By  on August 23, 2007

Geeks are in, and what better venue to celebrate their new vogue than at a gathering of the apparel industry's most forward labels.

ASUSTeK Computer Inc., a $17.2 billion Taiwanese manufacturer of motherboards, graphics cards and wireless equipment, will be the presenting sponsor at the Project Global Trade Show in Las Vegas, creating the scene for the VIP and Internet lounges and giving away four laptops during the three-day show held Monday to Thursday at the Sands Expo and Convention Center. As a top provider of PC's in Europe and Asia, ASUS is seeking a bigger foothold in the United States for its sleek notebooks, such as the S6 11.1-inch model, crafted with hand-embossed pink leather, jeweled hinges and a polished keyboard, and currently selling on Target's Web site for $2,200.

How these two seemingly diverse worlds intersected provides yet another example of Project's scope. Microsoft executives recently walked the New York show and approached Project about the idea of bringing ASUS on board, said Sherrie Krantz, Project's executive vice president. Microsoft provides the software for ASUS notebooks, which are powered by Intel chips.

"We're approached to do different things and, unless it makes sense for the show, we won't bite, but this was a no-brainer," Krantz said. "The product is beautiful and to be in the same sentence with ASUS, Microsoft and Intel shows we've really tapped into something."

"We" means Sam Ben-Avraham, who founded the show in 2003 and sold it two years ago to Advanstar Communications Inc., which also owns the MAGIC Marketplace. Advanstar's holding company was taken private last May through a takeover by an investor group led by Veronis Suhler Stevenson for $1.14 billion. The new ownership will not have a "direct impact on the management of the show," said Laura McConnell, Advanstar's executive vice president of the fashion group. But, change has been afoot.

Project, which used to operate out of a separate office in New York, has relocated to Advanstar's New York location "to encourage integration and capitalize on shared resources," McConnell said. And Miami Marketing Group and Access West Marketing have been contracted to handle sponsorships, previously an in-house responsibility.

At least for now, the August event seems to be in status quo mode when it comes to size and restrained when it comes to festivities, with only one big bash officially planned. Over the years, the show has broadened its scope beyond denim and related items to appeal to nondenim companies, and in turn has grown more than 16-fold, to last February's 500,000-square-foot showcase of about 1,200 vendors."This is a manageable size for the buyers," said Ben-Avraham, now president of Project. "A bigger space will jeopardize the vision, and we're not looking to do that."

Advanstar has its own take on the show's growth. "[Project] has not reached its cap size, and we will continue to look for ways to maximize the revenue growth of the business," McConnell said.

Hall A will focus on men's, and about one-third of the show remains

devoted to women's, which will occupy Hall C and part of Hall B, drawing lines like Trina Turk, Ella Moss and Mon Petit Oiseau along with show newcomers LaROK, Filly, Karen Zambos, Amo & Bretti and Habitual. New York-based LaROK, owned by Koral Industries, which has built a celebrity following the past three years for its spirited contemporary line featuring sequin tunic tops and jersey dresses with cut-out details, wants to open new accounts and cater to its international clientele at the show.

"This is a very important contemporary show which services people both on the East Coast and West Coast as well as the international market," said Michele Reich, vice president of sales for LaROK, which will show its resort and early spring collection at Project.

Emily Christensen, owner and designer of San Francisco-based Filly, chose to exhibit her two-year-old dress, skirt and top line at Project over MAGIC and the indie-spirited Pool show.

"I felt like MAGIC was too overwhelming and Pool was too young for me," said Christensen, whose line wholesales from $30 for tops to $85 for dresses. "Project's a good in-between slot."

Many Project newcomers are trying to break into more boutiques. Vanitas of California, a two-year-old dress line sold at select Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's doors and about 60 specialty stores, including Planet Blue in Malibu, Calif., will attend Project for the first time.

"Just relying on the L.A. market is unpredictable," said Taryn Band, who owns Vanitas with Jennifer Band and Katie Wacha. "We want more West Coast business."

Denim now accounts for just 20 percent of the vendors at Project, including stalwarts Seven For All Mankind, Antik Denim, True Religion and Paige Premium Denim. New lines are hard to come by, said Ben-Avraham, as many retailers are pruning brands."We haven't seen new denim companies coming on board, maybe one per season," he said. "Retailers are getting pickier. Their budgets are staying the same. They just may be working with 25 companies instead of 40."

Like many companies, Project took the plunge into the kids market two seasons ago, bringing on tot-size lines from Chip & Pepper Kids and Obey, but now plans to lay low until it develops a new strategy for the segment.

"Everyone was jumping into kids and liked the price points, but very few stores can sell $150 jeans...so for now, we're trying to figure out how to handle it," he said.

For those in the know, Project is a show in step with the Las Vegas lifestyle, typically filled with parties (three last August), music and alcohol flowing from 4 to 7 p.m. The upcoming show, however, scales back the entertainment to one fiesta (sponsored by Eclipse Noir, WWD and DNR) on opening night, starting at 10 p.m. at the Tao Asian Bistro and Nightclub in the Venetian. That time slot means no food, but Project has upped the cool quotient with DJ Samantha Ronson. (A smaller, less promoted set-up party on Sunday night allows exhibitors to relax with dinner and mojitos at Tao Beach.)

"We're trying to be funky, friendly and business-oriented, and the key is striking a balance," Ben-Avraham said.

An appealing environment is still the m.o. at Project. A palette of soft beige, cream, gray and pink offset with tattoo-print carpets, crystal chandeliers and mirrored glass furniture will keep the women's side looking fashionably laid-back, as will beach corners decked out with hammocks. Nylon will sponsor the Women's Pavilion lounge, offering makeovers from two makeup artists, as well as the Men's Pavilion lounge, where Nylon TV will be filming. The Dean Martin lounge, courtesy of EMI Music, will pump songs from a new duets collection called "More About Forever Cool" and stream Dino video on a plasma screen.

Although some attendees and retailers bemoan the show's growth, which includes those custom-designed booths that are de rigueur at MAGIC and now make up about 50 percent of Project, they also say Project's expansion is a way to draw more business. The number of retailers attending is expected to increase by 20 percent to more than 25,000, said Ben-Avraham."It's very overwhelming since it's so massive, but I guess the more you have, the bigger the selection," said Fraser Ross, owner of Kitson, Kitson Men, Kitson Kids, Kitson Studio and a new 7,000-square-foot store opening on L.A.'s Melrose Avenue in December.

Project is elevating the attendee experience with a VIP buyers program. Retailers can stay at the THEhotel at Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino, enjoy lavish breakfasts in the Penthouse and attend cocktail parties Monday and Tuesday nights.

"It's all about taking good care of the retailers and taking the show to the next level," Krantz said.

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