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Something Special: for Retailer Brad Johnson, Trunk Shows and Celebrity Appearances Create Fun and Profit

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Brad Johnson, owner of 319 King, a women's bridge-to-designer sportswear shop, has recently combined trunk shows with charity benefits to create excitement and develop his customer base.<BR><BR>"Some of our customers who were...

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Brad Johnson, owner of 319 King, a women’s bridge-to-designer sportswear shop, has recently combined trunk shows with charity benefits to create excitement and develop his customer base.

“Some of our customers who were involved in volunteer fund-raising approached me about getting involved in benefits,” said Johnson, owner of two locations, a 1,365-square-foot store in downtown Charleston, and 319 Beach, a 900-square-foot store on nearby Kiawah Island. “I thought it would be a good way to give something back to the community.”

Johnson’s foray into trunk show benefits began last June and has snowballed since then. “If you’d told me two years ago I would stage two big Armani trunk shows and host Lauren Hutton and Randy Kemper in the store, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said.

Johnson picked up Armani Le Collezioni for fall 1993, launching the line with a trunk show and benefit for the Spoleto Festival in June 1993. The event took place at a recently renovated Italianate Charleston mansion and was decorated to Armani specifications with white flowers and linens. The show sold $40,000 worth of Armani’s fall merchandise, including six wool and viscose tweed jackets at $745. In November, a spring trunk show benefit for a local art museum, also held in a restored home, brought in $60,000.

In late July, Johnson held an in-store trunk show fund-raiser for the Charleston Symphony, with designer Randy Kemper in attendance. The event sold $38,000 in a day-and-a-half. As a rule, Johnson donates 10 percent of proceeds to the benefit charity.

“We usually expect to sell about $30,000,” said Dianna de Martino, vice president of sales and marketing for Randy Kemper.

This fall, Johnson co-sponsored a kickoff gala for Worldfest Charleston, a film festival that relocated to Charleston from Houston, Texas, this year. With Lauren Hutton as guest celebrity, the in-store event drew 250 people and local press coverage. Organized around the theme “Fashions Influenced by Film,” Johnson put together looks from 319 King inspired by recent movies such as “Aladdin,” “Unforgiven” and “Chaplin,” and classics such as “Annie Hall” and “A Hard Day’s Night” in an informal fashion show.

Local residents account for 65 percent of business. The remainder comes from tourists who flock to Charleston because of its charm and history. Classic investment dressing from resources such as Armani are aimed at old-line Charlestonians. More trendy looks from resources such as A.B.S. are targeted for transplants and tourists.

“The stereotype of the Southern customer is bright color and lots of embellishment,” said Johnson. “But with the cultural mix here, that idea is passe. We carry so many neutrals that the store looks like the fall I season year-round.”

Rather than selected items, Johnson buys total looks from collections to give his customers, mostly in the 30 to 40 age group, a comprehensive overview. But Johnson doesn’t hesitate to mix looks once the clothes are in the shop. Jackets from one collection are often paired or displayed with pants or skirts from another. And items such as long tunic blouses and vests have sold well because of their versatility. A long, white rayon blouse by A.B.S., priced at $178, sold 24 units in a 10-day period. Other key American resources include Barry Bricken, Randy Kemper and Frances & Rita.

With the recent strength of the dollar, European resources have grown to 30 percent of business. In addition to such lines as Emanuel, K.L. Karl Lagerfeld and Armani’s Le Collezioni, Johnson experiments with Italian lines such as Missoni, Zanella and Accento by Marzotto and German resources such as Nic Janik. Prices range from $178 for blouses up to $900 for jackets.

The store had a reputation for tailored clothing, with jackets representing almost half of sales, before soft dressing became so important. “Fashion has changed more in the past year than over the past five years,” said Johnson. “I’ve spent more time shopping the markets in the past year than ever before, to educate myself on soft dressing.”

Between market trips to New York and Atlanta, Johnson will organize between six and eight special events this year. The success of last year’s events, said Johnson, contributed to a total volume increase from $1.6 million in 1992 to $2.1 million for 1993.

“These days, everybody talks about cutting back, but this is the best way to meet and cultivate potential longtime customers,” said Johnson. “Anybody can sell somebody once, but we’re after repeat business. For that, you have to establish relationships.”