weeks and trade shows are still the central focus of the buying season, but there are numerous platforms and events trying to supplement, and, if they are successful, ultimately surpass these events as the go-to resources for emerging talent and hot new brands.

1. Madison Buyer

Established in 2009, Madison Buyer was one of the first digital platforms to connect designers and buyers outside brick-and-mortar trade shows. The website charges designers a reasonable $19.95 monthly fee to showcase their collections to the retail buyers who regularly cruise the website. (The buyers get free access, ensuring that as many retailers as possible will use the website). In addition to allowing designers to display their collections online, Madison Buyer also lets them list the trade shows that they will be attending so that buyers can find them more easily.

“We needed it to be open and efficient for retailers, and remove the apprehension of being targeted for marketing emails,” Shawn Madawi, co-founder of Madison Buyer, told the editors of FMM. “To do this, we don’t require retailers to register in order to search and browse portfolios. Like the trade show floor, retailers have the freedom to engage with the designers they’re interested in.”

Outside the space where buyers and retailers interact, Madison Buyer allows fashion lovers limited access to the collections so that they can browse the offerings on the site, and then discover which retailers and e-tailers offer the products they adore. Fashion lovers can also suggest collections to retail buyers if they’d like to see something in a store nearby.

In the future, Madison Buyer seeks to become an integral part of the brick-and-mortar trade show system. “We are currently working on ways to collaborate with other trade shows as well as regional fashion shows that want to showcase designers who exhibit with them,” Madawi said. “Ultimately, our goal is to provide dedicated sections that highlight designers from different shows.”

2. The Factory People

Ronda Walker, the original founder of POOL Tradeshow, recently launched The Factory People, a social community of emerging brands, fashion addicts, wholesale buyers and boutiques. The site combines several social media tools, encouraging users to build their own profile, comment on designer products and create a virtual closet filled with all the items they see on the site that they love.

“We’ve been doing business the same way for the past 30 years and it is time to move on,” Walker said in an interview on why she created The Factory People. “Consumers only see about 10 percent of merchandise that is being designed and it is very exclusive and one-sided. Now consumers will get
a chance to view all that is being designed and vote styles into production. It also alleviates some of the risk for retailers if they know customer feedback before they choose to work with a designer or purchase stock.”

By opening the B2B experience of a trade show to customers in a virtual format, buyers get real-time feedback on what consumers like and what they want to wear—before they place their orders. In addition, the consumers are notified when lines that they like are purchased by buyers so that they can purchase them in store.

“Clothes are designed 24/7 and we should have access to these designs 24/7,” Walker said. “We need a much faster turnaround from designs being created to production and getting them to market for customers. Retailers and consumers are going to be influenced internationally because of The Factory and the technology and social media that drives it. A site like this pulls everyone together through technology and will change the face of fashion.”

“The Factory People is very consumer centered, very interesting,” Warren said. “It’s like a virtual trade show but has a consumer facing element wrapped in a consumer social network. That sense of community is something that needs to be baked into virtual trade shows. One of the main reasons people go to virtual trade shows is to connect, share ideas.”

3. Joor

Similar to The Factory People but more exclusive, the carefully-curated site Joor raised $2.5 million last year to develop its online tradeshow. Founder Mona Bijoor, who worked as a buyer for CHANEL, Elie Tahari, Cynthia Rowley, Mimi Maternity and Ann Taylor, is expanding internationally and growing the Joor network of boutiques, buyers and fashion brands.

The Joor marketplace is strictly B2B, available only to accepted members. It connects brands, independent boutiques and wholesale buyers with a platform structured so that they can buy and sell online. What does Joor offer that other digital platforms don’t? Its network. In 2011, the platform had signed 250 brands and more than 7,500 boutiques.

Warren thinks that having a relationship with a brand prior to joining a digital platform will make the transition to buying online more fluid.

“Buyers are very eager to do replenishment orders,” Warren said. “If they are already doing business with a brand, they are more likely to go into a portal and place an order with someone they already do business with. It’s less of an emotional hurdle. They have a relationship with the company, they know they’re going to ship.”

4. e-Pitti

Florence, Italy based Pitti Immagine, which produces an established series of fashion trade shows, launched a digital extension of its brick-and-mortar trade show experience last year, Seventy percent of the show’s exhibitors joined the platform, which features branded digital showrooms and 360 degree views of the garments on display, according to Business of Fashion. E-Pitti’s online fairs are time-limited, they display collections one-two months after they are available on the show.

“They send photographers to take pictures of all the booths, and then for one month after show, registered buyers can visit the trade show in virtual space,” Warren said. “They only do it for a month, which keeps it exclusive and time sensitive.”

In addition to the time-limited online fairs, e-Pitti also offers an online showroom where participating brands can feature their lines for 12 months after the show, with tools that allows brands to negotiate and take orders online. Pitti Imagine is positioned perfectly to successfully execute a brick-and-mortar tradeshow with a fully integrated digital component. Hosting events since the 1950s, the Pitti Immagine shows are arguably the top trade shows in the world.

5. MAGIC’s “Shop The Floor”

When Advanstar, the company behind MAGIC trade show, named Tom Florio CEO of Fashion, the company also announced its upcoming digital platform The new platform will be a digital extension of its brick-and-mortar trade show, available 24/7/365. The site will connect vendors and retailers year-round, while also connecting brands directly with consumers. The public will be able to mix and match pieces they like, creating looks on each brand’s dedicated channel.

“It will completely revolutionize the B2B experience,” Joe Loggia, CEO of Advanstar, told WWD. “It will extend the buying, selling, networking and collaborating in our industry to 365 days a year.”

