FLORENCE, Italy — The pressure is on fashion’s middlemen. As the original platform for designers and buyers to make deals, trade shows are now being squeezed by shorter fashion cycles, the rise of direct-to-consumer brands and the digitisation of B2B relationships. In response, trade show operators have either sharpened their focus or trialled add-ons in a bid to stay relevant. Some adopted new business models; others went bust.
While it’s clear that adaptability will be one of the main determiners of success or survival, there are different views on how bold trade show operators should be. Who better to weigh in on the debate than a 30-year veteran of one of the world’s biggest fashion trade show groups? Pitti Immagine Chief Executive Raffaello Napoleone oversees a portfolio that includes Florence-based trade fairs Pitti Uomo (menswear), Pitti Bimbo (childrenswear), Pitti Filati (yarns and knitwear) and Super in Milan. His advice? That incumbents like Pitti should pursue meticulous upgrades rather than dramatic change.
BoF: Given all the challenges that trade shows now face, what do you think the future holds? Some people are predicting a winner-takes-all scenario where only a few giant fashion trade shows will survive.
Raffaello Napoleone: Do you want my serious answer or my funny answer? I’ll give you the silly one first: as a giant [trade show], of course I hope that they’re right and that this will be the future. OK, now for my serious answer: it depends. Because if you find the right content for the right market and you handle it well, then you can set up a small, niche trade fair that’s doing something serious. Look at Kingpins in Amsterdam. It’s a [specialist community-based trade] show with a very small number of denim fabric producers. It’s the [leading B2B] appointment for that market niche, compared to the giant [generalist textile trade shows like] Première Vision or Milano Unica.
If you find the right content for the right market and you handle it well, then you can set up a small, niche trade fair.
BoF: So if it’s not necessarily bad news for all small trade shows in the fashion industry, what traits will set apart those who make it and those who fall by the wayside?
RN: It’s a question of being credible. You have to find the right timing too, of course, and eventually [you’ll have to broker] very special appointments between your exhibitors and buyers. But if you’re adding value, then small trade shows can still work in the future, yes. We actually have a very good example of this in our own portfolio. We have a small [gastronomy trade show] called Taste that started 15 years ago to help very small Italian food producers. I guess I’d summarise by saying long glory to the big trade shows and good [fortune for the best] of the rest.
BoF: It’s not just the smaller players who should be concerned though, is it? Trade show giants like you can’t rest on your laurels either. What are you planning to do differently at Pitti Uomo and your other fashion trade shows to stay ahead?
RN: There are many projects we need to do. We are going more and more [down] the road of an independent, lifestyle experience. For example, we’d like to do something similar for our fashion fairs as we did at our Fragranze fair, where we recently had a retrospective exhibition of Jean-Claude Ellena, one the most important noses in the perfume world. We’d also like to have a stronger food service in the fortress (Fortezza da Basso venue) because we can offer a much more appealing and interesting Italian food experience for our visitors.
BoF: This sounds more like fine-tuning the visitor experience than big strategic planning. Doesn’t Pitti need to make bolder changes, given all the changes happening in your sector?
RN: This is not just about paninis. The changes in the fashion distribution system are forcing everyone to be closer to the market, so we also have to approach every aspect [of the visitor experience] obsessively because we have to keep astonishing people. We’re trying to have an even closer relationship with our visitors and exhibitors; trying to be more useful for them; being in touch with them all throughout the year and not just during the show period.
The changes in the fashion distribution system are forcing everyone to be closer to the market.
BoF: So you don’t intend to expand the B2B scope of Pitti to include some B2C services? You don’t see a need or an opportunity to attract end-consumers as well as professionals? Why?
RN: We saw what happened to Bread & Butter, the first trade show to open to the public and to the consumer. No, we have to be very, very [clear] with our positioning. B2C happens every day from 10am until 7pm at shops on shopping streets [like] Via Monte Napoleone. I mean, what can a B2B trade fair do better for consumers than the actual stores do? And how are we supposed to approach the consumer without letting them touch or buy? No, we don’t trust this B2C approach for [trade fairs]. What we need to do is keep making the professional experience richer so that the professionals go home feeling like a real community.
BoF: But given the continued rise of DTC [direct-to-consumer] brands and e-commerce the wholesale fashion business is getting squeezed. Isn’t it only logical that the traditional meeting places for wholesale players will also get squeezed?
RN: It’s true that there’s a [rebalancing] of wholesale and multi-brand [stores], but the ones that remain only get stronger and stronger. So we need to have even stronger relationships with these stronger multi-brands. E-commerce is actually helping because it’s adding options. And as for the brands, there’s room for both the [DTC] brands and the traditional designer brands in the market.
BoF: So you’re not worried about DTC supplanting wholesale in the luxury sector?
RN: No. Let me answer like this. You know, for a Ferrari you have to wait two years or a year-and-a-half. But you can buy a [Fiat] Cinquecento in just one week if you want. They’re [both car companies] but they’re different kinds of companies.
BoF: What about virtual trade shows or virtual showrooms? Do you think this is a realistic proposition for the fashion industry? Are they a gimmick or are they the future?
RN: You can’t go in just one direction. With our e-Pitti [service], we tried to give retailers both options. We have to push every button [because] they’re using more instruments than in the past. It’s not change [that’s the challenge], it’s the speed of the change.
It’s not change [that’s the challenge], it’s the speed of the change.
BoF: At the latest edition of Pitti Uomo in June 2019 you reported 30,000 visitors, including 18,500 buyers from almost 100 different countries. Which levers can you pull for growth in the year ahead?
RN: One opportunity is the new multi-brand networks. We’re now starting to see better opportunities in China because there are more and more multi-brand stores emerging. And [in addition to] the usual big markets in Europe and Asia, we’re also excited about a few really high quality multi-brand stores coming out of newer markets like the Philippines and Vietnam.
Curation is an overused word in the fashion industry, but Pitti Uomo’s reputation really is built on curation. There’s the guest nation system where you bring a whole country pavilion of menswear designers to the show and so many other initiatives.
BoF: What’s next in terms of keeping Pitti’s curation on point?
RN: For the world’s best menswear brands and designers to choose us to launch their products at our show, we need to offer them the best stage to do so. The same for visitors. That’s how the Pitti “peacocks” started a few years ago [the phenomenon that saw dapper men flock to Pitti Uomo as a destination to be seen as well as do business]. You know, somebody asked us, “How did you launch the peacocks in Pitti?” Well, we didn’t invest one euro in that actually.
BoF: What do you mean?
RN: People come because [they] can’t afford to miss Pitti. That’s the difference between Pitti and fashion week… Here at the fortress, it’s a real community we’ve created. We offer the market an opportunity to find something new [through] our curatorial approach. From small independent stores to big department stores, that’s the value we add. We’re not just selling square metres [to exhibitors], we’re selling good ideas and good services to the whole market.
This interview has been edited and condensed.