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Minding Her Own Business

ENK’s Elyse Kroll discusses her production company and the Coterie, past, present and future.

Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Coterie issue 02/10/2010

Elyse Kroll is no shrinking violet.

The founder and chairwoman of ENK International Trade Events has also quietly been running CCK, a second unit producing trade shows of the nonfashion variety. The fashion trade show mogul is poised to produce WNET’s education trade show, “The Celebration of Teaching and Learning,” March 5 and 6 at the Hilton New York, featuring Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Queen Latifah and Queen Noor, among others. It will be the third time CCK is producing the show, according to Ron Thorpe, vice president and director of education at WNET, New York City’s public television channel.

A foodie who waxes poetic over Jeremy Bearman’s butternut squash soup at Rouge Tomate, her favorite restaurant, Kroll has also staged a food trade show. (“He has toasted pumpkin seeds in there, for the crunch, which you’re not expecting,” she enthuses about Bearman’s soup.) She chews on the links between food and the fashion business.

“I’ve been paying attention to food the way I’ve been paying attention to fashion,” Kroll confides over a chopped salad at Monkey Bar, “simply because people in fashion care about food, care about where they eat, certainly care about where they sit.”

Kroll herself is no exception. Upon entering Monkey Bar for a lunchtime interview, she chastened the host for escorting her to a table that was not up to her standards, Kroll being a regular at the restaurant. A few tables away, Geraldo Rivera sat placidly. (Kroll and the reporter were quickly whisked to a quieter banquette.)

With similar determination, she’s sprung the 28-year-old fashion trade show empire from its beginnings in cramped East 54th Street offices sublet from The Gap to Pier 94 — which she spotted lying dormant on Manhattan’s West Side and gained New York City’s permission to use — to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. In between, she’s finessed the last-minute, emergency relocation of the Fashion Coterie to the Javits Center, following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the City reclaimed the Pier 94 building for a Family Assistance Center as New York recovered.

Now, Kroll is in the throes of developing a virtual fashion trade show. It could premiere as soon as this fall — but Kroll is not expecting ENK to jettison shows on terra firma. “It’s not a reason not to come” to Fashion Coterie, she says protectively.

WWD: How many shows does ENK manage and produce?
Elyse Kroll: Twenty-nine.

WWD: When you began in 1982, how many ENK-produced shows were there?
E.K.: There was one — Designers Collective, a men’s wear show. I started Fashion Coterie in 1986. Right after that, in 1987, I started Accessories Circuit.

WWD: What inspired you to go this route?
E.K.: I was doing p.r. for Giorgio Armani and some other Italian clients. It was time to move on. I found myself in this meeting with a bunch of men’s wear designers. At the end, I asked if I could hand in a proposal for being a group p.r. person. I don’t think I left my apartment all weekend. I wrote a proposal. I charged them $1,000 to produce the first event. I handed it in bright and early Monday morning. I was on pins and needles. Andrew Fezza called me up and said, “You’re hired.”

WWD: Who was the first client?
E.K.: In the show we had Gene Pressman of Barneys New York and Lance Karesh, a [designer] at Barneys All American Sportswear Co. It was the beginning of Designers Collective. There were about 18 designers.

WWD: What is your biggest show now?
E.K.: Fashion Coterie, our women’s show [with about 1,200 exhibitors].

WWD:
Has it long been?
E.K.: Yes, it has. We do a lot of legwork for the retailers. We screen. It’s trendy for trade shows to say “we screen,” but we do it. You can come in to our offices almost any time and see racks of clothing. People send us samples. We have a screening committee that looks at the samples for quality, for design integrity, for craftsmanship, where it sells, [whether it’s] important to our retailers. We choose who can be in the show.

WWD: Who’s your top competition for space?
E.K.: At the Javits Center? We bump into the Toy Fair. We bump into the New York Boat Show, and the [New York International] Gift Fair, all the time. They’re fixtures. It’s not like I can push anybody around. Usually, even if my space is available, there’s not enough move-in time.
    In 1997, I was moving out of The Plaza hotel. All my shows were in the big hotels. The Plaza was getting renovated, and I went to the piers on 55th Street. I had a show at the piers, Accessories Circuit. And then there was no more space. I went to the City because I saw, as you go up the ramp to the piers, there was a building at street level [Pier 94] that was empty. I asked the City if I could use that building. It was March, and they said I could use it for July, August, September, which was what I needed. To bring that building up to code, I had to put a lot of money into it. The City allowed me to stay. We built up a nice business at the piers, doing trade shows. Then I became a landlord, renting it out to other trade shows.

WWD:
You purchased the building?
E.K.: You can’t purchase waterfront in New York City, so they gave me a long-term lease.

WWD: You can sublease?
E.K.: I rented it out to other trade show operators. To any show that wants to go in. [Kroll held the lease from 1998 until last year.]

