Byline: Arthur Friedman and Dianne M. Pogoda

NEW YORK--No more TGIF--not this week, anyway.
Because of the prolonged nosedive in apparel business, some showrooms are about to embark on an experimental weekend opening and will welcome buyers this coming Saturday and Sunday.
The New York Fashion Council, in cooperation with the Fashion Center Business Improvement District, has arranged to keep 14 major showroom buildings on
Seventh Avenue, Broadway and side streets open this weekend--coinciding with the start of several trade shows and the first fall market.
It is the first time the industry has made a concerted effort to promote weekend business in the showrooms. Trade shows have often operated on one or both weekend days during key markets.
Supporters of the weekend plan say it will make buyers' trips to New York more productive, and give them more options for doing business. The trade show organizers say the weekend openings aren't necessary. They also say such openings will have little or no effect on their exhibitions.
Barbara Randall, executive director of the FCBID, said about 50 companies have committed to opening their showrooms over the inaugural weekend. "Our goal is to make New York more user-friendly for out-of-town retailers--and help facilitate their visits here," Randall said. "The regional marts are an easy trip for buyers because everything is under one roof and all the amenities are there. We want to make New York one big outdoor mart."
The FCBID estimates 22,000 buyers from here and abroad make at least one trip a year to New York.
The FCBID and Fashion Council made 5,000 postcards available for manufacturers to send to buyers, alerting them that the showrooms would be open on Saturday and Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Buildings participating this weekend are 498, 500, 501, 512, 525, 530 and 550 Seventh Ave.; 1375, 1400, 1410 and 1450 Broadway; 209 West 38th St., 214 West 39th St. and 249 West 39th St.
The groups placed posters in building lobbies informing tenants of the weekend promotion, and during the first week of February, students from the Fashion Institute of Technology, dressed in Fashion Center T-shirts and hats, visited the participating buildings, distributing literature and answering questions.
The FCBID and Fashion Council are providing some special services over the weekend:
* Shuttle buses bearing Fashion Center banners will ferry buyers between the trade shows venues (the Plaza Hotel, Hotel Intercontinental, Essex House Hotel, Waldorf Astoria and the New York Coliseum) and the fashion district on the half hour.
* Complementary coffee, danish and Evian water will be available in building lobbies. Evian is a corporate sponsor of the weekend. FIT students will act as hosts and hostesses, providing information about the showrooms open in each building.
* The first 150 buyers to show up at each of the 14 buildings will be given New York "survival packs," which include a designer toothbrush, a bottle of Evian, a Fashion Center T-shirt, a packet of Tylenol, a copy of the Sales & Bargains Report and a Reebok Sports Club/NY Pass, all in a white canvas tote bag from Wellman.
FCBID security and sanitation will work with full crews during the weekend, and its offices at 249 West 39th St. will be open to provide buyers with information about the district, restaurants, hotels and entertainment around town.
Ruth Finley, executive director of the Fashion Council, said the group aims to orchestrate the openings during the five key market periods.
"Manufacturers are very excited about it," she said. "After all, they pay high rent, and they want to make good use of their space when the buyers are in town. After this weekend is over, we'll evaluate it and decide whether to continue. But most manufacturers say they want [the openings] on a regular basis."
Finley said there have always been a few showrooms open on weekends, but added, "It's been pretty quiet."
"Now," she said, "we are really promoting it."
Finley said there had been some resistance to weekend openings because people here were reluctant to work on Saturday and Sunday. The slowdown in business changed a lot of minds.
"Now they need to boost business in any way they can," Finley said.
The weekend idea has worked for apparel marts in other cities, including Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta, for many years.
"It is an experiment right now, but the feedback from manufacturers has been nothing but positive," said Alan Sealove, president of the New York Fashion Council and a partner in Victoria Royal, an eveningwear firm at 530 Seventh Ave. "People are telling us this is something we should have done years ago."
Sealove said the program makes the trip to Manhattan more convenient and productive.
"This way, the weekend days aren't wasted," he said, adding that Saturday night stay-overs offer savings on airfare.
