PARIS — The Who’s Next women’s apparel trade show, held in Paris in January, was bustling with signs of growth, laying the ground for a revamp of the show’s aging business model under the leadership of new management.
“We can no longer just be sellers of square meters,” said Frédéric Maus, who was recently appointed as co-general director of WSN Developpement, the company that organizes Who’s Next and its accessory counterpart Premiere Classe.
Instead, WSN aims to provide a vast range of business and fashion solutions throughout the year, while maintaining seasonal events as “extraordinary moments” for meeting and viewing new collections in person. The goal is to reposition the role of the trade shows.
“The transformation of the trade shows will only happen through a service model, and it’s only by putting ourselves in the center of the playing field that we will be able to offer services that are useful for solving people’s problems,” said Maus, 40, who steered the successful digital evolution of French catalog retailer La Redoute.
“I’m persuaded that when the trade shows transform themselves, the whole rest of the industry will benefit. There are no boundaries,” he told WWD. “We’ve realized now that trade shows are no longer simply places where buyers place orders. A lot more is expected from us.”
Maus believes digital technology will help meet those expectations without having to reduce the size of the shows. “For us, the key will be to change our business model and use all forms of digital tools to our best advantage, to reinforce the central role that trade shows have,” he said.
Who’s Next typically shows about 700 brands and Premiere Classe 900, though each hosted fewer this season due to changing market demands. Who’s Next was down by about 100 brands, and chose not to replace them.
Part of the drop is due to struggling designers experimenting with cheaper alternatives to the costly shows, such as small showrooms coupled with online marketing campaigns. The consensus has been that trade shows “have been too slow, in comparison to the rest of the industry” to adapt to a digital age, Maus admitted.
Nevertheless, evidence of growth at the trade events in September was reinforced in January, with buyer attendance up 12 percent, plus reports of increases in orders, according to organizers, proving the wholesale event still holds a key advantage.
“Trade shows are not dying. They are transforming,” said Maus. “There is no other place where this entire fashion ecosystem comes together physically. It doesn’t exist anywhere else, and that alone — when we’re in a world that really needs meaning – for me, that indicates there’s something really important to do.”
Buyers at Who’s Next tended to be on the same page. Nathalie Friedlander, cofounder of the Parisian boutique Brand Bazar and co-creator of La Redoute’s online Brand Boutique, said more cooperation is needed if businesses like hers are to survive.
“Trade shows were made for multibrands, but there are no more multibrands. Everyone needs to start talking to each other,” she said. “We need ideas. There is a lot to do here, and it’s not that complicated, but we especially have to have people work together, not against each other, and not just see each other once per season.”
Among the urgent issues the industry needs to tackle is discounting, she said. “The constant promotions have really harmed the profession. The private sales, the sales before sales — it’s not possible. We don’t have an economic model for that. We can’t have one month to sell at full price,” Friedlander argued.
She predicted the same problem would hit major department stores once their digital stores become more established.
“When they have web sites that work well, they’ll realize they only sell during the sales periods. And so they’ll die, too, like in the U.S. So it’s hard. There’s a real rethinking that needs to be done about whether we want to survive or not. Right now, we’re in terms of survival, people like us,” she said.
But Friedlander hasn’t given up the fight. “We always have energy because we love what we do. And our real DNA is to find brands, find new products, make the customer want,” she said.
“There’s also a little problem with brands not renewing their collections enough, and staying the same. We have to find creativity again, and even risk. So it’s hard, and that’s why we all have to work together, so that the risk is shared by everyone,” she concluded.
Friedlander and several other buyers praised the small French label V De Vinster for designer Virginie de Vinster’s “supercollection,” including dresses, cozy oversized knitwear, and long, quilted and corduroy coats in a rich palette of natural colors.
In a reflection of higher attendance, a sense of renewed activity was palpable to visitors at Who’s Next. “I’ve been coming to this show for many years, and I think the show has suffered in the last few years,” commented Juliana Walters, owner of the concept store Place in Ireland.
“But I’m really excited this season, because it seems there are a lot more people, a lot more positive energy. And in terms of the collections, I think it’s great to see color and a lot of excitement,” she added. “I think a lot of people were scared to come to Paris, but now it’s great to see everybody again — wonderful.”
Buyers also outlined plans to increase orders from European labels in particular.
“We made a point of coming to this show, because we want to pick up more of the emerging European brands that we’re not finding in the U.S.,” said Julia V. Currelly, women’s wear director for the Bermuda-based English Sports Shop, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, plus Boutique CC and designer store Lusso.
“What we carry out of Europe shrunk a little in the last decade, and we focused a little bit more on American designers, but now we feel there’s a lot more creativity coming out of Europe, and risk,” said Currelly.
“God knows the retail apocalypse has actually hit North America. It’s a mess, and people are going to have to start taking risks in order to push things forward and grow, and get the consumers excited again. People are bored!” she added.
The moment appears ripe for change, argued Maus.
“We are going from a period of uncertainty, where everyone looked at each other and said, ‘Digital will kill everyone. Stores will close.’ And what I’ve felt is that we’re getting rid of our complex about all these uncertainties, and instead, they’re becoming opportunities. And that’s when it becomes interesting,” he said.
The shows have already taken some steps towards a larger service role, as seen with ever-expanding workshops and conferences. In line with other trade shows now attempting a more edited, segmented strategy, WSN Developpement will host a new event in June during Men’s Fashion Week called Nom de code June.
