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Expert Advice: Stand Out In A Crowd

Who isn’t starting an accessories line these days? Along with high-profile entrants such as Gwen Stefani, the sector is teeming with newcomers looking to eke out some space on already overcrowded retail shelves.<br><br>Many view the $30 billion...

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Who isn’t starting an accessories line these days? Along with high-profile entrants such as Gwen Stefani, the sector is teeming with newcomers looking to eke out some space on already overcrowded retail shelves.

This story first appeared in the March 31, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Many view the $30 billion dollar industry easier to enter than apparel, for instance, which requires more technical skills of fabric construction and sizing, and a larger outlay of raw materials. Many think they can start a jewelry business in their living room with just an idea and some gems, and some do just that.

Cynthia O’Connor, president of Cynthia O’Connor showroom, said: “I get 25 calls a day from new people. A lot of people are laid off and frustrated that they are not working now, and think it’s easy to string beads at home and start a jewelry business.”

Nonetheless, the last four years have been particularly robust for all manner of accessories, causing many stores to increase the amount of space and open-to-buy dollars they give the sector. Handbags, jewelry, watches and scarves have been standout classifications for retailers, and since they usually carry higher margins than apparel, stores often are willing to take more chances on unknown designers. There are less demands from factories for minimum orders and the entrepreneurial spirit still runs strong.

“There is huge [interest] in the category and more ready-to-wear stores are increasing their accessories offerings,” said Stephanie Levy, owner of Metropolitan Design Group showroom.

However, jumping into the accessories arena is not always as easy as it looks, as many in the business can attest. From finding the right sourcing to financing the business, entering the accessories arena is a serious undertaking.

So what does it take to make it? At a time when accessories seem poised for continued growth, WWD spoke with retail executives, showrooms and designers to find out what they think it takes to build and sustain a healthy accessories business.

Sandra Wilson, fashion director for accessories at Neiman Marcus: “New accessories designers have to have a new idea and a creative idea, and good organization is crucial to running a business. Even in a small company, you have to be organized. In addition to the creative aspects, you need to be capitalized and have a long-range strategy.

“Also, it’s important to do your homework well and continually know your market. You have to believe in yourself enough to stay with it and to persevere. I have worked with many companies, and it’s very gratifying to me to see small companies grow and be successful.”

Janet Goldman, an owner of Fragments showroom: “There so many people who want to enter this business. What we look for at Fragments are designers who have talent and serious commitment, belief in their own product and the ability to communicate their ideas. Their products have to be unique and there has to be something to differentiate it from what’s in the market. We look to see if a collection has staying power and see if it can go to the next level, and is not just a one-note samba.

“Designers who have lasted a long time in the industry have to be able to edit themselves and have a fresh start each time. I also always tell designers: take Business Finance 101. You have to have a clue about business. You also have to have knowledge of the market, and I encourage people to go and shop the stores. They need to know who their customers are. Basically, you have to have a dream and ambition, plus perseverance.”

Rafe Totentengo, accessories designer: “There is a big part of the business that is not sexy, and a lot of creative people don’t want to address that. There is shipping, production, quality control, there are codes and chargebacks, and issues such as opening letters of credit and working with factories. Even when it comes to designing a bag, there are things you have to think about such as hardware and zippers and linings.

“I think a lot of designers think they can do it alone, but they really need a business partner, someone who can work with them on the business side. In the end, it may be a cute bag, but you have to market yourself and also try and make it easy for buyers. It takes structure, planning and organization to make it in this business.”

Cynthia O’Connor, president of Cynthia O’Connor showroom: “Designers can’t just make things out of their house and say it’s a business. If you don’t have a five-year plan, you are going to hit a wall. Financing is a huge issue. Unless you know where your funding is coming from, you are going to be in trouble.

“What I get nervous about is that we have a responsibility as a showroom to represent credible companies. We are all learning that if people can’t ship products, there is no sense in how great their line is. I am not a bank.

“I have had to change my business dramatically. I look at the person, I don’t look at the product. I want them to be difficult, because I can’t work with mush, and I want them to have the ability to be a business person and have enough of a business mind to grow with the business. I won’t take anyone who is brand new because they don’t have the infrastructure. I am working harder to find credible, interesting resources that can do business and are talented.”

Carlos Falchi, handbag designer: “You have to be true to yourself. You have to be careful that you don’t sell your soul. I would rather suffer with the business than lose my identity and creativity. Also, it’s important to avoid copying. It’s an easy thing to do and a difficult thing to get out of. A lot of people saw Kate Spade and thought they, too, could do that, without knowing that she put a lot of effort into it. Not everyone is going to be Kate Spade overnight. I love all of the young people coming in with fresh ideas, but to contribute anything to the industry, they have to be original and daring.

“With what’s going on with the economy, stores want to make sure that they have good partners. They want you to participate. To do that, you have to do trunk shows and keep your image going. For me, I chose not to go to a showroom because I like having direct contact with the stores, and with buyers and consumers.”

Scott Tepper, accessories buyer, Henri Bendel: “We look for people who want to be a true partner. From our point of view, it really comes down to how much time people are willing to spend here and work with customers. Apart from the obvious things about sourcing and funding, I would stress to designers to make a friend at a magazine.”

Stephanie Levy, owner of the Metropolitan showroom: “Basically, as a showroom, we look for people who have some experience, have ready operations and know how to do production. We also like to see people who have a customer base. Some showrooms are more trend-oriented, but we aren’t that way. We like to pride ourselves in building relationships and partnerships with designers so we can learn from each other.

“I think it’s really important for designers to know the market and know what their niche is. Designers need to shop the competition and check out stores to see where they would fit in. If you want to start a handbag line, you have to find out who your competition is and what price points you need to be successful at retail. The companies that will succeed are ones that have a strong foundation and do their homework.”

Bobby Arang, owner of Add accessories boutique: “We look for products that have strong design and good quality that are at a good price. Today’s customers are more price conscious than ever before. These days, everyone thinks they can start a business, especially in handbags and jewelry. I carry a lot of small designers, but I don’t have much room now for new designers.

“We used to carry only American designers, but now we carry more international names. What I tell people who want to be in our store is that you have to be sensible. If you want to break into this market, you have to have product at a price.”

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