Inside The Fascinating World Of A Fashion Retail Trade Show

Beautifully listed on e-commerce sites, or neatly stacked up in a retail outlets, those pretty clothes, quirky accessories, classy shoes are yours for the taking. You try some, select, pay, buy and wear.

trade show
Image by OfficeChai

But ever wonder what goes behind the making and supply of those branded clothes and accessories you love to shop for?

What happens before they make it to the store? Who decides which clothes to sell, in what quantities, and who’s designed them?

The answer to all those questions is the trade show.

A trade show is an event by a retail manufacturer – usually a fashion brand- to display and sell their offerings to the various clients and trade channels such as their own retail stores, departmental stores, ecommerce sites as well as independent shopping outlets for the purpose of helping them select, and stock up and sell to final consumers, all in time for a season.

I have attended various trade shows by different brands. Keeping the one by the Indian fashion retail giant Madura Fashion and Lifestyle as a reference, here’s a breakdown on what a tradeshow is, how it functions and why it’s the most important event for a fashion brand as well as the retail channels.

Here’s how the tradeshow comes to life.

1. Planning the season and designing it.

The fashion industry typically works on bi-annual segments called “Seasons”, and the usual seasons are Spring-Summer and Autumn-Winter. A company works on the next season’s merchandise a whole season in advance. Designers work on the next season’s offerings after a careful analysis of international trends,  and use instinct and their creativity to determine what people will like to wear. The clothes that result from this long process can make it to a tradeshow.

Image: OfficeChai team

2. Production of the samples

After finishing the designs, these are sent to the manufacturer- in-house or a vendor- to design sample pieces for the trade show. Once approved by the designers, merchandisers and other product teams, these samples are finalised.

Image: OfficeChai team

3. Putting up a grand spectacle

The trade show is like a mega shopping carnival, except it’s for business-to-business or B2B. The company, in conjunction with its design, visual merchandizing and event manager teams pulls out all stops to put up an impressive spectacle, ensuring that not only all the products are displayed in all their glory, but they also tell a story. The people presenting the collection are well informed and trained to give a selling pitch. A good tradeshow can set a company back by upto $5 million, depending on decor, choice of F&B, and this doesn’t even include the merchandize costs. Watch this great video of an Allen Solly trade show.


4. When designers become teachers

Image: OfficeChai
Image: OfficeChai

Buyers like department stores, e-commerce sites, a company’s own retail buyers and independent shopping outlets are invited to the trade show, usually at the company’s expense. At the trade show, these buyers go around assessing the range, assisted by  knowledgeable and usually passionate designers who hold forth about a particular collection or a garment. Details like manufacturing technique, detailing on the garments, speciality, innovation and use cases are highlighted to enable the buyers to take a decision. If you want to know your waft from your warp, trade show is the place to be.


5. Placing the orders

The buyers take a call on what styles and in what quantity they would place an order for, usually on the spot, and the displayed garments are marked with the details on the order. For example, an ecommerce site may look at a certain styles of jeans and decide OKAY these are going to sell! Let me buy 2000 of these for the next season. An order for 2000 jeans with the brand is then placed. The ecommerce site would then sell these 2000 jeans on its platform over a course of a few months, obviously at a profit margin. An interesting thing to note here is that most of the orders placed work on a trust basis and usually no advance is involved.

Photo: OfficeChai



6. Sent for production, ready to go on shelves

Once the trade show is over and the buyers have made their orders, the manufacturing arm of the company gets in on the action. The garments and other merchandise go into production according to the orders received, and are usually ready before the next season is completely in. This gives enough time to the brand to do last minute quality checks and ensure smooth delivery to all the retail channels in time to tie in its marketing communications and availability of the product.

Image: OfficeChai team

A tradeshow doesn’t only serve the basic function of being an exhibition and trade medium between the brand and its B2B consumers, but also serves as an important platform for the employees of a brand, investors, designers, and other agencies to learn more about the products. A fashion intern, for instance, could take significant takeaways from the collection displayed as it acts as a harbinger of a future trend.