In an effort to boost sales, contemporary retailers are taking a walk on the wild side by shopping the edge at MAGIC.

The edge, which began in 1998 and houses a mix of Goth, rock-, street- and fetishwear, has always been considered a fashion incubator for emerging and underground companies that don’t want to risk being seen as “sellouts” by graduating to the more mainstream show areas. But the secret is out among contemporary retailers, which are casting a wider net over the offerings at the edge.

“Retailers are realizing that they have to keep their product mix fresh when they’re struggling for the same consumer dollar,” said a spokeswoman for MAGIC International. “They’re looking for something cool and edgy and funky to add to their contemporary pieces.”

Fraser Ross, owner of Kitson, the Los Angeles “It” boutique, said that he shops the edge in search of unique T-shirts and accessories.

“It helps you put your mixture together and look edgy. It’s like going to the East Village in New York.”

THE CONTEMPORARY CONUNDRUM

But conversely, as more mainstream retailers look to add alternative pieces to their offerings, it becomes harder for those companies to stay true to their roots.

“I think business is just tough out there,” said Drew Vernstein, president and chief executive officer of Lip Service, the Los Angeles-based manufacturer considered to be one of the granddaddies of Goth- and fetishwear. “There’s a lot of players now, and the look that Lip Service pioneered [has become] very mainstream.”

Companies such as Lip Service now cater both to the fashionable fetishists as well as their core lifestyle customers. Vernstein, who sells to 400 specialty retailers, also manufactures for Hot Topic, the City of Industry, Calif.-based trendy teen chain. The chain sells a toned-down version of Lip Service’s designs made just for Hot Topic, and has brought the look into the mainstream. This is both good and bad for Vernstein, who said that increased competition from other companies has kept him on his toes.

Hot Topic is considered by Vernstein to be the sartorial version of training wheels for teens who will eventually graduate into the more hard-core punk- and fetishwear boutiques. “The problem is that Hot Topic grew big and took that look into malls, which eroded the boutique stores,” he said. “The good thing is that Hot Topic’s customer is younger than in the boutiques.”Lip Service’s wholesale prices range from about $25 up to $200, and Vernstein said that business has been mostly flat, with low-double-digit growth.

One challenge he hasn’t had to deal with is the end of quotas. Until recently, most of the products were manufactured in the United States. Now, he is doing more production in China, but said that it hasn’t been an issue.

“It seems like quota is much more of an issue for people doing super-massive quantities,” said Vernstein. “We find an agent, and they have the whole quota thing worked out.”

MAGIC’s spokeswoman agreed that for the bulk of the edge’s exhibitors, quotas are a non-issue, primarily because they typically produce smaller quantities. Also, the focus is less on the dollar than staying true to the lifestyle, art, music and political issues of the day — particularly in a presidential election year.

“[The election year] will just give them more ammunition for their sense of humor,” she said. “They’re always really on top of what’s going on, and we’ve been careful to keep the companies in there who belong in there so they don’t feel the pressure to conform in this very corporate setting.”

NEW KID IN TOWN

For newcomers like Scott Hebert, owner and designer of Tucson, Ariz.-based Brooklynallstars, it’s the perfect atmosphere to ease into the business. Hebert is a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles and will be exhibiting at the edge for the first time. He said that he’s mainly going for the exposure.

Hebert, who explained his style as an amalgam of other styles, said that his line is best described as “hip-hop-meets-Goth-meets-contemporary.”

“The edge is for people who don’t stick with the norm,” said Hebert. “They decided to throw me in there because they said I sounded kind of different.”

The designer, who is already getting e-mails from distributors in Japan interested in selling the T-shirts, polos, skirts, cuffs and hats that he offers, said that he would be happy to come away from the show with a few new accounts.“I’d love to get a few stores and get a few international accounts,” said Hebert. “I definitely want to make a good impression there.”

Store owners such as Kitson’s Ross are on the prowl for exactly these types of young, undiscovered companies. “We’re totally into finding someone new, we’re not into finding what anyone else has,” said Ross.

A SOFTER EDGE

For Andre Burgos, owner of Gargoyles boutique in New Orleans’ French Quarter, the key to staying afloat post-9/11 was actually to tone down the offerings at his store to reach the customers that were not so niche.

“We were more leather and Gothic, and we [switched and] went to more club and streetwear,” said Burgos. “Now we have a better-quality customer of all ages.”

Kitson’s Ross agreed that it’s a delicate balance between choosing pieces that are edgy enough to appeal and those that will alienate. “Everyone wants to stay young, but [the edge] is sometimes too young, and that can be a problem,” he said. “They have to make it more commercial than far out.”

Paul Frank got his start at the edge, and MAGIC officials said it’s important for emerging brands to have a trade show venue as well.

“But when they go on to another level and [reach] a different distribution, we move them out,” said a spokeswoman. 

So with all of the more mainstream retailers now shopping the edge, does this mean that it’s no longer, well, edgy? Said the spokeswoman, “It’s still edgy and staying true [to its concept]. If anything, it shows how retailers are going outside the box.”

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