November 1, 2012

Born from a general hatred for typical fashion trade shows (think terrible music, unappetizing sandwiches, and big-name brands aggressively lobbying for the attention of buyers), Capsule has grown into the most highly anticipated trade show among the fashion retail elite. Now in four cities and featuring everything from fashion to furniture, Capsule is arguably the best platform for talented emerging designers to showcase their collections to the industry’s most influential buyers. We chatted with Deirdre Maloney, co-founder of BPMW (top notch fashion agency and masterminds behind Capsule) to chat about Capsule’s history, their worldwide expansion, and Ed Hardy.

What initially inspired Capsule and how did it come about?
We were already a PR company. One of our clients who we did PR for was The Project Show. BPMW is a sales agency and a PR agency and a consulting agency. So we did their PR and also the communications and we also exhibited our brands in his show. We felt like our brands that were more progressive and emerging focused on quality and vision versus mass production were getting lost in the shuffle. After one Project show where we were positioned right next to the 500 sq. foot Ed Hardy booth that was firing off air horns every time they got an order, which was literally every three minutes, we decided it was time to start something new. We ended up with 45 brands on the Lower East Side in New York in 2007 for our first men’s show. We didn’t go into it being like, we’re going to start a trade show that takes place 12 times a year in 4 cities in Europe and the United States. It was kind of just that we needed another option so we called some people up.

So you would say that the growth was organic then.
Very much so. We launched New York and it went over great. We’re a sales agency so we already have great relationships with buyers and we’re a PR agency so we already had great relationships with press. I think we’re actually in a unique position to start a trade show, especially in the niche of the market where we started it. Then we found the people in our show were really happy with the experience and asking us to replicate it in various cities. Whenever we sort of heard an overwhelming demand for it is when we moved to the next space. Paris was first and then Vegas and then women’s in New York and then women’s in Paris and most recently Berlin.

How do you select which brands to work with?
The first season it was just people that we knew and we felt were likeminded and committed to quality. That’s the recurring theme through all of our brands. It was pretty “by invite only” for the first couple of seasons until we gained some momentum. Now we have an application process. There are seven of us in the office that are the capsule jury. We do lean on our advisory board, which is made up of some of the best international retailers and press people. A lot of it is done online and sometimes you don’t get the details or nuances you get when you’re actually touching it. We look for brands that compliment what we already have in the show, whether that’s highlighting a trend or a theme that is relevant or if it’s a good juxtaposition and a little to the left of what we’re known for but where we think the market may be going.

You mentioned the advisory board. Can you explain their role in a little more detail?
It’s very informal. The people on the board are people we either work with or are friends with. Sometimes we’ll call them and ask them about a specific brand we’ve been asked to exhibit and we always ask them for feedback after the shows. A lot of them have become like mouthpieces for us in the market. We’re definitely really appreciative of them.

Do you think Capsule has a definable aesthetic?
Not on a very micro level but I think overall, yes. We struggle with putting a label on it, but we always say progressive contemporary clothing. We definitely have become known for the heritage brands that we have since that kind of got “hot” right around the time we started to get hot. We do love stuff that has a long history and a long story and heritage brands tend to be very good quality, but we would never classify ourselves as a heritage show. So no, I would say there isn’t a definable aesthetic. That’s my long version of saying no.

As you expand do you find difficulty maintaining your original vision?
We say that we’re the same, we’re just a little bigger and people know about us more then they did when we started. We hated trade shows first and foremost, which is the irony of all. Our number one focus was to provide an environment that was the least hateable environment possible.

Describe your “unhateable” environment?
It’s everything from making the music the background instead of something that gave you a headache or annoyed you, making the food good, (the worst thing when you’re busy and hungry is some disgusting sandwich that you don’t want to eat), and making everybody on an even playing field.

What do you mean by an even playing field?
We don’t have huge booths that draw the buyers in. The clothes really have to speak for themselves at Capsule because everyone has the same thing. It’s very egalitarian, very democratic. You get racks, shelving units, a table, two chairs, some hangers and then your clothes have to do the work. The other thing is size. Our biggest show to date has been 225 booths. That’s really manageable. It’s probably towards the top end that we can go and still be considered a “small” trade show.

Can you think of any brand success stories that came as a result of Capsule?
One of my favorites is Timerbland. They were re-launching Abington Collection, which was what Timberland was originally. They wanted to target higher end stores. We brought them in and they ended up with a shop in shop in Saks and a collaboration with Mark McNairy. We tried to make things like that happen to. We love a big huge brand that has an edited, high-tiered product in our show. Smaller stores love stuff like that because it gives this legitimacy to their assortment but it still is differentiated from what you could find in twenty other stores in the same city.

I remember seeing Timberland in Saks.
It’s our fault! One of my favorite things about Capsule is seeing a brand talking to a buyer in their booth and the buyer says, “what I’m really looking for is lightweight outerwear,” and that brand doesn’t have any lightweight outerwear. At other trade shows the MO is sell, sell, sell. Instead of grabbing a button down and saying, “this could be used as outerwear,” I see them walk people over to another booth and say, “I want to introduce you to my friend who works at this booth and they have great lightweight outerwear and you should check them out.” It’s a community where everyone’s got each other’s backs that ends up spawning great collaborations and great relationships and it seems to be coming back to everybody in one way or another.

Not like Ed Hardy’s fog horn.
No! But I’m so thankful to Ed Hardy. We wouldn’t have our trade show if it wasn’t for him.

So what’s next for Capsule?
For now I think our hands are full with the six shows per season. We’re really happy with all the cities we’re in and all the markets we’re in. Somehow it’s just sort of stepping up to the next level. I think a lot of people have followed our format, and I don’t blame anyone because it is a better experience. We’re always just trying to be one step ahead. We really, as a collective here, are interested in a lot of other design, whether it’s furniture or art or music; anything that sort of lives in that realm. I think a lot of retailers are really selling a lifestyle in their stores. We will be becoming a little more lifestyle and also incorporating other art in our show.

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