WWD: Style X Pumps Up the Volume

AUSTIN, Tex. (March 22, 2012)— South by Southwest, aka SXSW, hit a few high notes.

Heralded as pop’s next big thing, Kimbra, a 21-year-old singer-songwriter from New Zealand, shook a red tambourine to jazzy singles from her debut album, “Vows.” Just as Amy Winehouse mined the past, Kimbra’s retro, ruffled get-ups had a Grand Ole Opry-meets-flamenco feel.

Bogota-based Bomba Estereo’s Liliana Saumet delivered one of the festival’s most polished, high-energy performances, in a secretary blouse no less, which had even non-Spanish speakers dancing from start to finish in ACL Live’s pit. Despite fierce competition from other hot acts like Grimes and Sharon Van Etten, Laura Pergolizzi, who goes by L.P., captivated crowds with her voice alone. After writing for Rihanna and Christina Aguilera, the Los Angeles singer releases her own work this spring.

All the above required multitiered entry badges, the event’s most ubiquitous accessory for sure, so it came as a relief to many spring breakers and locals that Style X (pronounced “style by”), the latest section in a lineup of music, film and interactive, was free and open to the public.

“This is about the power of the people versus velvet ropes and buyers-only registration,” said Style X founder Joah Spearman, who staged the second annual shopping show at the Austin Convention Center on March 16 and 17. “It will always focus on consumers first, then musicians.”

Aside from adding 15,000 square feet, the event increased in attendance from 16,000 to about 20,000, and vendors from 37 to 55. Of two dozen brands polled by WWD, each reported they’d return not only for the low overhead cost of $1,600 a booth, but the opportunity for direct-to-consumer sales.

“I’d recommend it to any designer whether established or emerging just for feedback, which you can’t get as thoroughly from retailers,” said Piper Gore, owner of the namesake women’s wear line in Los Angeles. “I’m amazed all these shoppers plus press and music stylists took time out from their hectic concert schedules.”

Most vendors heard about Style X through word of mouth, especially from satisfied repeat participants like Bed Stu, a men’s and women’s shoe and accessories firm in Camarillo, Calif., known for patinated looks that appeal to creative types. Marketing director Nicole Beltrani returned mainly for the brand’s sole interaction with consumers.

“We had such a great time talking to our customers from around the world last year,” she said, also attracted by the event’s indie spirit and broad overview. “It’s curated so categories aren’t saturated and promotes the Style X community rather than specific brands.”

Beltrani helped spread the word about the show, telling Bryna McMills, whose San Francisco-based handbag line is carried at 175 accounts including Nordstrom. Bestsellers were a convertible clutch with belt loops and a removable cross-body strap in leather and ikat for $55, and a large, fringed hobo style in shrunken lamb leather for $395.

“I had strong sales, but would come back regardless for marketing,” she said.

San Francisco was one of the more represented regions. In men’s wear, Tellason, a small denim offering in dark washes retailing for around $200, and Taylor Stitch, which domestically produces cotton shirts in bandana prints, gingham and plaid for $125, teamed up.

“It’s an awesome way to write off five days of fun in Austin,” said the latter’s owner, Michael Maher, who expands into women’s tops and shirt dresses this summer.

Tar & Feather, a three-year-old women’s wear collection in New York, had great response to its rock ’n’ roll aesthetic such as T-shirts with cigarette burn holes, creased velvet leggings and exaggerated asymmetric tops for $60 to $300. Jewelry of vintage chandelier crystals and fishing weights also sold steadily to their ideal demographic, according to founders Corine Zach and Jessica Dorfman.

“Even with travel costs, it’s significantly cheaper than participating in a New York trade show. It’s a great platform for emerging designers like us,” said Zach.

Austin also had a significant presence from Helm shoes to Dandy’s, a nascent, Victorian-inspired men’s wear collection of bespoke suiting, bow ties and pocket watches by husband and wife team Chris and Wendy Bykowski. Dandy’s accepted orders for authentic sack suits with covered fabric buttons for $299 to $399.

“Since we’re opening a boutique soon, we tested retail with a pop-up shop in November and Style X,” said Chris, who experienced good traffic from early Friday on. “People are really excited about detailed men’s wear again, and there isn’t a lot of competition like women’s.”

The event’s music-fashion connection climaxed at HoodieBuddie, a division of Los Angeles-based apparel manufacturer Jerry Leigh, which holds the patent on HB3 technology for sweatshirts with built-in, washable earbuds and music device connections. Its booth’s giant hoodie tepee display travels to the Coachella Festival in April.

“We offset our investment immediately here, unlike trade shows where we have to wait months to fill orders,” said creative director James Wolfe, of the brand’s cash-and-carry only strategy. “The introduction to tastemakers is priceless, too.”

Style X’s fashion show with musicians as models improved greatly, from the production values to the fashion included, according to vendors. “It was cool how they mixed expensive, avant-garde clothing with our jewelry that retails from $5 to $50,” said Patty Fadhouli, marketing manager for Charming Charlie, a Houston-based women’s accessory retail chain with 180 stores. “Style X has tremendous growth potential and will catch on like wildfire once word gets out.”

One of the busiest booths was Tortoise & Blonde Eyewear, an online-only optical store that offers modern and vintage-inspired frames with prescription lens for $97. The New Jersey-based brand has shown exclusively at Style X the past two years.

“This is the perfect audience for us. Our product is geared towards a young demographic — 18 to 25. It’s an affordable indulgence. People want to look good without spending a fortune and our brand reflects that,” said part owner Violet Weisfeld, adding that one Dallas couple drove two hours just to see the collection in person. Tortoise & Blonde is also known to give their glasses to bands and sponsor tours.

Throughout the day, industry insiders such as Anya Strzemien, editor in chief of StyleList and HuffPost Style, and Jean Scheidnes, social media managing editor of Neiman Marcus, engaged in discussion panels that were free and open to the public. Topics included “The Change Landscape of the Fashion Industry” and “The Influence of Music on Style & Vice Versa.”

Article by REBECCA KLEINMAN with contributions from Stephanie Davila
photography by Waytao Shing