Trade Show Report

Fashion Market Northern California Going Gangbusters

By Deborah Belgum | Thursday, October 24, 2013

SAN MATEO, Calif.—The ever-growing Fashion Market Northern California just got bigger.

The five-times-a-year show broke all records with 252 exhibitors showing at the Oct. 20–22 event, held at the San Mateo Event Center. One year ago, there were 222 exhibitors. Organizers said buyer traffic was running equal to last year but did not give specific numbers.

The show’s executive director, Suzanne De Groot, was upbeat about buyer traffic for the three-day Spring ’14 fashion market that caters to specialty boutiques located primarily in Northern California, Oregon and Washington.

“The show has been doing very well,” she said. “We are definitely a little bit up from last year.”

Buyer traffic was robust the first day, a Sunday, but many vendors said it dropped off during the next two days as a transportation strike affecting the area’s BART commuter rail service caused the area’s highways to be clogged with motorists.

“Sunday I had the best day I’ve ever had in San Mateo. I was so busy I didn’t even look up,” said Melody Fast of Melody Fast Sales in the California Market Center in Los Angeles. She represents womenswear lines including Art of Cloth, Mill Valley and Oh My Gauze. “On Monday it was consistent but not as crazy.”

Traffic was so much of a concern on Monday that one retailer skedaddled out of the show at 1 p.m. to avoid a looming traffic nightmare.

The vast exhibition floor was almost a tale of two trade shows. Some aisles were hopping with buyer activity. Other aisles were quiet. And no one could explain why this was happening. “The traffic is really off,” complained Lori Marchand, whose Impulse Moda showroom is located at the Gerry Building in downtown Los Angeles. “I thought it was going to be jamming.”

Nearby vendors agreed with her. “We are wondering if the BART strike has affected the show,” said Judy Kurgan, whose Judy Kurgan Sales showroom is in the California Market Center.

But three aisles over, Linda French—who represents labels including Stop Staring!, Color Me Cotton and Effie’s Heart—barely had time to talk. “I’m slammed,” she said, dashing to pluck several dresses off clothing racks to show buyers.

Pat Muller was hunched over her worktable, doing paperwork to keep up with the orders she had placed. “This has been a fabulous show. I’ve worked with several boutiques, catalogs such as Gump’s and TravelSmith, and opened up new accounts,” she said.

Her outerwear lines, including fleece-heavy Janska, are colorful and made in the USA. Her Goddess Gear is made of natural and organic fibers and also is made in the United States. Wholesale prices range from $60 to $115. “I have a lot of company brands from the United States, and that is a plus,” Muller noted.

Roni Arteaga, the West Coast sales manager of Los Angeles–based XCVI and Wearables by XCVI, said she had a super-busy Sunday. Monday was more mellow. Wearables, which has more classic silhouettes, wholesales for $29 to $45, and XCVI is more trend-driven and wholesales for $34 to $75. The label has gotten some buzz recently for having been seen earlier this fall on the TV show “America’s Next Top Model.” “I have opened up four new accounts. So there are people shopping,” Arteaga said.

Location, location, location
Everyone agreed that Fashion Market Northern California—a venue for womenswear lines, accessories, footwear, jewelry and loungewear—is one of the better-organized shows and has proven to be in an easy location for buyers and representatives to attend.

For years, it was located in San Francisco at The Concourse, a South of Market artsy district that was long on urban chic but short on convenient parking and easy access. In 2008, the show relocated to the San Mateo Event Center, which has an extensive asphalt parking lot that can accommodate hundreds of cars and is located close to the 101 Freeway.

In the back of the event floor is a restaurant that serves reasonably priced lunches. And at 3 p.m., the show’s organizers wheel a food cart around with free cookies. Coffee, tea and lemonade are available in the back.

This year, the organizers decided to extend Monday’s closing hour from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. to serve free wine between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. while buyers shopped the extra hour. On Tuesday, buyer parking, which normally costs $10 a day, was free.

Jo Ellen Newton, owner of Coco Gets Dressed in Portland, Ore., said this is her favorite market. “This is the show I make time for. I come here twice a year,” she said.

Carol Munson does most of her retail buying in San Mateo. “I fill up my whole store with the merchandise I buy here,” said the owner of Fifth Street Clothing Co., a boutique she has owned for 36 years in Chico, Calif. “All the labels I like to stock are here—Eileen Fisher, Barbara Lesser, Karen Kane and JAG Jeans.”

Budget Watch

Northern California is an attractive market for brands that cater to a casual lifestyle with an artistic flair. It is also an area where the economy is bolstered by growing tech companies and tech innovations. Facebook‘s headquarters are a few miles down the road in Menlo Park, Calif., and Google‘s headquarters are a few miles farther away in Mountain View, Calif.

For the most part, store owners at the show were upbeat about the economy and felt their customers were back to spending money on clothes. But retailers were still playing cautious with their budgets.

“Customers are feeling confident. They are shopping. They are happy, and they are spending money,” said Melanie Goodpasture, who recently bought the Silk Moon Gallery, a boutique in the artsy town of Sebastopol, Calif.

But she is still being conservative and stocking her 3,000-square-foot store with casual and ethnic items that sell for under $100.

Coco Gets Dressed’s Newton sees shoppers spending more. But she too is being cautious about price points, keeping her items under $200.

“We are very much a boutique store. We don’t sell a lot of basics,” she said. “We do dressy. But if it is dressy, it has to go with denim.”