In its 20-year history, the Accessories Council has helped fuel the rise of bling.
To say it was a dismal period for accessories within the fashion industry in 1994, when the not-for-profit, national trade group was founded, is somewhat of an understatement.
“Runway fashion was very, very minimal,” said council president Karen Giberson of the Nineties, noting there weren’t a lot of accessories being shown. “At that point, accessories brands and manufacturers all said, ‘If we’re not going to be on the runways, maybe there are some creative ways we can promote our categories on our own.’ The council was founded with the mission to promote our members and ultimately help sell more products.”
The council strives to bring awareness to the accessories world, an industry that generates more than $50 billion annually in the U.S. alone, according to Giberson.
“If you look at most of the brands, whether luxury or not, the truth is that the accessories business is the fashion industry,” said chairman Frank Zambrelli. “You have companies within LVMH and Kering that are professing apparel all day long, and, of course, have very important apparel businesses. But by far, they gain the majority of their revenue and profitability from their accessories businesses.
“[The council] is about really recognizing that and making the industry understand the importance and the role that accessories play — and then communicating that to the consumer.”
Since 2005, when Giberson became president, membership has grown from 90 companies to 256 today. The group’s board is led by Giberson, Zambrelli, vice chairman Robert Schienberg, treasurer Gabriel Alvarez Jacobo and chairman emeritus Ira Greenhouse. Additional board members include Carlos Falchi, Kara Ross, Monica Rich Kosann, Cindy Krupp and Alex Woo.
“You don’t say ‘no’ to Karen,” Rich Kosann said about joining the board. “She’s a real force.”
Falchi, who oversees his namesake handbag line, has been a member since the council began. “It has evolved, big time,” he said. “It has grown profusely from the time we started.”
Established accessory-focused companies are invited to join the organization with annual membership fees ranging from $500 to $2,000, based on annual sales. Additionally, companies that are not manufacturers or designers of accessories, such as retailers, publications, suppliers and law firms, are invited to join as “associate members” for annual dues of $1,000.
Beyond expanding its roster, the council has initiated a number of programs since its earliest days.
“We started by doing very traditional press outreaches, satellite media tours and advertorial sections and long-lead magazines,” said Giberson. “Today, we put a lot more time and money into our education programs. We feel strongly that if we can arm people with information, we’ll ultimately save them time and money.”
The program covers an array of topics — at least one class each month — that are free for all members. Recent classes have included “How to Improve Your Social Media by Creating Pictures,” led by Unique Photo president Matthew Sweetwood; round-table discussions on topics like “Innovative Ways to Grow Your Business in Rapidly Changing Times,” and “Using Visual Social Commerce and New Mobile Technologies to Grow Your Business.”
The council also connects members with retailers by bringing younger members to trade shows, such as WWDMagic in Las Vegas and VisionExpo East in New York. Facilitating networking opportunities is also an integral service.
“There are so many categories that work in little silos, whether it’s fashion jewelry people or handbag people or scarf people or millinery people,” said Giberson.
“We find that when we get everyone together, magical things happen.”
The organization’s flagship event, the ACE Awards, was created in 1997 to honor individuals and groups for exceptional work in the accessories realm. This year’s gala will take place on Nov. 3, with honorees including Kerry Washington and Lyn Paolo as “influencers,” Shinola for a brand launch, Proenza Schouler as designer of the year and Alex and Ani as specialty retailer.
“I was nominated in 2004 for the Rising Star Award, which is no longer in existence,” recalled Alexis Bittar. “It was actually the first time I’d won an award, and I had massive stage fright. I got up there and had done no mic check, so I didn’t realize how loud my voice would be. I said, ‘Thanks’ and it was just so loud, so I was like, ‘Oh s–t,’… and that was my acceptance speech.”
Despite the disruptive nature of his debut, Bittar has become a frequent attendee of the gala. “I think they’ve done an amazing job bridging the gap [between] accessories [and the rest of the industry],” he said. “Karen has brought in that showmanship to the ACE Awards. It feels more holistic in terms of media and outside industries. You can see it incrementally grow. Ultimately, the ACE Awards are the biggest platform in terms of visibility. It’s become really coveted.”
“The award gave me more exposure to retailers like Bergdorf’s, Neiman’s, Saks, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s,” added Rafé Totengco of his 2001 Best Accessories Designer award. “I also collaborated with more designers for their runway presentations — Tracy Reese, John Bartlett, Jussara Lee, Peter Som and Diane von Furstenberg, when she relaunched her collection.”
This year, the awards will also honor the inaugural winner of its Emerging Designers Competition, an initiative done in partnership with Lividini & Co. to find the next big name in accessories.
“I worked at Saks as senior vice president of fashion merchandising, so finding new talent was something we did all the time,” said Jaqui Lividini, founder and chief executive officer of the branding consultancy. “It always struck me that [new designers] just needed help. They needed help positioning their brand and really having a plan for the brand. That was the thinking for this competition — if we could select an emerging designer to assist in developing the brand and building a strategy, that can be very helpful to them, especially early on.”
Entry to the competition is limited to designers who have been in business fewer than three years and can provide a tentative business plan, as well as look books and product information. The winner, voted upon by all members of the council, will receive free Lividini & Co. client services for a year and a year-long membership to the Accessories Council.
The Emerging Designers Competition punctuates the organization’s intent to keep growing and expanding.
“We’ve learned what works, what’s effective and how to keep pace,” Zambrelli said. “The goal, both internally and externally, is to be a portal — a place to go, or a one-stop place for what’s happening within the industry.”