NEW YORK — Cynthia O'Connor had a vision when she switched from being a buyer at Stanley Korshak in Dallas to opening her namesake showroom 15 years ago — she wanted to create a buyer's paradise.
"Coming from a higher-end store, I never had time when I came to New York, and I hated that no one served you food — it was a stretch to get a cup of coffee — and no one opened until after 9 a.m.," O'Connor said. "So we started opening at 8:30 and serving fabulous cappuccinos [all come with chocolate], lunches, candy — anything the buyers wanted."
This spring O'Connor renovated her showroom at 141 West 36th Street here, doubling its space to 12,000 square feet. The showroom, which reps more than a dozen lines including Kooba and Julie Haas, does $40 million to $60 million in wholesale volume a year, said O'Connor, who added that she wanted to reinvest "a lot lot lot" to create an even more buyer-friendly environment.
The showroom, complete with health and beauty products in its bathrooms, still stands out in the Garment District, but providing such amenities is a rising trend. As buyers become more crunched for time, showrooms tempt them to stay longer by offering everything from cappuccinos served by waiters to catered meals prepared by a private chef. Employees, too, are squeezed for time in jobs that more and more require trips to Chinese manufacturing plants or Las Vegas trade shows, and luxurious bathrooms include showers to help employees move seamlessly between those obligations and the office.
Since the renovations, buyers are staying about 50 percent longer, O'Connor said. With seven bathrooms — stocked with items from breath mints to nail polish to hangover pills — two kitchens, candy bowls on every table, drink menus and waiters during market, she described her showroom as a "destination place."
The 12 full-time employees also benefited from the renovations, which added a small workout room and gave them lockers to store workout clothes (perhaps to offset the effects of the movie theater-worthy candy offerings on every table). Many of the more than a dozen brands, all of which are targeted to high-end department and specialty stores, have their own rooms in the new space."We had Kate Spade for six years, had Isabella Fiore, have Kooba, are debuting Hollywould handbags this market,'' O'Connor said. "We've built a lot of brands — it's not just because we built a good showroom — we provide a lot of services smaller brands can't afford....When I redid the showroom, it renewed my vows to the business and really refreshed me. We are almost a brand of our own, and it was time for me to show that."
O'Connor began the renovations in March and is still completing the finishing touches. Construction forced the showroom to close during April. "It was tough,'' O'Connor said. "We just talked on the phone a lot."
The renovation costs come in time and money. Christopher Fisher Ltd., a vendor who specializes in cashmere knits that wholesale from $50 to $200, moved into his 10,000-square-foot space in June 2006 and is still putting on finishing touches. He spent $1.5 million renovating the 16th floor of 500 Seventh Avenue.
"Our product is designer and contemporary, but not overdesigned, and I felt it was important to continue that through the showroom," said Fisher, the president and chief executive officer of his eponymous knit company.
Fisher, who moved his operations to New York in 1996, enlisted Italian design specialists for the showroom. Boffi Kitchens did the stainless steel kitchen, bathrooms are lined in semiglass mosaic Bizarra tile, and the showroom echoes the double-sided, sand-blasted glass with industrial steel frames of the kitchen doors. The Austrian wood floors are pickled and kelm-dried.
"I considered moving down to SoHo or Meatpacking [District], but buyers were saying it's such a hassle to get all the way down there," Fisher said. "I thought, if I can't move downtown, at least I can be in a space that feels like that."
Fisher designed the space to be fit for entertaining, with a table at which he encourages the 21 people who work in the showroom to eat lunch. With a stocked fridge and cabinets, Fisher has an eat-in kitchen, but it is not built for cooking.
The bathrooms are also friendly to the social nature of the business, with a walk-in shower, which employees use once a week on average. "There's so many events in this industry, and you never have enough time to change and you are always running late," Fisher said. "With the bathrooms here, you can have a shave and a shower. It's quite a luxury."Showers also accommodate the global nature of the business. Howard Aubrey, president of The Isabella Co. Inc., has a shower in his office that he initially wanted for his travels back from Europe, where all seven of the bridge to designer lines in his 12,000-square-foot showroom are based. The shower is used about once a month, and Isabella's 24-person staff can also use the shower when employees come straight to the office after returning from shows in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Saving time for his staff, as well as for time-cramped buyers, is a running theme in the perks Aubrey offers at Isabella. A year-and-a-half ago, he hired an Israeli chef to prepare kosher vegetarian and fish dishes for the buyers and employees.
"The goal is to save the hassle of people ordering from five places when buyers come, waiting an hour for delivery and then the confusion of not knowing whose food is whose," Aubrey said.
The chef prepares a daily spread of salads, pasta and sandwiches. Though the service was initiated for buyers, the in-house buffet also feeds the staff, who do not have time to go out for lunch, particularly during market.
Perhaps even better than minisandwiches of figs and cheese on a pretzel roll is the dining atmosphere. Isabella boasts an outdoor patio on the top floor of 205 West 39th Street, the building that houses the Calvin Klein showroom. With a view of the Garment District and the Hudson River, the patio is carpeted with fake grass and includes a four-person table under a red umbrella and a corner bench. The balcony is also equipped for work, with WiFi so buyers can make orders over lunch.
"It's like an oasis," Aubrey said. "Whoever wants to come out here finds a refuge."
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