At a time when discovering and shopping a buzzy brand requires little more than a wifi connection and an Instagram account, for many designers one of the most tried-and-true methods of connecting with their customers — repeat and potential — remains: the trunk show.
Trunk shows haven't really gotten the same level of media attention during a time when the future of retail more recently has been pegged on advancements in augmented reality, pop-up temporary retail or experiential events. Perhaps understandably so: Trunk shows aren't exactly a novel concept. A 1998 New York Times article suggested "the era of the trunk show is upon us." But now, over two decades later, designers and retailers hold contradicting opinions on the practice.
"Trunk shows are an important part of the business from a vendor, retailer and customer perspective," says Shelley E. Kohan, a retail pundit, business strategist, speaker and professor. The benefits reach everyone involved, she argues: Vendors and brands test out a new market, retailers build customer loyalty with events that offer exclusive access and customers are exposed to brands or styles beyond their norm. In addition to the effect on sales — which Kohan says may not always be significant — "the excitement and engagement drive customer loyalty to the brand and the retailer."
Kristen Cole, president and chief creative officer of the luxury boutique Forty Five Ten, argues that trunk shows are valuable beyond the same-day monetary gains. "Sometimes we don't see the immediate sales impact day of, but often we do it anyways because after our clients meet the designer and the selling staff gets more behind the designer, we see a spike in sales later…in subsequent seasons," she says.
For Forty Five Ten, trunk shows may just be part of the secret sauce for its famous curation of established luxury brands and more unexpected labels that can't be found on most retail floors. "That is an investment we are willing to make for designers we see real potential in," adds Cole of the brands that have found success through trunk shows, citing Area and Maisie Wilen as examples.
Designers themselves are finding that trunk shows offer an opportunity to change the course of their businesses. "You instantly learn what's working, what's not, how it can improve and even what you might be missing," says designer Jonathan Cohen.
Cohen and his co-founder, Sarah Leff, launched a waste-conscious line under the eponymous label called The Studio last year after a positive response from a trunk show audience. "Before Fall 2019 trunk shows, we cut one dress shape in 19 prints from our excess fabric and tested it with a consumer who was already buying into the brand," Leff says. "We got real-time feedback on what they loved about the dress and why they would buy it. This ultimately allowed us to take a jump and launch our own e-commerce late last year."
Beyond the quantifiable, the value of trunk shows lies in "the face-to-face interaction with clients," adds Leff. "It's amazing to sit in a dressing room with a woman and [have] her tell you that she bought a dress of yours for a special event. It allows us to define who the Jonathan Cohen woman is."
It's this IRL aspect that resonates strongest amongst designers.
Tanya Taylor averages between eight to 12 trunk shows a year — mostly in key markets including Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago and Miami — that are tailored specifically to regional customers. "We have seen how the customer's excitement during an event has translated to increased sales," Taylor says. "In a noisy world, trunk shows are a great way for us to bring the brand story directly to the customer and to engage with them in real life."
For Victor Glemaud, it's the social and celebratory aspect of trunk shows that appeal to him. "I treat 'trunk shows' more as a happening or really fun gathering of friends in a retail environment," he explains. "We show the collections on models, have great music with a live DJ and serve skinny margaritas and nibbles. Plus, I invite all of my friends in each city." Example: When his brand debuted at Saks Fifth Avenue, Glemaud co-hosted a trunk show with Vogue fashion director Virginia Smith and celebrity stylist Kate Young, two longtime friends.
"I do think more designers should get out there," advises Glemaud, echoing a similar sentiment expressed by his fellow designers who recognize some connections — and eventual brand loyalty — can't be replicated through a screen.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 89% of total retail sales in the last quarter of 2019 were attributed to physical stores, not e-commerce. Retailers can't necessarily afford to fall back on old practices that don't work — and yet, trunk shows are perhaps an irreplaceable exception, even among newer approaches to retail.
"There are significant opportunities for DTC and pop-up shops to use trunk shows as a method to test markets and to gain valuable feedback from customers," says Kohan of the latest market trends.
For Cohen — who shares that he typically begins holding trunk shows following sales appointments for each season — the practice is as beneficial for his business as it is for his creativity. "I believe it's actually where the pulse of fashion is happening," he says. "It's where you see your creations come to life and interpreted in the real world."