Pity the emerging young fashion designer. The talent has never been better but business has never been tougher. Recessionary cuts have meant buyers taking fewer risks on the brands they stock. Out go the innovative wonder-kids teetering on the brink of mainstream success and in come the super-brands who shift handbags and accessories in high volume. It’s enough to make a young designer hang up his Fiskars shears in defeat.
Yet there is another way. Private sales and trunk shows are growing in popularity as a win-win solution for designers, retailers and customers. Elise Overland, a Norwegian designer whose luxury leathers and cocktail dresses are stocked at Harvey Nichols, frequently hosts sales in the UK homes of her well-to-do international clients. These social sales are a gathering of like-minded affluent spenders, many of them from Russia or the Middle East. Rails of next-season clothes, canapés and chit-chat are a winning combination which results in multiple pre-orders for Overland and also serves as a handy feedback tool for the designer, who recalls her customers’ comments when designing future collections. Another plus point: taking the store out of the equation means a chunk of the price can be discounted. Let’s be honest, however wealthy, everyone loves a bargain.
“Personal order is more intimate,” explains British designer Joanna Sykes, whose geometric tailoring is a hit with her career women customer base. “It’s an opportunity for people who wouldn’t try my stuff in stores to try it in a different, more intimate environment. It’s great for business and it gives my immediate network access at a reasonable price.” Sykes co-hosted a recent sale with three other designers including a jeweller and a hat designer. By pooling their mailing lists and resources, they hired a room in a Mayfair hotel, creating an intimate and fun luxury retail experience.
Celebrated London boutique, Browns has been holding trunk shows in its South Molton Street store since 1986, when owner Joan Burstein introduced Donna Karan to the UK. Recently, knitwear extraordinaire Mark Fast and stylist-turned-shoe-designer Tabitha Simmons have benefited from the Browns trunk show experience. These meet-the-designer instore events are reserved for the very top-spending customers on the stores’ mailing lists and are effectively an exclusive club where customers get to meet the designer and have them advise them personally on their purchase. Throw the odd fashion-hungry celebrity in the mix and the store gets a nice bit of publicity as well. Matthew Williamson is an advocate of the all-singing trunk show, holding them in his London and New York stores as well as in further afield locations like Cairo. “Having Matthew there certainly motivates the customers, especially when looking at high value goods such as the heavily embellished dresses or fur pieces,” says Rachel Brandrick, Matthew Williamson’s head of communications. “We don’t make the aim of the event to sell. It’s more about thanking the customers and generating interest for them to come back another time, but Matthew’s presence sometimes tips the decision-making and we see more sales on the night. He speaks to all the customers; sometimes they’re too shy to approach and other times they’re dragging him into the changing room!”
The personality of the designer is key. Last year Alber Elbaz launched his Mount Street Lanvin store with an event attended by London’s most fashion-fabulous. As well as a fashion show presenting his spring-summer collection, he talked his guests through each outfit, sharing stories about their creation and telling anecdotes about his fashion life. Naturally the tills went crazy. Well, it must be pretty hard to resist a purchase when Alber himself is fluffing up your skirts.
It’s not only clothing that merits the trunk show experience. Jewellery designers have found these soirees a great opportunity to get close to their fans and can often tailor their pieces to a customer’s requirements. “Trunk shows are an exciting and exclusive way of shopping,” offers Ruth Sibald, director of contemporary jewellers, Zoe & Morgan, who have a succession of trunk shows planned with Matches for October. “They also give us a chance to meet the customer while giving them a greater sense of the brand and meanings behind the design of each piece.” Luxury jeweller Astley Clarke recently laid on high tea and cocktails at its London showroom for customers to meet its creative director and four of its designer jewellers. The relaxed, alcohol-fuelled atmosphere and stealth peer pressure is pretty much guaranteed to add up to a sale or ten.
For the retailer, trunk shows are a chance to complement the online experience by nurturing personal relationships with their customers. “For us, trunk shows are about developing lifetime relationships with our clients, “ says Marigay McKee, fashion and beauty director at Harrods, who recently hosted an intimate VIP lunch with trunk show veteran Oscar de la Renta. “Our sales associates work to a mantra of 'anything is possible,' giving that feeling of exclusivity, a personal touch and a pivotal point of difference in an industry that is constantly evolving. It also gives brands the opportunity to work closely with our top tier customers, and better understand their clients at Harrods.” The message is clear. If you want a slice of the exclusive-access pie, it’s time to get your name on those VIP lists.