NEW YORK, United States — Fashion is an industry that relies on glamour and attitude. It also relies on tracking numbers.
The latest collection from Gucci has to get from the runway in Milan to the showroom in New York. The Valentino gown for the A-list actress better be in Los Angeles in time for the big awards show. Any logistical snafu creates that oxymoronic but highly volatile condition known as a “fashion emergency.”
To ensure safe and smooth transit of luxury goods, houses, stylists, publicists and editors have long relied on one strategy: call Worldnet.
“Like couture freight” is how Aliza Licht, the executive vice president of communication for the clothing label Alice + Olivia, described the under-the-general-radar company Worldnet International. For everyday shipments, Ms Licht hires FedEx or DHL. But “for precious cargo and pressing deadlines,” extra measures must be taken, which she first learned in the 1990s, working for DKNY.
“We would need to get clothes to a W shoot in the desert two hours from an airport,” Ms Licht said. “Worldnet gets in a car. FedEx does not do that.”
Worldnet drivers transported Meghan Markle’s royal wedding dress from the Paris offices of Givenchy to a warehouse in London, crated up in a truck and delivered under cover of night. When Beyoncé performed the halftime show at Super Bowl XLVII, Worldnet got her outfit to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Last year, Victoria’s Secret hired a Worldnet employee to fly to China ahead of the brand’s fashion show in Shanghai, to help clear lingerie through customs.
When designers debut their latest collections in New York, London, Milan and Paris, as they have done over the past few weeks, Worldnet is especially busy. Its employees might “hand carry” Anna Wintour’s wardrobe to Europe ahead of her appearance at the shows, or deliver engraved party invitations, or ship the breast milk of nursing runway models.
Yashua Simmons, the style editor for Hearst Fashion Group, said that around the office, Worldnet has become, like Xerox (or for that matter FedEx), a verb: “We say, ‘How are we going to get it there? We’re going to Worldnet it.’”
We say, ‘How are we going to get it there? We’re going to Worldnet it.’
Worldnet’s version of UPS’s brown shorts or FedEx’s purple-striped jackets is the hoodie: royal blue with the company’s white-and-yellow globe logo on the chest and worn by the fleet of drivers who make daily pickups and deliveries at fashion houses and publishers around the city.
Not long ago, their uniform captured the attention of influencers including Matthew Marden, the style director at Esquire, and Steven Dam, a producer at Art and Commerce, who asked for Worldnet-branded swag and posted themselves wearing it on Instagram. Then Frank Ocean mainstreamed the company when he was photographed at ComplexCon in one of the hoodies, puzzling his fans along with Worldnet employees who wondered where the singer had gotten it.
As Mr Simmons explained, wearing Worldnet gear is a style choice that simultaneously pays tribute to the shipping firm and signifies tribal status — unless you’re in fashion, you can’t get one. “It’s insider. You feel cool,” he said.
Marc Jacobs on Snowmobile
To make hip a shipping company (see also: the Vetements and DHL collaboration) is to ennoble those in the fashion trenches — who deal daily with the logistical nightmares, impossible requests and 11th hour hysteria of people high on the pecking order.
“They make the unthinkable happen somehow,” said Ashley Brownstein, head of logistics at the public relations firm Karla Otto, of Worldnet.
“They saved my butt so many times,” said Joe Zee, the celebrity stylist and author who started his career as an assistant at Allure.
The stories abound. Like the time Marc Jacobs needed to overnight its new collection from the factory in Italy to New York Fashion Week, and a fluke snowstorm hit the Italian countryside, making the mountain route impassable.
Worldnet’s driver called the home office, which in turn relayed the message to the factory employees, who dispatched a guy on a snowmobile loaded with the shipment to meet the driver. The collection made the flight the next morning to arrive in New York as planned.
On another occasion, a fur coat that a woman planned to wear to the Met Gala was tied up in “sample prison,” aka the notoriously strict fish and wildlife department of US Customs at Kennedy Airport. Alerted shortly before the Gala, Worldnet expedited the clearance and rushed the fur to Manhattan, where the driver met the attendee on the street before she walked the red carpet.
Mr Zee recalled an Allure shoot with Janet Jackson in LA in the mid-’90s. “One of the editors said, ‘We need this piece right now.’ I called Worldnet from the car on the way to the airport in New York. When we landed and got to our hotel in LA, someone handed me the package.”
He still doesn’t know how Worldnet beat them across the country. “I remember the editor said to me, ‘Do they live in the walls?’”
Later, as fashion director for W in the early aughts, when print advertising revenues and budgets were still robust, Mr Zee would send 100 trunks of clothing and accessories to, say, a shoot in the Dominican Republic or China. Excel spread sheets were used to coordinate the militarylike productions.
“A photo shoot can cost $100,000,” Mr Zee said. “And you’re pulling in-demand looks from the four corners of the earth.”
Depending on the project, using Worldnet can be equivalent to the cost of another shipper or considerably more, especially if a courier is hired to personally squire the goods. Being at the mercy of the weather, road traffic and commercial airlines (unlike FedEx, Worldnet does not have its own planes), even Worldnet sometimes comes up short. Still, there is a sense among clients that if Worldnet couldn’t deliver it on time, it couldn’t be delivered.
