LOS ANGELES — Back on New York’s Bond Street, 3,000 miles from her adopted home here, longtime agent Barbara Kramer happened upon fledgling designer Tunji Dada this summer in a way she relishes: accidentally.
Dada had only recently opened the shop-work studio, Skorch, to relaunch his signature women’s collection. His last incarnation, which began in 1998 and lasted until his backing was pulled just after 9/11, was sold to custom clients and retailers such as Patricia Field out of a shop front on Broadway called Clutch.
Inside the new space at 2 Bond Street, filled with Dada’s scorched leather coats, artful T-shirts and tailored trousers, Kramer was smitten. The line fit perfectly in Designers & Agents, the curated trade showcase for contemporary apparel and accessory designers that she and partner Ed Mandelbaum founded in Los Angeles in 1998. D&A now presents 11 shows annually in three cities. Upcoming shows are New York, Sept. 29 to Oct. 1; Tokyo, Oct. 15 to Oct. 17; and Los Angeles, Oct. 31 to Nov. 3.
As importantly as its elemental mission as a marketplace, D&A has also evolved into a kind of laboratory for emerging designers. Coveted selling space is awarded; advice on everything from merchandising to publicity is doled out by the show’s veteran founders, and partnerships with public and private, local and federal entities boost business survival for exhibitors.
Within two days of his partner’s visit, Mandelbaum, who helms the D&A headquarters in Manhattan, dropped by Skorch. Just like that, the pair decided to make Dada the first recipient of the Protégé Project, a kind of grant for new designers who fit the bill, but can’t foot the full bill to show and sell at a D&A show in New York.
A similar program has been under way here since the start of D&A, in collaboration with the Fashion Business Incubator, a nonprofit networking and training organization for new companies.
Among its graduates is Mon Petit Oiseau’s Tracy Wilkinson. She benefited from the joint program in 2000, a year after launching the brand.
“Everything’s so difficult when you’re just starting,” she noted. “This is such a low-maintenance show. Just bring the line, set up and sell.” Having split with her New York showroom recently, she’s adding the D&A show there this time to reach out to more retailers.
Like its West Coast counterpart, the Protégé Project provides a sales booth, introductions to buyers and press and a personal push from Mandelbaum and Kramer.
“We’re going to empower a designer every show,” enthused Kramer recently from her Hollywood home. “It’s how we give back.”
Added Mandelbaum: “Our mantra is to not think what’s good for Designers & Agents, but what’s good for the entire group, attendees included.”
The upcoming New York edition also goes beyond the call of business by presenting a visual installation by Beauty Without Irony, the Antwerp-based movement that celebrates the “private joy of beauty” in life through art, music and fashion. Kramer met BWI founders during a visit to Berlin this summer for the the Bread & Butter and Premium Sportswear Couture fairs. Again, an accidental meeting resulting in an opportunity for D&A.
This kind of grassroots, almost New Age approach (white sage is burned at the start of each show to rid the space of bad energy) is at the core of D&A, which has become more than a trade show.
Along with retailers, celebrity stylists and even celebrities themselves cruise the aisles — as Sheryl Crow did at an edition earlier in the year here. From the DJs to the Eames-appointed lounges, the carefully created environments appear more like nightclubs than banal convention center markets.
“It has a wonderful aesthetic,” noted Los Angeles-based designer Alicia Lawhon, echoing other exhibitors. “[Other shows have] a very commercial feel. It’s not the same.” But that doesn’t mean business is less likely to happen at D&A, she added. “It definitely does.”
Mandelbaum, Kramer and a New York-based staff of five review lines before each season — and before inviting a brand back. And while exhibitors are up 10 to 20 percent each year, the founders insist the domestic shows, which pull in about $30 million in paper per show, won’t get much larger than they are now.
“A strength of D&A is that we’re not too big,” said Mandelbaum. “This whole thing has grown out of need, but rather than get into trouble, we’re trying to keep it tight, focused.”