The show will include more than 150 apparel and accessories brands, shown at the Place de la Concorde from June 23 to 25, in response to the scheduling needs of northern European, Japanese and other international buyers who finish their buying season earlier.
Some trends at Who’s Next included a cheerful Seventies vibe. “We are all in for some fun and love of the Seventies,” enthused Walters, who noticed strong oranges and yellows, and a lot of checks, stripes and patterns. She singled out Conditions Apply and their “lovely mixture of bohemian with quite strong futuristic colors.”
Currelly liked the wide legs and cropped pants trends. “I’m well over the ath-leisure thing, so we want to know what’s after ath-leisure? What’s going to motivate her to buy that’s still comfortable, but is now looking a little more tailored and elegant and dressed?” she said.
Several buyers said while they were confident about 2018, they were sticking to safer buying strategies this season in response to a difficult 2017.
Charlotte Ghosn Sabbagh, head buyer for the Galeries Lafayette franchise in the Middle East, reflected “that for everyone the year was hard, but we’re feeling more positivity for the coming year, so we’re happy, confident. And we saw some really interesting things at the trade show, so we’re happy about that. Last time it was a little disappointing, to be honest.”
Sabbagh said she would “reinforce what works,” and remain “more on the safe side, honestly, considering the year that we just passed. But if there’s something we love, we love it!”
She has found that commercially oriented brands are adding more fashionable pieces. “Everyone wants to dress stylishly, including women over 60. It’s not like before, with the grandma wearing her little cardigan. Today, everyone dresses fashionably, from mother to daughter to grandmother,” she noted.
Sabbagh also appreciated the way some brands offered to do last-minute capsule lines in addition to their full winter collection. Among trends she spotted were big coats and capes, leather, and more playful faux fur. “We’re seeing a huge oversize trend,” she said, noting that most Middle Eastern women prefer a more fitted look.
Gabrielle Spang, owner of the London children’s clothing store Scandi Mini, expanding into women’s wear, also said she was maintaining a safer buying approach. “I feel really excited, but times are quite tough, so we’re going to see how it goes, play a little safe,” she said.
“The show has been really good,” she added, explaining she was looking for smaller brands such as knitwear specialist Maison Anje. Spang highlighted trends such as overalls, velvets, velvet prints, corduroy, knits and a lot of sportswear.
In a hint of more changes to come, a group of fashion influencers were invited to the January shows, where they broadcast their findings to a total of 2.3 million reported followers. The entrepreneurial and cultural residency Atelier Meraki presented its group of young designers, whose collections touched on the show’s Jazz Age theme.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM WHO’S NEXT
Brand: V De Vinster
Designer: Virginie de Vinster
Inspiration: A trip to Jaipur inspired the designer to push the collection’s color palette further than usual. “I always try to have an authentic story, using ethnic embroidery, pretty raw material, a lot of handmade things,” she said. Garments come in large knits, wool, silk, corduroys and other natural textiles. The French designer works closely with local artisans in India and Peru.
Key styles: Brick, reds, saffron, deep purple on ultra-soft materials. A long, quilted velvet and corduroy coat in different colors was a favorite.
Prices: Between 125 euros and 180 euros on average.
Brand: Conditions Apply
Designer: Diana Gressier
Inspiration: An “irregular aesthetic,” with prints inspired by brush strokes, ethnic patterns, juxtapositions of futuristic neon pops and natural colors, like terracotta, are all designed and ethically produced by the brand to reduce waste. “We’re trying to use a lot of hand-crafted aesthetics in products that are hand-crafted, but need to be reproduced easily,” said the designer, who is originally from India and studied in the U.K. The brand was launched in 2015.
Key styles: Soft fabrics using natural Viscos fibers give a cocooning feel. Coats in a bold range of mixed patterns and textures. Many silhouettes were designed to be loose-fitting, so customers don’t need to try on the garment.
Prices: Tops about $60, long cover-up cardigan $77, wrap dress $125, long, mixed material patchwork cover-up, $157.
Brand: Soi Paris
Designer: Aurélie Boutboul, Julia Boutboul
Inspiration: For their first collection shown at Who’s Next, the emerging Parisian brand drew inspiration from an astral theme, illustrated with playful, exclusive prints on 100 percent silk twill. Each print tells a story, which often plays with perspective and meaning.
Key styles: The collection focused on silk tops and matching scarves for the show, though the brand also makes silk dresses and skirts. The Little Prince print was a favorite, in bright primary colors, and recognizable imagery from the French classic. Cutouts of photographs of the sky, taken while flying by a friend who is pilot, decorate another top. Tops are packaged in an elegant case that resembles a book, and a matching silk bracelet comes with each shirt.
Prices: Tops cost 145 euros, scarves 55 euros.
Brand: Anissa Aida
Designer: Anissa Meddeb
Inspiration: Japanese Boro textiles and their patchwork aesthetic, as well as waste reducing tradition, inspired this collection. A combination of Tunisian and Japanese cultures influenced the young Tunisian-born designer.
Key styles: A deconstructed, tailored jacket with mixed materials and slits along the sleeves was a highlight. The designer plays with modern interpretations of kimonos, as well as ties and openings in the back. Dresses can be attached in front or behind. Colors include blues, indigo, navy, gray and black. Hand-woven silk and other natural materials are prioritized.
Prices: Bow blouse 160 euros, tie dress in check wool 180 euros, deconstructed jacket with fringes 230 euros, Africa Alpaca coat 550 euros.