Showrooms generally will be staffed with sales personnel, and some employees in the design studios will be in the offices. It is up to individual firms to decide if they will compensate their workers for the weekend duty, but there is no extra cost for opening the showroom on the additional days, Sealove said.
"It's incredibly important that we're doing this," said designer Steve Fabrikant, a Fashion Council board member. "I compare it to the New York Marathon. The first time, there were maybe 100 runners, and now everybody wants to do it. I think that's the way the weekend showroom openings will evolve. The future of our industry here is making things more convenient and more of an event for buyers."
Fabrikant said he has several appointments set for Saturday and Sunday, some with major accounts. He said the weekend schedule will allow him to devote more attention to those stores. He also acknowledged the possibility of seeing some new accounts that may come in only on the weekends to attend the trade shows, and may wander over to Seventh Avenue.
"I see this expanding to 10 or 12 times a year," Fabrikant said. "It's a reaction to the times. You can't do business the old-fashioned way any more."
Nella Hahn, president of the women's division of Augustus Clothiers, said she's all for the weekend openings, but it has presented her with a dilemma. For the third season, Augustus will participate at the Fashion Coterie trade show, which begins on Sunday, but will staff its showroom at 530 Seventh Ave. on Saturday.
"We do so much business at the Coterie, but I really want to support the efforts of the Fashion Council and Seventh Avenue," Hahn said. "We always have a couple of stores who like to come to the showroom on Saturday and preview before the show anyway. I think the weekend openings is a great idea--if the buyers show up. If it works, eventually, we won't have to move our entire line into a hotel room, which is very expensive and time-consuming."
Hahn said it makes sense for New York vendors to come together to battle the regional marts and overall retail malaise, and she thinks the creation of the FCBID is a way to do that.
"It's going to put a lot more excitement into Seventh Avenue," Hahn said. "It will create a more cohesive feeling of camaraderie."
The trade shows, meanwhile, offer a potential point of controversy.
"Trade show promoters could look at the weekend openings as a positive--that this will bring more traffic," said the Fashion Council's Sealove. "But they could also see it as a negative. For instance, why would a New York-based manufacturer take a space at a show when he can do business in his showroom? But we haven't heard from the trade shows about this at all."
As might be expected, trade show promoters expressed confidence that the weekend openings would not affect buyer or exhibitor attendance.
"If anything, the showrooms are opening because the hotel shows have impacted the manufacturers," said Debra LaChance, president of StyleWorks, which produces five shows a year at the Hotel Intercontinental here. This week's edition--running Feb. 24-26--is new, and the first time the show is being held in February.
"Not one manufacturer has dropped out of my show, and many are based here," said LaChance. "We've grown to 370 designers from 220. The bottom line is that the buyers need to have it easy. They don't have the time or money to come in and stay for a long time, and they can't be running all over the place. They need an easy-access venue with a very focused show. If they have time, after everything else is finished, they might go to Seventh Avenue."
Elyse Kroll, whose Fashion Coterie show runs Sunday through Tuesday at the Plaza, concurred that she doesn't expect the open showrooms to affect her production. Fashion Coterie is a juried show, and exhibitor space is fully booked, with a waiting list, she said. There are 400 companies showing their wares.
Jonathan Larkin, president of The Larkin Group, which produces several apparel and textile shows at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, said the retailers don't have enough time to cover all the resources at his shows, let alone go to Seventh Avenue.
"Buyers have said they wished our shows were open longer because they're so big," said Larkin, who does not have a show running this weekend. "The open-booth format with a large number of resources is the most cost-effective use of the buyers' time."
Larkin said the only way the open showrooms will keep buyers in town longer is if individual manufacturers make appointments for the weekend days. Because of the nature of the buildings, they most likely will not draw walk-through traffic, he said.
Still, makers and out-of-town observers generally feel the weekend openings are a smart move.
"They realized it's the Nineties and you try to do as much business as possible," said Robbin Wells, senior vice president of marketing at the Dallas Market Center, which includes the International Apparel Mart. "It makes complete sense that they open."
Wells noted the trade shows are open over the weekend in New York, and that a showroom that's closed and doesn't participate in a trade show is losing potential business.
"The concept has worked in Dallas for 30 years to be open over the weekend," Wells said. "It's a good time to do business."

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