6. MeliModa

Launched this February, MeliModa is an online trade show platform that allows brands to sign up, post line sheets, catalogues and connect with retail buyers from all over the world in order to get their lines in stores more effectively. In addition, the site has a strong consumer e-commerce section, offering the public instant access to the newest styles, the opportunity to pre-order merchandise and the ability to earn points or cash. Consumers vote on their favorite pieces and pre-order items, giving brands early feedback on which items are most popular, which allows retailers to make more informed decisions for their boutiques.

Sotiria Krikelis, co-founder of MeliModa, told the editors of FMM that the site also has a strong social component that is already integrated to external social networks including Twitter and Facebook.

“We’ve included all social networks on MeliModa so you can easily share your favorite designs,” Krikelis said. “You can share images and collections on Facebook and Twitter. We also have our own internal Twitter system. Basically, any user can follow one another user on MeliModa, and you can also post updates which will appear in the timeline. Whenever a new brand signs up or uploads a new collection, this appears on everyone’s timeline automatically.”

In addition to B2B and B2C social e-commerce and sharing, MeliModa is planning to produce live events including fashion industry panels and trunk shows; a B2B directory that includes manufacturers, PR firms and photographers; and a strong overseas presence. Brands currently on MeliModa include Julianna Bass, Fena and Althea Harper, a Project Runway finalist.

7. Boutique Fashion Brokers

The newest platform of the bunch launched last month. Boutique Fashion Brokers was created by former model Kassondra Dyebo started the site as a way to cut costs and improve visibility for up-and-coming designers. Rather than discourage attendance at brick and mortar trade shows, Dyebo’s brand pages list every scheduled appearance so that buyers can see every opportunity to see a collection in person. The site charges designers a $25 monthly fee and a 3 percent commission on all sales.

8. Style X

SXSW, the leading music, technology and film trade show in the US, has become a destination for luxury and premium brands focused on becoming lifestyle brands. This year, SXSW made Style X (pronounced “style by”), the official fashion and lifestyle component of its show. While Style X is not a digital platform, but it grew out of the digital and DIY cultures and aims to change the way that the fashion industry does business. The event transforms the Austin Convention Center into an indie mall with 55 emerging international brands and designers featuring women’s and men’s apparel and accessories from around the world.

Style X founder Joah Spearman receives more than 200 applications from places like Tokyo, Paris and London, as well as throughout the 50 states. The applicants are required to be buzzworthy but not mainstream, something a musician might wear, and have the ability to sell multiples of their goods online.

Spearman and runway producer Amal Safdar coordinated two fashion shows featuring 65 SXSW musicians instead of traditional models. The entire event is open to the public and geared toward consumers instead of buyers and press.

“The idea of seasons and buying cycles is becoming outdated, thanks to the Internet, which has democratized fashion and changed the way people shop forever,” said Spearman. “We want to give designers a chance to be directly in front of the consumer, much like they are online. We want them to be able to see something on the runway and turn around to buy it right then and there.”

Style X also featured panel discussions with experts from companies like Neiman Marcus, The Huffington Post and The first year of the event drew 16,000 shoppers over the course of two days and $25,000 in product sales. Aside from bloggers, indie brands and magazines, brand executives from Neiman Marcus, ASOS, Project Trade Show, American Eagle, GAP and Conde Nast were spotted on the floor observing the growth of the event.

Seasonal collections versus 24/7/365

What happens to the traditional buying season? What happens to the landmarks that the fashion industry holds onto? On the surface, giving customers and buyers year-round access to emerging designers and brands seems like it could only help them grow and prosper. Warren points out, however, that if designers are connected to buyers all the time, they have to deliver all the time, and this can put a strain on smaller companies who struggle to gather enough resources to produce a seasonal collection. If a buyer places an order that the company can’t fill, this will hurt them more in the long run than having to wait for a spot on a trade show floor.

Still, these concerns won’t stop the fashion industry as a whole from adopting these new technologies and eventually incorporating them into the buying cycle. “It’s an untapped market to a large degree, so everyone is rushing to it,” Warren said. “The platform that gains traction with brands and buyers is the one that’s going to be the industry standard. So much of the trade show experience is about finding something cool. New platforms will not just need to be social, but deliver excitement. Shows are ultimately about discovery, about finding the next thing. Any platform that can provide that, be a source of excitement, will be successful.”

What is the future of fashion weeks and trade shows?

There will obviously be some shifts in thinking as virtual trade shows develop. Warren theorizes that the adoption curve will be similar to the adoption curve of online shopping. “In the beginning, people didn’t want to give up their credit card information to an online retailer, but now it’s commonplace. Digital platforms are an extension of brick and mortar trade shows, definitely around the corner.”

Does this mean the end of fashion weeks and trade shows? No, but it does mean that their role in the industry will shift, according to Warren. “Online stores are becoming more like brick and mortar, and brick and mortar trying to become more like online,” Warren said. “The same thing will probably happen with trade shows– more brick and mortar trade shows will start incorporating digital, and digital needs to incorporate elements of live, so they will have to meet in the middle to be successful. With digital, you can change direction with a keystroke. With brick and mortar things take time.”

There will obviously be some shifts in thinking as virtual trade shows develop. Warren theorizes that the adoption curve will be similar to the adoption curve of online shopping. “In the beginning, people didn’t want to give up their credit card information to an online retailer, but now it’s commonplace.”

Digital platforms designed for buyers and online trade shows can’t replace live trade shows yet, but they can give emerging designers an opportunity to connect with customers and buyers in a way that wasn’t possible 20 years ago. Emerging designers will be able to gain valuable feedback from customers and buyers before deciding to invest in a trade show presence. Buyers can now see customers’ reaction to a line before they purchase. Buying cycles will begin to bleed into each other with 24/7/365 access.

What do you think of digital trade shows? Will they change the way that you do business?

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