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Kingpins Marks 10 Years of ‘Denim Fixation’

Ten years later, Andrew Olah’s denim-centric show has become far more than an afterthought.

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It was never supposed to turn into a trade show.

This story first appeared in the July 8, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

But a decade after the first show was held in New York, that’s exactly what Kingpins has become. And as it marks its 10th anniversary and the aftermath of its debut in Amsterdam two months ago, founder Andrew Olah concedes that he’s in the trade-show business to stay.

The latest edition of the boutique denim market, to be held in New York July 22 and 23 at a new venue — the 60,000-square-foot Skylight Clarkson Sq — will bring together 57 exhibitors, from fiber and fabric vendors to producers of labels and trim. Olah and his associates hope to top the attendance record of 872 set at last July’s New York show, the last at Centre 548, before January’s “polar vortex” limited attendees to 563.

As chief executive officer of the company that bears his surname, Olah had built a substantial textile sales and consulting business by 2004, when he was looking to do something to showcase his longtime Japanese denim mill client Kurabo International.

“The thinking was, ‘Let’s just rent an art gallery and we’ll have an event where we can draw attention to their four different collections,’” he told WWD. “But that would have been boring, so I figured we could invite other people to exhibit.”

To add to the event’s drawing power, he solicited — completely free of charge — companies he considered the best in the denim and sportswear business, including wash house Martelli, label maker Cadica, rivet producer Cobra and Silver Jeans parent Western Glove Works, all firms, like Kurabo, he considered “kingpins” within the global denim market.

As the scale of the first show grew, he had a somewhat discomforting realization. “I realized we were going to need food. And furniture. We couldn’t just invite people and not have anything beyond that. I realized it’s just like throwing a wedding.”

Now 10 years and six venues removed from its birthplace in an art gallery at 25 Mercer Street, Kingpins is no longer free to the exhibitors — “the recession sobered us up on that point,” Olah said — but it’s become the model for shows in four cities that stretch across three continents: two shows a year in New York, one in Los Angeles, two in Hong Kong and two in Amsterdam. Shows in India and a second Los Angeles show were discontinued earlier.

Olah believes that Kingpins has prospered as much for what it isn’t as for what it is. “I was just at a machinery show in Shanghai a few weeks ago and I had to walk past 1,000 booths to get to six good ones,” he said. “We were never going to do that. The whole point of our show is to make it easy to get in and get out and get your job done. If you respond to our e-mail invitations, you don’t have to stand on line waiting for a badge; instead you drop your business card and you enter the show, and between your time on the floor and our seminars, you have covered 90 percent of what you could possibly need to know about the jeans market for that season.”

Kurabo has remained an exhibitor at the show from the start, and Cone Denim and Central Fabrics have been on the exhibitor roster practically as long. Kurabo remains an Olah Inc. client as well.

Vivian Wang, a graphic artist who did design work for Kingpins’ early shows, including the invitation to the inaugural event 10 years ago, was plugged into the denim market, having provided services for jeans resources including Lucky Brand and AG Adriano Goldschmied before joining Olah full-time as managing director of the show. She sees a big advantage in the “less is more” approach taken by the show. “We’re small and invitation only and we really focus on helping the people we invite,” she said. “It’s not as if you’re at a huge gathering and you’re going to see 1,000 people a day at your booth. We can service our exhibitors, even help them meet buyers they want to work with. We don’t need to prove anything anymore.”

Kingpins has been unapologetically restrictive. Buyers, press and students are welcome, but nonexhibitors who say they’re interested in exhibiting at the next show, who may in fact be more interested in checking out and possibly knocking off the competition, get “a drink, a sandwich and sent on their way,” according to Olah.

For those who stay, Kingpins has expanded its seminar program, part of Olah’s strategy of boosting the “intellectual content” of the shows as the market adjusts to shifting fashion tastes, a challenging retail climate and supply chain gyrations that can be dizzying.

“We’ve tried to behave thoughtfully and intelligently and if possible integrate some kind of sustainable features into our shows as we give our exhibitors a chance to sell more jeans and fabric,” Olah said, adding that he’s come to view supply-chain transparency almost as seriously as he does sustainability.

With that mission in mind, the second day of this month’s show will include a seminar on “The Life and Times of Today’s Cotton Farmer: What’s Behind the Cotton You Use in Your Products” at 10 a.m. Patrick Laine, ceo of the Better Cotton Initiative, and Brent Crossland, fiber business development manager, North America, at Bayer CropScience, will discuss the lives and challenges faced by cotton farmers in both the developed and developing world.

At 3:30 p.m. on July 22, Kingpins will offer a “Denim Development Crash Course” on the increased use of blends in denim, a conversation including Alberto Candiani of Candiani, Panos Sofianos of Royo, Jean Hegedus of Invista, Michael Kininmonth of Lenzing and Olah.

Additionally, Invista will share findings from recent global research on what consumers are looking for from their jeans (July 23 at 1:30 p.m.) and WGSN will provide a trend presentation (July 22 at 1:30 p.m.) to reinforce a display of denim surface treatments and laundering effects on the show floor.

As always, Kingpins will end its first day in New York with its semiannual party, this one geared to a celebration of “10 years of denim fixation, devotion and borderline indigo OCD,” according to this year’s invitation. Plans were being finalized for this month’s soiree, but Olah made it clear that the peripatetic nature of the show — 21 New York shows in seven different locations — had a lot to do with the party. “We prefer having the entire show on a single floor, as we will this year, but we also like having an outdoor party for the July show,” he said. “On occasion, we may have overstayed our welcome because we were so determined to have the party outside.”

The show, once an afterthought for Olah, has now become very much his focus. While he continues to consult for E3, BayerCropScience’s sustainable cotton program, he has handed off management of the firm’s textile sales division to Michael Morrell, president of the company, who joined 10 years ago after serving as corporate manager of garment processing at The Jones Group Inc.

Among Kingpins’ priorities are the further development of the suite of consumer-focused events held under the “Denim Days” umbrella in Amsterdam as Kingpins made its European debut. The second Amsterdam show, scheduled for Oct. 29 and 30, will be bolstered by a series of denim awards and Olah is even considering taking a similar approach to help build the Los Angeles show after its run July 29 and 30. Earlier in its lifetime, the L.A. show was held twice a year but was scaled back to annually.

“The L.A. market is big and small at the same time,” Olah noted. “There are a lot of people in the market but a lot of them don’t want to go to a show and prefer to operate independently.”

The solution, he said, could be an approach similar to the one taken in Amsterdam, combining a business-to-business trade fair with events directed at consumers and involving industry-consumer interaction.

“It’s an interesting dilemma for us,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out the right medicine.”

The Hong Kong show is scheduled for Aug. 19 and 20.

As Kingpins’ footprint has grown, so too has its impact as a networking event. Olah convinced officials from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York to attend the Amsterdam event. Steven Frumkin, dean of FIT’s Jay and Patty Baker School of Business and Technology, was impressed enough with the city’s Jean School that he told WWD he’s not only looking into beefing up FIT’s denim production facilities in Manhattan but also exploring the addition of the Netherlands institution to FIT’s study-abroad options.

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