For example, New York will feature 175 vendors in 100 booths, up 10 percent from last year. By contrast, Tokyo’s D&A remains much smaller, writing about $7 million at the April event.
In its second year, the Tokyo show has undergone as many growing pains as gains for participating companies. Some 50 brands occupy the top floor of a shopping center called Bell Commons looking out at the fashion-minded Aoyama neighborhood.
“Japan is a little bit more edgy, while New York is a little less casual than L.A,” observed Mandelbaum.
Last fall, D&A offered exhibitors a new program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Textiles and Apparel and created by the World Trade Center Association’s new Export by Design arm. The California Fashion Association, Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. and the Export Managers Association of California are also partners.
Companies that can ship, no matter how small, and with design and production based in California, could get 50 hours of one-on-one consulting doing business in Japan. As needed, experts advised on trademarking, logistics, evaluating distributors overseas, looking at logistical issues, financing, insuring working capital for export and other related issues.
“The quality of U.S.- and California-made products is an attractive feature among many Asian fashion buyers. That, and the innovation of design in L.A. It’s among the most favorably received concepts overseas,” said Alexander Kramer, executive vice president of international trade with the Los Angeles chapter of the WTCA, an organization dedicated to connecting global businesses through its network of 300 WTCA chapters throughout nearly 100 nations. (Alexander is no relation to Barbara).
More immediately, the partnership has meant assistance in facilitating the Tokyo trips, from providing translators to hosting the local media.
While a step in the right direction, former exhibitors critical of the experience contend that the handful of translators on the floor at any time was not sufficient, and the show dates fall during the European circuit, which means key buyers and press are away.
And one exhibitor, speaking on condition of anonymity, pointed out that Asia’s specialty retailers prefer uncovering the next big thing on foreign turf — which is why the Los Angeles installments remain the most successful.
“Going to them takes away some of the allure, and just doesn’t interest them,” the exhibitor said. “It’s just too expensive an investment for a small company and not enough of a payoff.”
Others remain faithful. Premium denim designer Adriano Goldschmeid doubled his booth space to accommodate the mob he and his staff struggled to welcome at 2002’s fall show. The line was positioned as an “L.A. line,” Goldschmeid said later. “You know the Japanese are crazy for that.”
This summer, Mandelbaum met with OTEXA representatives in D.C. repeatedly to “strengthen the relationship” between the department and D&A. “Having the support of the federal government can’t exactly hurt,” he laughed. That’s particularly true with Europe being considered as a potential next show stop.
Corporate support was tapped this last year by teaming up with sponsors Elle and Chrysler. This year, the trio offered a contest to participating U.S.-based exhibitors to design something that could be worn while driving. Elle readers voted online, and the winning product was made and sold through retailers nationwide.
On a local level in downtown Los Angeles, D&A and its building hosts, the New Mart and Cooper Building, along with neighbors the California Market Center and Gerry Building, initiated Intersection, a joint marketing effort for Los Angeles Fashion Week. Started in April, it aims to reclaim the crossroads of Los Angeles and Ninth Streets to its once-historic status as a fashion resource center following years of competing like islands in downtown’s apparel district. While the move was prompted by the attention-grabbing shows being staged nearby by 7th on Sixth, the unified front proved there’s power in numbers.
The collective power of lines participating in D&A by invitation — and not simply by applying — remains a strength of the show, according to supporters.
“It’s a unique, refined mix of designers and buyers involved, and the size is just right for the level of our company. We could get lost at other shows,” believes Brett Erickson of the New York-based line M.R.S. Based on word of mouth, the It brand took a chance with D&A Annex, the intermediary show, in May, and ended up adding several new stores from around the country, including Pitkin Country Dry Goods in Aspen and Capitol in Charlotte, NC. “These are stores we never knew existed,” he said. “That’s why we went to D&A for and why we will continue to go there.”