WWD: So you had it for quite some time. Why did you unload it?
E.K.: (Pause) Well, I didn’t quite unload it. It’s been given to a powerful development team. Now what they’re supposed to do is renovate it into a full-blown exhibition center. We’re waiting for that.
    [The developer is Merchandise Mart Properties, owned by Vornado. The project has been stalled by a suit brought regarding MMP’s Environmental Assessment Study, said NYC Economic Development Corp. spokeswoman Janel Patterson. MMP has been operating Piers 92 and 94 since 2008 on an occupancy permit.]

WWD: How big is it?
E.K.: 175,000 square feet. They’re combining it with Pier 92 next door, so the total will be about 400,000 square feet.

WWD: Is ENK profitable?
E.K.: It is.

WWD: Has it virtually always been profitable?
E.K.: Remember, I said I charged $1,000 for my first show. So we were not immediately profitable. It took me a very long time to get the company going because I was involved in supporting the designers. It took [five or six years] to become profitable. Once I had more than one show going on, it became easier.

WWD: What is your biggest challenge on a daily basis?
E.K.: The challenge is staying relevant. I am bringing together retailer and exhibitor, and I better do a damn good job, or they’re not coming back.

WWD: What kind of impact do you think the Fashion Coterie has as a fashion influence, or a place where business is done?
E.K.: It’s a global marketplace. It is a bird’s-eye view of fashion for a particular season.
    [As for business getting done, for example], it was 9/11 and Fashion Coterie was several days later. Not only had I given the city Pier 94 as the Family Assistance Center…I was out of a building. I called Javits. They were lovely. I booked my show. We had armed guards there, federal marshals with dogs. I understaffed, because I didn’t think the traffic was going to be good. I shook people’s hands who’d come across bridges or went through tunnels or took a train to get there. We were all crying, because it was just days ago. We made tote bags with the American flag on them that said “United We Stand.”
    It was a constant reminder of what’s going on in the world outside, because you saw the dogs. There was heavy security because the Javits was a state-owned building. But on the reverse, I felt very safe.

WWD: How has the Great Recession affected ENK’s business?
E.K.: (Pause) In 2009…my exhibitors started to realize they can’t do five shows in women’s wear a year. So either my exhibitors started to take smaller booths at all five shows, or maybe they held out and just did Coterie. It forced everybody to go back and look at their business model. How are we going to proceed and succeed?

WWD: Did you see attendance fall?
E.K.: Yes. Department stores would send fewer buyers. If you were in fashion, you came. Did they buy as heavily? No. Were they as interested in young designers as before? No. They wanted to stick with the tried and true. Buying patterns changed. We all saw those 75 percent off signs and thought, “How the hell are we going to do that?”

WWD: You could argue the fashion business was starting to price itself out of business.
E.K.: It’s unbelievable. They’re giving it away. So everybody’s adjusted their inventories; everybody’s producing less. You know who’s hurt? There are a lot of charities like Fashion Delivers [Charitable Foundation] or KIDS [Kids in Distressed Situations] that deliver gently used or new [excess] inventory to Haiti. There’s very little inventory.

WWD: Back to your own business, is it financed solely through the cash flow of the shows ENK produces?
E.K.: It is financed through the shows themselves. There is a partner in my business, Forstmann Little, since 2007. But the company is financed by the shows.

WWD: As we move further into this digital age, where people communicate instantly and expect things in a snap, how relevant are trade shows as places where people come together, in person, to look at things?
E.K.: In most industries, meeting face-to-face will always be relevant. Will trade shows go to virtual trade shows? That will happen for sure, but I consider it to be a secondary experience, not a primary experience. If you determine a vendor has the sizing that works for you and your shop, you will be able to work with them online. But I think that to see color properly, to feel fabric and to understand fit in fashion — more than anything — it has to be a primary experience. There’s too much money at stake.

WWD:
You could have a social network experience online, you can stream live, you can video-conference. What are you doing that’s fresh to market the shows?
E.K.: We are using the ’Net a lot. We’re showing people what we think is going to happen for a season. We’re doing countdowns: nine days left to the show, eight days left, mostly with photographs because people don’t want to read. They’re visual. We’re also using the phone a lot. People don’t want to get on the phone anymore. All people want to do is e-mail. We want to talk to you. We’re still sending out our paper invitations, because we want people to have something in their hands.

WWD: Do you see an ENK production in virtual reality happening soon?
E.K.: Of course. But we have a very high bar. Sometimes that gets in our way. We become slower than we like to think we are. We need to be easy for people.

WWD: What kind of time frame do you envision to get a trade show off the ground in cyberspace?
E.K.: We’re actually working on it right now.

WWD:
Could something happen this year?
E.K.: I think so.

WWD: In time for September’s Coterie?
E.K.: Or after September’s Coterie. As I said, I think it’s a secondary, not a primary. It’s not a reason not to come [to Coterie].

WWD: What do you envision it being used for?
E.K.: We want to be a 24/7 service to our exhibitors. We want to be a value every day.