CHICAGO — With a newly united tenant organization behind it and a slew of lines new in town, Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. says it aims to make the new Stylemax show the jewel of Midwest trade shows.
With a similar format to successful New York trade shows like the Coterie and Style Industrie, Stylemax, which makes its debut Oct. 14-17 as the region’s first major women’s apparel trade show, is attempting to revitalize the city’s apparel scene, according to officials.
Stylemax will have 1,000 booths, representing between 3,000 and 4,000 lines in such categories as sportswear, juniors, special occasion and accessories, ranging in price from moderate to bridge.
The new show is a major undertaking for Merchandise Mart Properties, parent of the Chicago Apparel Center, the Chicago Merchandise Mart and Gift Mart. The apparel center has always relied on five-times-yearly markets, driven mostly by permanent showroom sales, but the formula is growing stale, said officials.
Stylemax will offer a new venue, format and timing for apparel shows. The show will be held in temporary exhibition space in the Chicago Merchandise Mart, across the street from the apparel building. The area has been used for internal trade shows, including the successful Menswear Collective, which has grown from 50 to 500 booths since its inception six years ago.
The October show will be followed by a March 17-20, 2001, Stylemax show and then run twice yearly for spring and fall collections. The three remaining markets of the five-show cycle, in January, June and August, will continue as usual at the apparel mart, as will twice-yearly bridal shows.
Officials hope the new show will make the city more alluring to buyers from the Midwest and beyond. Like other regional trade marts, Chicago has seen declining attendance in recent years due to specialty store attrition that began in the early Nineties. Officials said trade shows, rather than traditional regional marts, are the wave of the future. With new resources and buyers, Stylemax should make Chicago competitive with New York markets.
“The trade show format, where buyers get an overview, is seeing real growth,” said Susan A. McCullough, vice president of the Chicago Apparel Center. “We’ve always believed in permanent showrooms, but we think this is where the real future opportunity is.” McCullough added that regional marts were all built during a time of expansion and growth for independent specialty stores, and before the advent of discounters and other retail channels.
Originally spread out over 12 floors, apparel is now consolidated on three floors in the building. Around 250 permanent tenants, mostly multiline sales representatives, lease permanent showroom space here, with a 10th-floor area, Pavillion Suites, now housing temporary exhibitors. The remainder of the building has become a mixed-use facility, with a Holiday Inn and such tenants as Ameritech and Fox Broadcasting network.
Although apparel tenants have been sharply divided over the idea of Stylemax, McCullough said that 99 percent of the anchor tenants have agreed to participate.
The issue has been so volatile that in January, the Apparel Tenants of Chicago, an organization with around 200 members that goes by the acronym ACT, voted not to support the show. ACT had also announced that it was exploring venues outside of the mart for future tenant-led shows.
But just this month, the group reversed its decision, voting to endorse Stylemax. Suzanne Craig, president of ACT, said recent negotiations with MMP had addressed the groups’ concerns over Stylemax, as well as a variety of issues such as marketing and building improvements. She said the organization was pleased about the prospects of Stylemax.
“We were concerned that the mart would emphasize and promote Stylemax over other shows,” said Craig. “We realize now that we have to join forces with the mart to promote Stylemax and take a more active role in marketing ourselves.”
ACT will continue its Shop Chicago program, which includes buyer incentives like hotel, restaurant and parking discounts.
MMP is indeed marketing Stylemax heavily, with an advertising budget five times greater than that of existing markets. Money will also go to buyer outreach and incentive programs, in hopes of drawing buyers that shop New York as well as nearby smaller regional marts. MMP is trying to lure resources not currently showing here, hoping to expand categories like juniors, accessories and dresses, which have not been well represented recently.
One such manufacturer, Philip DiCaprio, a better-priced New York dress line, will make its Midwest debut at Stylemax, looking to expand business in the area. Currently, the majority of its sales come from New York shows like the Coterie, with very little penetration into the Midwest.
“Stylemax is a great format for us to make inroads in the Midwest,” said Philip DiCaprio Scaduto, president. “The Chicago mart has been footballed and sandwiched between New York shows before. Now, more key lines will draw key people.”
Multiline better-to-bridge sportswear sales rep Steve Levine, principal in Steve Levine & Co., a permanent tenant in the Chicago apparel center, will expand his target store list for Stylemax. Levine said that if successful, Stylemax could cut down on travel that he, like so many sales reps, has found necessary in recent years. Currently, he said he travels between markets to accounts throughout the region and participates in other regional shows.
Despite the majority of showroom support, a few major tenants prefer the permanent showroom status quo and are choosing not to participate.
One of the apparel mart’s largest firms, Dressed 2 Kill, a 10,000-square-foot multiline space with four showrooms, will not move to Stylemax. Mike Stevison, principal, will remain in his permanent showroom space during Stylemax. With four showrooms offering misses’, contemporary and activewear and best-selling lines such as Garfield & Marks, New Frontier and Votre Nom, Stevison said his showroom is a big enough draw.
“I already do a huge business, flying stores in and giving them hotel discounts and good customer service,” he said. “Why would I move to another building when I’m already paying rent on my permanent showrooms?”
After four years in the Chicago Apparel Center, Stevison said his business is booming. Sales reached $1 million during the recent June market and topped $2 million at the March show. Stevison is expanding space, taking another room that will make a total of 15,000 square feet.
“Business is great now,” said Stevison. “I don’t see the need to change anything.”

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