I was nervous as hell to attend the DG Expo. It was in a brand new city, all the way across the US and was going to be the first event I had ever attended representing my own company. I knew the best way for me to combat nervousness is to be overly prepared, it worked like a charm in some areas but was less effective in others.
Know your brand
I knew what I wanted to create and who I had been sketching for, but when it came to telling people about it, I was all over the place. Vendors want to feel confident in you and what you are making, especially as a beginner and newbie to the industry. Don’t be cocky, be humble, but be confident in your brand. The best way to do this, for me, was to have a clear answer to the questions: “What are you making?” or “What is your company?” The answer only needs to be a sentence or two, and should clearly state what your product is and who it is for. Here is the brand statement for Sea Aire:
“It’s a sustainable, casual, women’s wear brand that’s inspired by surf culture and an active lifestyle.”
Practice this line 10000 times out loud, to your family, to your friends, get comfortable and confident saying it so that it comes off as second nature when you are asked under pressure.
Business cards, anyone who is going to be willing to do business with you will expect you to have a business card. Having to print all of my information on tiny little “professional” cards and hand it out to real people in the industry kicked my ass into gear when it came to branding. I spent tons of time over the two weeks before the event fixing up my website, filling out every page, setting up Gmail for business so that I had a real company email address, and designing custom cards that represented the brand I envisioned. It was a TON of work, but in the end, I was incredibly confident and excited to hand out my business cards to EVERYONE. With so much prep working going into them, I needed these babies in a flash. Thank God for OvernightPrints.com – cheap cards, expensive shipping, but fast and 100% worth it. I used Canva to design my cards, however, I had to get a free trial of Canva for Business to be able to export the image in a large enough size to work on Overnight prints – that was a pain in the ass. 🙂
Getting all of these things squared away will make you feel like a real apparel company too, so you won’t walk into the show feeling like phony. You are here, you are doing this and you are AWESOME!
– Have a clear answer to what/who your brand is, practice it, know it like you know your own name
– Business cards – get everything set-up you need to be confident when sharing the information on your card, then design & order those babies!
– Get yourself a small, portable (preferably pocketable) notebook and write your brand statement on the first page. This will become your DG Expo Bible
Have clear goals
For me, I had a sourcing goal – Find sustainably made fabrics in tropical prints that I like enough for my line, and a personal goal – Actually talk to people, meet vendors and get business cards to start building your network. BUT what I didn’t have was a variety of fabric types and weights in mind. I had a very narrow scope of what I was looking for, so once I got through the entire floor and didn’t find exactly what I wanted, I wasn’t sure what to do next! Thankfully I found a few fabrics that I liked enough to get swatches of, but if I had a broader list I would have had the forethought to order more options as “maybes” and start to build my swatch library.
Have clear goals in the following areas:
- Sustainability – What are the general manufacturing practices and certifications that are priority to you? Knowing specifically what you are looking for here will help you have a clear & productive conversation with wholesalers.
- Fiber – Are you looking for natural fibers, recycled, technical?
- Fabric – What types of fabrics could work for your line? Are you only looking at jerseys? or are wovens also fair game? Find options of each in every fiber type you could use.
- Color – Have a general idea of the colors you would like to use, ask if fabrics you love can come in those colors or look for fabrics that already do.
- Networking – are you trying to meet more fellow designers, Manufacturers, or people coordinating the show? Be intentional about seeking each out and making a connection.
– Identify your North Star – have clear goals in each of the above areas.
– Take your DG Expo Bible and write your goals on the second page.
The DG Expo website will have a list of possible vendors and their possible booth numbers. Many of them do not have a robust online presence or an online presence at all. Using your goals form above as your north star, track down as much information as you can on each of them, digging deeper in areas that are important to you. I knew I had to find manufacturers that had at least some sort of sustainable option, at the bare minimum. (This ended up being a good strategy, because the few vendors I asked on-site about organics/sustainable options didn’t like me very much.) Using your goals & the information you collected on each, create a 3 tier priority ranking:
- First Tier: Most likely to have the fabrics/services you want – you will want to visit these booths first and plan to spend most of your time here.
- Second Tier: Possible to have what you are looking for – visit these booths after you have visited all of your tier one options.
- Third Tier: Not likely to have anything you will need – visiting these booths is still a great way to practice your networking/manufacturer communication skills, to find a fabric that inspires you, or maybe you will be pleasantly surprised!
Okay, now you have your tiers and notes on each vendor, probably with lines and scribbles all over the place. You will want to clean it up and get your notes organized by tier of priority within your DG Expo bible.
– Use your goals from section one as your North Star
– Research the hell out of all vendors and take copious notes along the way
– Create a 3 tier priority list of all vendors
– Write out the list of vendors only, in order of priority, directly behind your goal sheet
– Carefully re-organize your notes in order of priority as well just behind your list of vendor names only in your DG Expo Bible
Binder of wholesaler questionnaires
This is where I went a little extra and it did not work out like I had hoped. I created 1-pager “Wholesaler Questionnaires” for every vendor, with all of the questions I wanted to ask and spaces for contact information from each rep. Then I bound them together in a 1′ binder along with swatches of fabrics I liked and a pencil pouch with sticky notes, business cards and pens. When I got to the DG Expo, I realized that the booth tables were covered with swatches and other people’s notebooks (seems obvious now) and there was no reasonable place to set down my beast of a binder while I flipped through swatches with both hands. I eventually pulled off to the side of the room and shoved it back into my overloaded day-pack that carried everything I owned in the moment (had to head straight to the airport afterwards). Good thing I had my trusty “travel notebook” as a light weight back-up.
The good thing about the questionnaire, is that kept me on track with what I needed know when getting nervous as hell trying to chat up a stressed out and busy vendor. Here is a link to what the original document looked like. The questions I came up with from researching how to prep for a textile trade show.
For the next show, I will have a DG Expo Bible of my own, that is small enough to fit in my jeans pocket so that I can be hands free while digging through piles and racks of swatches. I’ll include my questions as a page or two within the book and have them clearly numbered and the pages tabbed so that I can reference them easily while scribbling out answers from vendors on the show floor. Don’t forget to make a note of what vendor you are talking to and hopefully the rep’s name as well when you are taking notes in the moment.
– Don’t build a binder, it’s going to be way too much
– Identify your top questions for vendors
– Add them to your notebook after your pre-show vendor notes, with clear numbers and a tab on the pages for quick reference.
DG Expo overall
All in all, the show was so fun and I learned a ton. I met a vendor that I think I will use for textiles in the future and a label maker that has sustainable options. I learned that sustainability is still a new and generally disliked path in the apparel industry, which is okay, it just means that we all have a lot of work to do!
Side note on swatches at the show – Some vendors won’t have swatches, which surprised me when I went. So a photo might be your only option for reference. Be sure to include the style # and name in your photos so that you can easily reference it in follow up conversations. If hand is a big deal to you, you might want to record the way a fabric moves when handled. You will see SO many fabrics in a sort amount of time, I guarantee that you won’t remember all the details afterwards.
Got a question? I have an answer! Leave a comment and I’ll get back to you ASAP.