By  on August 25, 2009

The recession has put everyone on the offensive. But how about responding to the economic downturn with a road trip?

That’s exactly what Alek Bimbiloski and Skender Dragovoja, owners of the year-old New York sales showroom Istok, did this past June. The two rented an SUV (a black Hyundai Santa Fe, to be exact), borrowed a friend’s GPS and headed off for a monthlong tour of the United States. Their objective: to get face time with as many boutiques and specialty stores as possible. But what began as a way to personally introduce their stable of designers to retailers — “the whole nature of exchanges during market week was just so fast that it was difficult to create a real connection,” says Dragovoja — soon developed into an extensive video blogging affair. Meet the “Burn Rubber 2009” project. Bimbiloski and Dragovoja interviewed buyers and owners, taped their appointments and have been gradually posting the clips on Istok’s Web site. (Read more about some of the stops on the Burn Rubber 2009 tour.)

“It’s a nice mix of really old-fashioned human interactions with technology and the Internet,” says Dragovoja. “We had the opportunity to talk about our lines and then we asked [retailers] questions and found out as much as we could about their stores and their experiences.”

Indeed, exploring the nation’s retail landscape was a major incentive for the two from the beginning.

“A lot of international designers, they only think of the big stores — Bergdorf Goodman; Barneys — and only of New York,” says Bimbiloski, whose brother is Paris-based designer Risto Bimbiloski. “Part of the point of this trip was to debunk that and make them conscious about the rest of the country. There are amazing stores out there.” He adds that creating a video blog was an easy way to share the information with their network of designers.

So far, Bimbiloski and Dragovoja have visited 27 retailers in 16 cities across 13 states. They’re currently taking a break before embarking on a second leg: 25 more stores, spread out in New York, Chicago, Portland and Seattle. But Dragovoja and Bimbiloski already have their video routine down pat. At each stop, the retailer introduces the store, runs through the roster of designers and discusses clientele and buying trends, with the Istok duo taking turns as cameraman and host.

“We had a fight about that in the first few days,” says Bimbiloski, “about who had more camera time.”

But it’s not all about floor space and merch. To spice things up, they’re incorporating videos of their nonfashion exploits.

“We wanted to mix in these adventures,” explains Dragovoja. “We were supposed to go camping, but Alek’s got this fear of bears and rattlesnakes. I dragged him mountain biking in Moab, Utah. We did a hot-air balloon ride, as well.” They are also including bloopers, such as the time their GPS failed in Fairfield, Conn., en route to the offices of e-commerce site LaGarconne.com. (Though the pair was lost for three hours, viewers get a well-edited snippet: a 36-second clip of them stranded outside a McDonald’s.)

But for all the appeal of these amateur reporters, the retailers really shine. “These are the backstage players that nobody knows about,” says Bimbiloski. “You may hear about the store, but you don’t really know about the person or the personal story behind the store.” And “Burn Rubber 2009” is one big potpourri of personalities. There’s Philadelphia’s Joan Shepp, whom Bimbiloski and Dragovoja introduce as “owner [of her self-named store] and a legend.” “She’s such a presence,” says Bimbiloski. Or Gia Ventola of Peabody, Mass., who dabbles in furniture design. Highlights at her eponymous store include dressing rooms that accommodate baby carriages and — hallelujah — disposable face masks for shoppers to wear as they try on clothes, so makeup doesn’t rub off, naturally.



Then there’s Holly Williams of Nashville’s H. Audrey boutique, whose grandfather happens to be country legend Hank Williams. The retailer has her own musical career, as well; Williams’ second album, “Here With Me,” dropped earlier this summer. “We were there the same night of the Country Music [Television] Awards,” adds Bimbiloski. “There were all these stylists coming in for Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood….We couldn’t have planned it better.” (Unfortunately, the stylists declined to be on camera.) The biggest surprise there, however? Finding out that Nashville ladies love Rick Owens. “They’ll throw [his clothes] on with Golden Goose boots,” says Dragovoja.

Central to the first leg of the road trip were the many insights shared by the retailers, such as those regarding regional differences. For example, Dragovoja and Bimbiloski discovered that Rachel Comey’s footwear was a bestseller at the Black Parrot boutique in Portland, Maine, because, unlike the expected stiletto, her heels are chunkier and more substantial — better-suited for the town’s brick and cobblestone roads.

Over in Washington, D.C., meanwhile, the Istok team learned that Relish owner Nancy Pearlstein (her family founded Louis Boston) purposely keeps clear of the runway shows. “I don’t want to be influenced on how I buy,” she remarks in a video clip. “I’ve been known to see things on the runway put together so strangely that I’ll hate the collection, and then I’ll go in [the showroom] and be pleasantly surprised by what I see.”

And considering that Bimbiloski and Dragovoja specialize in smaller, niche labels, including Risto, Ideeën and Johannes Faktotum, they were particularly happy to hear things are looking up for newer designers — at least when it comes to specialty shops. “People are not going for safe anymore. That was the big mistake that a lot of labels made last season,” says Bimbiloski. “The general level of curiosity for new things, for me, was the most surprising thing. I haven’t seen [retailer] interest in new design on this level in a really, really, really long time.”

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