Designers & Agents is growing by leaps and bounds, appealing to the fashionably minded on both coasts and on two continents.

As trade shows scramble to generate excitement — and sales —Designers & Agents faces the new year empowered by escalating interest, rapid expansion and a formula that appears to do no wrong.

Recent inroads into Tokyo and New York have upped the ante at the young designer and contemporary-minded trade show, which has become a phenom of sorts since setting up shop in 1997 at the New Mart during the Los Angeles market week. Its curated roster of vendors — featured in an environment complete with DJ-burned soundtracks, fresh flowers, midcentury-modern furniture and end-of-the-day margarita mixers — has made the show an attraction for more than just buyers: Stylists, editors and even a rock star or two have cruised the show’s aisles.

"Yes, Sheryl Crow came to check out the fashion," admitted Ed Mandelbaum at the October Los Angeles show. He founded D&A with Barbara Kramer when the pair were looking for space in Los Angeles to show a handful of lines. But it was the representatives from retailers such as Harvey Nichols, Barneys New York, Henri Bendel and Fred Segal that appeared to excite the duo even more.

"This show offers an opportunity for emerging designers with a distinctive point of view to establish and brand their businesses. And retailers today are really looking for lines like that," Kramer said. "Something’s happening inside this young designer-contemporary marketplace. And we are here in support of this market."

This year, D&A and its smaller Annex shows nearly tripled its installments from four to 11 over the three cities. It also expanded its floor footage by adding in Los Angeles the recently refurbished Cooper Building penthouse, a short skip from the New Mart; and in Tokyo, it’s relocating to a larger, more centralized space in the Bell Commons building in Aoyama.

In 2003, D&A will appear twice in Tokyo, five times in Los Angeles and four times in New York. During the first half of 2003, the Annex is slated for Jan. 12-14 in New York and Jan. 17-20 in Los Angeles. D&A happens Feb. 24-26 in New York, Mar. 25-27 in Tokyo and April 4-7 in Los Angeles.But first on the list are the events spurred by an unusual partnership between D&A and sponsors Elle and Chrysler. Following a successful pairing on opening night of October’s New York show, the trio return for a contest in which they’ve asked participating U.S.-based exhibitors to design something that could be worn while driving in a Chrysler Sebring. Three semifinalists have emerged from the first round. Elle readers vote online this month at for the final winner, whose product will be produced and sold through retailers nationwide. The sponsors will be on hand at a February party in New York, but it’s not until the April market in Los Angeles when the winner will be feted at an opening-night bash at the Cooper Building (intended to lure even more guests to the newer secondary building).

California-based and -producing D&A vendors also have the opportunity to vie for one of 20 slots in a program sponsored by federal and state government agencies, including the Long Beach, Calif.-based World Trade Center Association’s new Export by Design arm. Chosen participants will have access to experts who can advise them on logistics, trademarking, financing and other related issues. The program is waiving the previous requirement that a company must be at least at the $1 million sales mark. "As long as they’re dedicated, we’re taking them on," said Alexander Kramer, executive vice president of international trade of the WTCA’s Los Angeles chapter (and no relation to Barbara).

The alliance between D&A and the various agencies came about "thanks to Ed and Barbara," he added. The organization also hosts a retail and press reception at D&A’s Tokyo shows designed to break the ice between both cultures. Along those lines, D&A hires translators at the Tokyo shows to facilitate business transactions between exhibitors and visitors.

"It really creates a sense of community among the vendors and retailing community," said D&A’s Kramer, "and that’s what Ed and I really work hard to create — a working environment which has a really positive energy." Which is why she always burns sage on opening day.

Sure, there are growing pains. The Dallas stop was cut after two shows when it was determined the show wasn’t the right fit for the market there.And some designers exhibiting at Los Angeles’ Cooper Building this fall grumbled that traffic was lighter than at the New Mart.

"I think what gets people in trouble is expectations," Mandelbaum said. "Five years ago, the first time we did the New Mart, we had eight booths and 175 visitors. This time, in the new Cooper Building space, we saw 50 exhibitors and 555 people come through. With both buildings we saw a total of 1,700 visitors — three times the number we saw last year. Each time we do a show, we improve it. We’re very committed to improvement."

The pair are also committed to handpicking each vendor. "We ask, ‘Does this product stand on its own? Is it a collection that’s going to expand and elevate Designers & Agents?’" explained Kramer. "We really try not to saturate a category. Our approach is very similar to a retail buyer’s. We reserve the right not to invite a company back."

In the coming year, the offerings will expand into areas outside of apparel, accessories and footwear into "lifestyle" products that Kramer and Mandelbaum believe are a continuation of a fashion sensibility. Scents, soaps, stationery and small home furnishings may appear as soon as February’s New York show.

"We believe retailers are increasingly moving into a lifestyle direction," said Mandelbaum. We’re looking for items that will bring customers into stores, make the mix more interesting."

Added Kramer: "The worse thing that can happen is for our show to become stagnant and for buyers to feel they’ve been here, done that."

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