South African designer Elbeth Gillis, has been showing in the UK for a number of years and attracted a serious following among a selected group of prestigious retailers. She is concerned, however, about changes in the UK market and among fellow designers, and the lack of vetting by exhibition organisers
Boutiques and buyers may have been surprised to find that not every exhibitor and designer at White Gallery this year were export-ready. But how would you know that until you’ve signed contracts and begun doing business? And shouldn’t one be able to expect that international vendors have been vetted, with export-readiness one of the check boxes?
I saw this dilemma play out all too sadly. Unsuspecting store owners meandered through the aisles and designers inexperienced in international trade proudly showed off their gowns. And the show organisers? All too happy to have filled the floor.
I’m writing this article because I’m a designer, a boutique owner, a trade show vendor and to top it off – I’ve been exporting gowns for over eight years now. I know what it means to meet the demands of international clients and government policies, and I want to share a few tips and thoughts that will help all the players unwittingly caught up in this kind of situation.
But first of all, it might be helpful to understand why this really is an issue.
The core problem
When I started exhibiting at White Gallery in 2015, designers had to go through a vetting process. Designers were selected by a panel before they were invited to exhibit. Unfortunately, this practice fell away a few years ago. Since this process changed, I’ve seen a lot of exhibitors who are not export-ready and who have very little experience. This seems a disservice on all fronts.
Designers will know that creating a collection is no small feat and costs a lot of money. Then there are the costs of the collection’s photo shoot, not to mention travel, shipping samples to the show, and the costs of the show itself. All of this amounts to a big investment, and if there is no return on this, it could mean a significant set- back, or even closure if it’s a small business.
Unsuspecting buyers, on the other hand, will be surprised if they suddenly find they have to pay import duties and freight when they didn’t expect this. If designers haven’t prepared for the ramifications of increased production, then the quality of the finished gowns may drop and delivery dates may be overshot, affecting a store owner’s reputation.
Buyers may also find that fabric continuity changes because designers need to have enough capital to invest in buying large quantities of fabric that will enable them to deliver the same dress a year or two down the line.
With all this in mind, perhaps a few tips would be helpful.
Tips for retailers
• The onus is on buyers to ask as many questions as they need to gain clarity and peace of mind.
• Store owners should inquire about whether a designer is registered for export.
• You’ll want to know whether duty and freight are included in the gown costing and, if not, what those additional costs are.
• Understanding lead times on dress delivery is critical, because this affects which brides can order which gowns. For example, a bride who leaves dress shopping until three months before her wedding probably won’t be able to order from a designer who needs 15 weeks’ lead time.
• It’s good to know where the designer sources their fabrics and how much variability you can expect in quality and shades over several seasons.
• Find out how many dresses the designer produces in a week or a month, and how they expect to maintain their standards should production increase.
• Nowadays everyone needs to be on board with marketing, from stores to designers; find out what the designer is doing to get the word out in your market.
Tips for designers
• Imagine you’re a store owner. What would you want to know from a new designer you are thinking of taking on?
• And then imagine you’re a store owner who is considering buying from an international designer. What import/export factors should you be considering?
• Consider the market you want to target, and make sure your fabrics and the quality of your work matches that.
• Check with the revenue services in your country and review export requirements and trade agreements.
• Ask the potential stockist about their target market, how long they’ve been in the industry, which other designers they stock, and what their ambitions are. These questions will give you an initial idea of whether there might be some synergy.
Tips for trade show organisers
• Vetting exhibitors is a competitive advantage. As buyers become increasingly educated, exhibitor vetting could once again become an important competitive advantage that sets you apart from other shows.
• Vetting exhibitors serves your clients. Publishing vetting criteria and educating stockists can become useful service differentiators that demonstrate genuine partnership.
• Vetting exhibitors nurtures better business. Trust and economic sustainability (especially in light of Brexit’s uncertainty) are foundational to fostering thriving businesses that help sustain economies.
If White Gallery would once again vet its exhibitors, while at the same time educating its buyers and future exhibitors, I believe the entire industry would benefit.