It was a classic case of David versus Goliath and in the most recent round, David appeared to have had the edge.
With Project and the Chicago Collective going head-to-head in two cities for the first time earlier this month, many of the most influential retailers in the men’s industry opted for the Midwest over Las Vegas.
The reasons they cited included the strong list of brands showing in Chicago — particularly within the designer and contemporary arena — as well as the decision of the Italian Trade Commission to bring its group of labels to the Collective.
The Tents, long a draw at the Project show with its more upscale lineup, were eliminated this time as a stand-alone concept as Informa Markets Fashion, Project’s parent, seeks to provide a more unified and less confusing layout and approach, its management said. And the Project show in New York in July, where the Italian brands usually have a strong presence, was canceled this year.
Also drawing retailers to Chicago was the fact that it’s less expensive, smaller and more manageable, they said.
Kelly Helfman, commercial president of Informa Fashion Markets, which runs Project, said the company’s vision for the show is to bring men’s and women’s contemporary markets together “under one global brand” through a hybrid of live and digital events domestically and internationally in order to foster more meaningful connections between retailers looking for what’s new and next, and brands looking to expand into new territories and marketplaces. She said the Las Vegas show was part of an “ongoing evolution and transition in progress.”
Helfman acknowledged that there were “logistical conflicts” this time because of the overlap in dates with the Collective, and Informa will work with the other trade show organizers to “emphasize collaboration over competition so as not to split the market.” She also said that travel restrictions and corporate travel freezes kept some buyers and brands from being at the show, prompting Project to create “a more curated event floor” that showcased “large marquee brands” like Nautica, Lucky Brand and Seven For All Mankind along with “many more new and fresh brands — something our community has been asking of us as they seek to differentiate their in-stock offerings with more unique products for their customers.” Among those highlighted were emerging designers, women-owned companies, sustainable brands and participants in an incubator program, she said.
The section with the most buzz at Project were the streetwear brands which saw a steady stream of retailers to their booths.
“Yes, the 2021 Project Las Vegas may have seemed different, however what we presented was all made with a conscious effort and vision for the future as the market continues to shift and change, especially coming back from a pandemic,” she said.
Informa declined to provide figures on the number of attendees and exhibitors and how that compared to Project’s last August show two years ago before the pandemic caused the cancellation of the 2020 edition. But Bruce Schedler, vice president of the Chicago Collective, said his show had a waiting list of exhibitors trying to get booth space at the 250,000-square-foot exhibition hall and the show attracted 1,200 buyers. “In my 24 years,” he said, “this is the best show we’ve ever had,” he said.
In Chicago, the brand list included Belvest, Belstaff, Billy Reid, Bugatchi, CP Co., Corneliani, Cutter & Buck, Ermenegildo Zegna, Faherty, Grayers, Hugo Boss, Kiton, Paul & Shark, Tommy Bahama, Robert Graham, Tiger of Sweden and more. “It was like a mini Pitti Uomo,” said one retailer.
Dana Katz, owner of Miltons men’s stores in Massachusetts, was one of the retailers who managed to attend both shows. “I spent two days in Chicago and two days in Vegas,” he said. “I saw that there were fewer exhibitors and retailers in Vegas, but I found it worthwhile to see some of the West Coast brands in the better value category.”
He said Miltons offers a mix of medium and high tiers of price points and to appeal to the more value-oriented shopper, he needs to find product that offers “exceptional value,” such as the wedding party accessories brand he found in Vegas.
For the higher-priced product, though, he found Chicago more useful. “This is the best show Bruce [Schedler] ever put on,” he said. “They had the best vendors ever and there was great energy.”
In the future, Katz said he plans to attend both shows, along with Outdoor Retailer, whose dates also overlapped with Project this time. “That’s what would be the most helpful to us.”
Ken Giddon, president of New York City-based Rothmans, and a self-professed lover of trade shows, made the decision to go to Chicago instead of Vegas. But he said it was a personal issue that kept him from attending Project and he expects to return in the future.
“Everything fell in favor of Chicago this year, but let’s not write off Vegas,” he said. “Chicago was a great show and the brand mix was great. We also found some new brands that maybe could only afford a smaller show, like Fair Harbor, Dibi, Fourlaps and Trinidad3 Jeans. It was a very walkable show and there was great networking. We had 30 appointments booked.”
But Giddon said it’s important for him to attend as many trade shows as possible and he plans to pencil in both next season. “We’re in the business of curation and we have to see a lot to make our decisions,” he said. “We love trade shows, they’re definitely the most efficient use of our time.”
Hill Stockton of Norman Stockton men’s store in Winston-Salem, N.C., also attended the Collective. “The Chicago show was fabulous,” he raved. He said this replaced a longer stay in New York where he historically visits brands and attends shows, which were canceled this year. “We went to New York for 24 hours and we could have almost replaced it totally with Chicago,” he said. “Everybody was there: clothing, sportswear, what I call knickknacks. It was reasonable, it was a two-block walk from the hotel, and it was all centralized. I think Chicago is the top show now.”
In the future, Stockton said he will stick with the regional shows such as Chicago or Dallas, the latter of which he said also “raised their game” and moved ahead with in-person shows during the pandemic when others canceled or went virtual. “They stuck their necks out so there’s some loyalty there that will be tough to compete against.”
But it wasn’t just the independents that went to Chicago. According to sources, merchants from big stores including Macy’s Inc., Dillard’s Inc., Nordstrom Inc. and Zappos were seen walking the Collective.
Although Schedler didn’t detail which merchants attended the show, he did say retailer attendance was higher than in past years when around 1,000 buyers would attend. And while big stores do attend, the Collective is generally targeted to the more upscale specialty stores. What did hurt attendance, he said, was the inability of the Canadian retailers to attend because of travel restrictions.
Going forward, he said the plan is to further increase the space on the show floor to accommodate some of the brands that were unable to get booth space. “We’re going to move some things around and add another 10,000 to 15,000 square feet for our next show Feb. 6 to 8.”
Although its participation in the Informa shows is still unknown, the Italian Trade Commission will definitely return to Chicago in the future — and in an even bigger way, according to Paola Guida, deputy director of fashion and beauty for the ITC. She said the group’s mission is to “help Italian companies enter the international markets, supporting and assisting them in multiple ways, including subsidizing Italian companies’ participation at U.S. trade shows.”
For many years, the ITC had brought its brands to the Mrket/Project show in New York — Project’s then-parent bought the Mrket men’s show and merged it into Project a few years ago. Last January, before the pandemic, it brought about 30 companies to Project Digital “and we might plan to bring more when Informa will share plans for future in-person trade shows in 2022,” Guida said.
But its return to Chicago is a certainty. She said the ITC decided to go there because the show is “a successful one very much appreciated by U.S. buyers and retailers. The show team is very easy to work with, we had a great partnership and very positive feedback from the 28 Italian exhibitors. We have already planned to keep bringing Italian companies to the Chicago Collective and we already agreed to double the area of the Italian Pavilion for the next edition, in February 2022. We really hope this will be a long-lasting partnership in order to help Italian companies to enter and/or strengthen their position in the American market.”