Retail Panel Gives Advice to Young Designers

New York–“How do I get my line in front of—and picked up by—retail boutiques and e-tailers?” 

As this is one of the most common questions posed to The Accessories Council, the non-profit industry organization recently put together a panel of retailers to answer designers directly.

Panelists included: Steve Ginsberg, owner of Verve accessories store; Erin Yogasundram, owner of new accessories site ShopJeen.com; and Rand Niederhoffer, Co-Founder of Thistle & Clover, a Fort Greene, Brooklyn-based apparel and accessories store and e-commerce site www.ThistleClover.com. The panel was moderated by JOOR.

The stores each came with their respective business perspective and often differing views. Verve, the veteran of the group and the retailer that first put brands like Rebecca Minkoff and Kooba on the map, has a pragmatic, “old-school” approach. Brooklyn-centric Thistle & Clover focuses mainly on local Brooklyn labels, even fronting money to new designers. Newbie site Shop Jeen is all about social media and targets the younger customer, with trend tabs like “Music Festival Style” and “Blogger Must-Haves” on the site.

What is your advice for new designers?

Verve: Don’t just copy a trend because bigger companies will do it cheaper, and better, than you can. And don’t be too attached to your product—understand that this is a business and be open to changes. I don’t know how to design, but I know product. Also, know the business—know price, be knowledgeable, and know your competition! If I’m mentioning your competitors, know who I’m talking about! And know the technical side of things. I’ve asked handbag designers what other colors they can make a bag in and they say, “Any color.” But they don’t understand that certain hides take color differently. Have swatches. Show me what you’re really going to be making.

Shop Jeen: Brands need showrooms. I want to touch and feel the merchandise. Very often, the quality that comes in is very different from how it seemed in an image.

Thistle & Clover: Do your homework! Research why your brand works for our store. Don’t ask me what brands we carry—tell us how you fit in with what we already have. And if you have a great story for us to pass down to our customers on your background, your inspiration, your business, that helps tremendously.

How do you go about building relationships?

Verve: I’m looking for long relationships with young designers, but they have to understand that you can’t sell to everyone—you have to keep territories to protect your retailers. I really want a designer who understands retail. I always hear, “But my friends all love and buy my pieces!” Of course your friends will love it. But remember, they’re not paying retail! Understand how pricing works and what we’re going to ultimately charge for your product.

Thistle & Clover: Be flexible. Come in for a trunk show so I can test the line with customers. Let me do a one-three month trial period.

What about delivery and exclusivity?

Verve: It’s very important that a vendor deliver on time. Seasons are getting shorter. Five years ago my competition was department and specialty stores. Now it’s all the online stores too.

Shop Jeen: Before I go to a showroom to check the quality, I see where else they are sold. I had Vanessa Mooney and now she’s sold everywhere, so I’m always looking for more exclusive brands.

How do you use blogs and engage with others?

Shop Jeen: I go through blogs, see who has a high Alexa Ranking, and then in the discovery process, I see who else reads their blogs and who is on their blogroll. I then choose blogs to partner with.

Thistle & Clover: We have a big Google Reader to see what people are talking about.

Verve: I use the Internet as a tool but don’t engage in blogs that way. I go to all the trade shows to find new designers.

How do engage people online to drive traffic to your stores/sites?

Thistle & Clover: We do the Thistle & Clover Diaries, with lots of interesting content on the designers, whether it’s them at a trade show or a a behind-the-scenes look at their photo shoot. We used to bake every Sunday too!

Shop Jeen: One word–Instagram! I have over 7,000 Instagram followers after just being open for three months! A lot of my business comes from Instagram posts. It’s essential to put our link so our followers can immediately buy what they see and like.

What is your biggest gripe today?

Verve: I believe that young designers are the real talent, but it’s hard to protect their designs. Big companies come in and buy from me just to copy my merchandise, and it’s not something you can control or stop. I’d say it’s 15% of my sales! They buy from all the stores—not just me. I also think it’s unfair how some stores charge back or return unsold merchandise to young designers. Every season I start from zero. I don’t keep unsold merchandise or return it; I donate it. I don’t think it’s fair to operate as a consignment store. Young designers are using their own money to build a brand. Retailers need to be responsible as buyers and own up to their own buying mistakes.

What are your open-to-buys and minimums?

Shop Jeen: I have very small minimums; we’ll do one of each item.

Thistle & Clover: We’re a small store—500 square feet. And we’ll do 4 styles in a few different metals.

Verve: A new designer should not have minimums and I advise you not to take big orders from retailers—for your own protection. It can put you out of business! Just set yourself up to reorder quickly.

Would you ever front a designer money to fund a big order?

Thistle & Clover: We pay 50% up front with accounts we trust. We’ve even done split-pay with new designers.

Verve: I don’t agree with that. I once gave a guy $3,000 to put shoes in production for an order and he disappeared! Do not ask a store for a deposit! No one at a trade show would do that. Business is risk. COD is a fair exchange of money for goods. But I’m not going to “sponsor” someone. I’m sorry.

How can designers build their business and protect themselves?

Verve: Designers can use credit cards, and they can also find out which stores don’t pay. There are definitely retailers that take advantage of young designers, because they feel it’s worth it for the exposure, but there’s a tight circle to discover who they are.

Shop Jeen: We charge a $5 flat rate worldwide. We make money on the domestic shipping so we can afford to lose a little bit on the international, which is really a small percentage anyway.

Do designers have to send online vendors photos for their website?

Thistle & Clover: We do all our own photography so the images on our website are cohesive. But it helps us when a designer has a nice presentation to see how it all looks. We don’t reproduce model shots as those come with licensing and reproduction fees.

What’s the most effective way to contact a store?

Thistle & Clover: We reply to all emails. But you must send a picture and say why your line is a good fit for our store. We ignore mass emails.

Shop Jeen: We suggest you be really really nice. And personable.

Verve: I get a lot of linesheets actually mailed to me. [Verve’s website actually tells designers to call and not send emails.]

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Lauren Parker, Accessories Magazine

Lauren Parker, Editor-in-Chief, Accessories Magazine
As Editor-in-Chief of Accessories Magazine for the past 12 years, Lauren Parker has covered accessories both from a retail business perspective and a fashion point of view. In previous full-time magazine jobs and freelance gigs, she’s written about practically every angle of fashion lifestyle living, including women's fashion accessories, fine jewelry, Caribbean travel, private jets, Hampton’s real estate, the New York art scene, the bridal industry, men’s lifestyle and being a mom. She loves meeting designers and seeing how their latest offerings capture the current zeitgeist and fit into the entire cultural and social picture.