Trying to save money, Mr Simmons once acted as his own courier to a shoot in Paris, entrusting himself with luggage full of Chanel and Fendi. When he collected his things at the airport, one bag had gone missing.
There is a sense among clients that if Worldnet couldn’t deliver it on time, it couldn’t be delivered.
“You can imagine the expensive pieces. I was freaking out,” he said.
The bag never turned up. The airline was no help. Days later, in desperation, representatives from Chanel called Worldnet. They located the lost bag within 12 hours. It was sitting in the sorting facility at Kennedy with a missing identification tag.
“We tried not to use Worldnet to save money and they ended up saving us,” Mr Simmons said.
The Centre of Operations
Worldnet’s offices are far from the Fashion District, in a neighbourhood of low brick warehouses and marshy scrubland in Queens, five minutes from Kennedy Airport. Cargo vans and tractor-trailers clog the streets (and the air) all day long as planes take off and land.
Inside, Worldnet’s 100 or so employees are mostly divided between teams that manage orders, sitting in a long room with desks, computers and wall-mounted big screens displaying shipment updates, and teams that work in the cargo bay, scanning and sorting packages and loading and unloading Worldnet’s fleet of white vans.
The company’s owners, Richard and Mary Bhullar, are brother and sister, and British. Their upstairs offices are bright with the music of Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper and other artists popular when they were teens in a London suburb a stone’s throw from Heathrow Airport. From the window behind her desk, Mary can call out arriving planes — “The BA 117 just landed” — with Worldnet cargo in their bellies.
The siblings fell into shipping by accident. Rich trained to be a chef but disliked the work, so in 1994, he took a job at a small logistics firm, Marken. Its clients came from the worlds of media, advertising and music, including Elton John, and Rich found the proximity to creative industries, celebrity and global travel exciting. Every day was different. You never knew what you might ship.
“Dame Edna Everage was another client,” Rich said, referring to the drag character played by the Australian comedian Barry Humphries. “We moved Dame Edna’s wig. It was so fragile. It had to be packed a certain way.”
When Rich took a position with the firm in New York, Mary, who had studied to be a hairdresser, took over his London post. They formed Worldnet in 1997 with some colleagues, opening offices in New York, London and Brussels, after Marken was bought out and its new owners focused on pharmaceutical shipments, which bored Rich and Mary.
The siblings initially ran Worldnet New York on a shoestring out of the tiny Forest Hills apartment they shared. Rich made the pickups in their lone van and met with clients, while Mary took orders over the phone.
“A lot of the customers never believed Mary existed,” said the dark-haired, bespectacled Rich, 48.
“It was like ‘Charlie’s Angels.’” said Mary, 49, adding archly: “I was Charlie.””
The siblings have created a cheeky work culture exemplified by a Worldnet T-shirt slogan: “We give a ship.” Several members of their extended family work for the company, including Gary Craughwell, who handles marketing.
Mr Craughwell, along with two other employees, Noella Wynter and Mary Dean, oversees Worldnet’s unlikely foray into streetwear. Last year, Frank Ocean worked with them to design a $99, limited-edition black hoodie for Black Friday, while this June, for LGBT Pride Month, Ms Dean, a Pratt Institute graduate, designed a rainbow sequined T-shirt the company sold to raise money for charity.
The company’s drivers, Corey, Vishal and Demar, who are men with regular-guy physiques, have become unlikely models for Ms Dean’s designs.
Though Worldnet works with companies outside of fashion, one of the reasons it is a mainstay of clients including Chanel, Ralph Lauren and Condé Nast is because Rich and Mary understood the emotional pitch of the industry (“Everything’s a drama,” Mary said) and responded with a calm, solutions-oriented approach that soothed the frazzled. They also made themselves available to customers 24/7, 365 days a year.
The desperate call to FedEx will likely be answered by an automated voice that plunges you into a “Press 1 for…” maze. Whereas with Worldnet, “I always found it helpful that we were speaking directly to the owners,” Ms Licht said. “The culture they’ve created is really incredible, considering it’s a freight-moving company.”
The culture they’ve created is really incredible, considering it’s a freight-moving company.
As retail sales slump and print advertising budgets contract, Worldnet has been watching. Fashion shoots increasingly take place in the US instead of far-flung locales, Mary has noticed.
Still, the clothes and props need to get from point A to point B, and so the company has maintained cosy relationships with airline cargo employees, a designated facility to screen packages at its offices instead of at the busy airport, offices in London, Paris, New York and L.A. and an internal “escalation team” who pounce on potential crises.
Another factor is the crew of 15 drivers who battle and (mostly) conquer New York’s gridlock traffic each day. On a Friday afternoon this summer, one of them, a 34-year-old native of Jamaica named Dwayne McCalla, was ferrying Chanel garments from Kennedy Airport, where they had arrived on the AF 022 from Paris, to the label’s Midtown offices.
Dressed in a blue Worldnet polo (it was too hot for a hoodie), Mr McCalla showed obvious pride in his job, and viewed himself as a link in a chain that extended all the way to Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s creative director, in Paris.
“Who wants to hear ‘Your piece can’t make the fashion show,’” he said, taking shortcuts to avoid traffic jams as he motored toward the Queens-Midtown Tunnel with his precious cargo. “No designer wants to hear that.”
By Steven Kurutz. This article originally appeared in The New York Times and was licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.