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Pop-Up Markets Bring Online Brands to Life

Markets promote brands that cater to the demand for authentic and Americana-themed product among a notable subset of fashion consumers.

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Next month, dozens of artisanal, American-made brands will gather at a former power station in the South End of Boston for the second annual installment of American Field, a two-day pop-up market. The showcase, on Sept. 28 and 29, shines a spotlight on both emerging and established men’s brands that emphasize craftsmanship, heritage and quality, such as Red Wing, Rancourt & Co., Taylor Stitch, Randolph Engineering and New England Outerwear Co.

The event is one of a swell of pop-up markets that have emerged to promote brands that cater to the ongoing demand for authentic and Americana-themed product among a notable subset of fashion consumers.

Another market, Northern Grade, which launched in 2010 in Minneapolis, has since expanded to Chicago, St. Paul, Nashville, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with an upcoming show planned for Richmond on Sept. 21 and 22. In Baltimore, a similar show called Confirmed Stock was staged last year.

The pioneer in this movement was New York’s Pop Up Flea, which was founded by Michael Williams and Randy Goldberg in 2008. This fall, it will cross the pond for an edition in London on Oct. 11 to 13. Williams and Goldberg are working with The Crown Estate, managers of the British sovereign’s vast real estate holdings, to find a suitable venue and have narrowed down the options to two potential spaces in the Saint James’s area of Central London.

The growth of these old-school bazaars mirrors the vintage-inspired ethos of many of the brands they host — but there’s also a modern-day causative factor in the trend. Many of the participating brands sell mostly online to a far-flung customer base and the markets offer an opportunity to promote their products in person and meet customers in the flesh. In their old-school simplicity, the markets serve as a real-world complement to the e-commerce businesses.

“It’s bringing to life all the stuff that people see online these days. There’s a real interest in meeting the people behind these brands,” explained Williams, who sees a larger anthropological significance in the markets. “It can be difficult for people to come together these days. There aren’t a lot of civic things going on. My dad was in the Jaycees, for example, and those kinds of things don’t exist as much. Markets are a way for people to come together. People like to be social. They want to know that the guys they’re buying jeans from are nice guys. Some people value that kind of transaction.”

Similarly, Chris Walbert, a cofounder of Confirmed Stock, likened the practice of shopping a market to attending a concert after listening to a band’s music online — both the real-life and the online experiences reinforce each other.

The first Pop Up Flea — which doesn’t require its brands to be made in America, only well crafted — hosted about a dozen brands and 1,500 attendees. Last year’s edition grew to 45 brands and 10,000 attendees, according to Williams. Celebrities like Jonah Hill and Ty Pennington have shopped the event. “It used to be very quaint compared to what it’s become,” noted Williams.

Vendors last year included Levi’s Vintage Clothing, Ernest Alexander, Billy Kirk, Alexander Olch, Terrapin Stationers, Schott NYC, Filson, Tellason, Aether, Imogene + Willie and Tanner Goods. “What I’ve always really liked about the Pop Up Flea is that it really is sort of the best time for you to meet in person your customers, which we don’t get to do,” said designer Alexander Olch in a video about the event. “We get to shake hands.”

The Pop Up Flea will stage its sixth New York installment Dec. 6 to 8 at an undecided West Side location, possibly at Drive-In Studios, where it was situated last holiday season.

Major marketers have taken note of the growing popularity of pop-up men’s markets — and the appealing demographic drawn to them. Gilt sponsored Northern Grade’s San Francisco edition in June, Microsoft has previously sponsored Pop Up Flea and L.L. Bean Signature has signed on to sponsor the upcoming American Field event in Boston.

“As a Maine-based, New England company with a strong Boston-based customer presence, the American Field pop-up offers L.L. Bean an opportunity to showcase its over 100-year Maine manufacturing history,” said Gilly Hong, vice president of L.L. Bean Signature. “While we have grown as a global brand with items sourced from around the world, we are still committed to made in the USA and made in Maine.”

L.L. Bean manufactures its signature rubber boots in the state as well as its boat and tote bags, backpacks, leather goods and belts. “The pop up will allow us the opportunity to showcase the talents of our over 350 employees — craftsmen and women — working in our Brunswick, Maine, factory,” added Hong.

American Field was founded by Mark Bollman, who is also the owner and founder of Ball and Buck, a hunting-inspired line of U.S.-made apparel and accessories, sold both at a Boston store and via an e-commerce site. “From our store, we know the key to our success is educating the customer,” he explained. “If you can buy a T-shirt for $5 at H&M, we have to educate our consumers about why our quality is better and what they’re paying for and how the made in America piece fits into it.” Pop-up markets are an ideal way to educate customers first-hand, he concluded.

Founded by husband-and-wife Mac and Katherine McMillan, Northern Grade has taken the most ambitious tack to expansion. Since its first show in Minneapolis three years ago, the McMillans have staged nine events across the country, inviting local food purveyors and craft brewers to add a festive element to the proceedings.

The McMillans’ long-term vision is to open Northern Grade stores in New York, Tokyo and Seoul — locations where there’s a hefty consumer audience receptive to the American-made story. They also believe they can eventually host up to 100 Northern Grade events a year, in cities like Seattle, Dallas, New Orleans, Miami, Aspen, Colo., Hong Kong, Tokyo and London.

In September, Northern Grade is adding an e-commerce component to its Web site, which will sell collaborations between itself and brands such as Almond Surfboards, NTandy belts and Kiriko scarves. “I would like Northern Grade to be the consumer go-to for American-made goods,” said Katherine McMillan.

There are serious hurdles to Northern Grade’s lofty goals. Logistics and export tariffs make it cumbersome and expensive to bring American goods overseas for pop-up markets, especially when working with small brands. Moreover, not every Northern Grade event has been a total hit.

“San Francisco was a bit of a dud. Not enough people came and it was very expensive to find a pop-up space,” admitted McMillan, who said about 850 people attended there compared to about 3,500 at the most recent Saint Paul show.

Still, the overall concept has potent appeal to men, said participants. “It’s a generalization that men don’t enjoy shopping but something like Northern Grade makes it a fun activity for guys,” said McMillan. “They can have a beer and have a conversation. You can kill four hours in there.”

Christian McCann has shown his Choctaw Ridge and Left Field labels at Northern Grade in Minneapolis and experienced an uptick in online sales afterwards. “After the show, I probably did more business out of Minnesota than I did out of California,” said McCann, who also picked up retail accounts at the show. “I wouldn’t say it’s a huge moneymaker, after paying for the show and the hotel. But it’s about getting out there and talking to people and gaining that first-hand experience.”

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