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Rep Wendy Babchin finds that philanthropic pursuits are the best way to accessorize her professional life.
This story first appeared in the October 2, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Accessories rep Wendy Babchin is doing well professionally, while doing good, philanthropically. Pursuing her ultimate goal, she’s also encouraging AmericasMart to build more ties with the Atlanta community.
“The essence of my job is to create an occupation I absolutely love, one that introduces me to people I can help in their businesses, and one that provides a way for me to give back to the community,” said Babchin, the owner of Wendy Babchin & Associates, a multiline accessories showroom in AmericasMart.
Babchin opened her showroom in 1996, after showing in temporary exhibit space for eight years here. With 10 lines of accessories — watches, hats, belts, scarves, handbags, sterling silver and costume jewelry — wholesale prices start at $9 for earrings up to $159 for bracelets.
Babchin brings a certain visual flair to her showroom, commissioning local artists for one-of-a-kind display pieces. Her creativity, along with a roster of strong lines, has paid off as sales have increased 19 percent year-to-date.
The accessories business is just part of her life. She marries business with philanthropy — spearheading a silent auction for the Foundation for medically fragile children in February at the Fragile Hearts Ball at the Commerce Club in Atlanta, and recruiting her manufacturers to contribute items to be auctioned off. At the Atlanta charity premiere of “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” hosted by Jane Fonda in June, Babchin bid $22,000 at auction, and won a private pajama party with Fonda.
Below, she talks about why it pays to be creative in matters of business and charity.
WWD: How did you get involved with the community and charities? How could the mart and other reps do the same?
BABCHIN: I work with the Foundation for Medically Fragile Children, which gives Georgia children with special needs medical care they need. It’s important to give back to the community, and as a woman, I think it’s imperative to give back to women’s and children’s issues.
So many fund-raisers are centered on women’s fashion shows, I’ve wondered why the AmericasMart isn’t more involved in philanthropy. We’re the fashion capital of the South and the fashion mart of the South, yet we really don’t partner with community retailers. I recently met with Jeff Portman, (president and chief operating officer of AMC, Inc.) to discuss fashion-related avenues, and how big retailers (Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Parisian), do charity work. Why don’t we partner with them? I’d like to see AmericasMart do a charity fashion show, with Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin doing a proclamation for the event. I’d love to kick off 2003 with an upbeat message.
WWD: Why haven’t industry leaders become more involved?
BABCHIN: It’s unfair to criticize AMC, (AmericasMart’s parent company), because they have been involved with charity, especially on the gift side, with great success. Now it’s time to work on the fashion side, because we have so many willing fashion retail partners.
WWD: How’s the accessories business now and how does it fit into the fashion picture? Has there been a turnaround in demand?
BABCHIN: Accessories are strong now. We’re into retro Seventies looks, and while it’s probably a passing phase, it’s a major trend — fringe belts, fringe [handbags], turquoise and big chunky jewelry, layering necklaces and bracelets. Beaded, semiprecious stones and sterling silver are our bread-and-butter. Sterling is huge now, but I can’t give gold away, even though they say gold is big and back. We brought [costume gold] in, along with brass, and it did not move.
WWD: What do you do with your showroom to make it more visually exciting?
BABCHIN: We use glass and pedestals, and show the importance of lighting. Every market has some kind of new fixture. For October, Mark Webber, a local artist who creates sculptures for Saks Fifth Avenue windows [in Atlanta], will make 10 sculptures in various finishes that we’ll use for decoration and display in our showroom. It gives him exposure, and helps educate customers on display options. Sculptures will be available for customers to buy, at wholesale from around $90 to $600, and a portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Foundation for Medically Fragile Children.
WWD: What’s your philosophy on showroom merchandising, and what advice can you give retailers on selling and merchandising accessories?
BABCHIN: It’s my job to educate customers, not only on new products and trends, but how to display them, with ideas to update their stores. In this economy, a supplier has to be an educator, and even think for the customer sometimes. In August, I hung handbags from a wrought iron tree, to show the customers how $3,000 worth of merchandise can fit in a three-foot space. It’s all about return on square foot.
WWD: How have you adjusted your business in the past year post 9/11/01? Have sales stayed steady?
BABCHIN: The year has been a turning point in the collective consciousness and every industry. We’ve all come to realize what’s really important. In the fashion business, we’ve been blessed with many lucrative years. In lean times, people are afraid and cut back, which creates fear in the industry. I try to create more excitement, and I want customers to do the same. If you present fabulous product, with fabulous attitude, people respond. Energy I give invigorates my customer base to take ideas back home.
WWD: What other issues are most important in today’s industry?
BABCHIN: The big issue is making it easy for customers to buy — providing them with a great market, great food service, convenience and happening new lines. With a fun attitude, our industry stays fun. All too often, in a down economy, everyone pulls in and gets long-faced.
It’s really like a girls’ night out in the showroom [during market]. I serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, and offer foot massages each show. We start serving cocktails at 3 p.m. and we serve wine in long-stemmed wine glasses, never plastic. We’re open until 8 p.m., and customers know they can come by anytime. I always have a guest designer here that will come in and work with customers on custom-made pieces for their stores or even for their own personal pieces.
WWD: People talk about missing the “good old days when business was great.” Do you think things will ever be the same, or is it just a different world now? How should people make adjustments?
BABCHIN: Most people make adjustments by downsizing, but I don’t believe in that. I’m always looking for new designers and new categories that are difficult to find. I have to constantly provide new thoughts and ideas for customers.