When they began construction of the Apparel Mart in the early Sixties, Trammell Crow and his partners, John and Storey Stemmons, weren’t sure their concept of a fashion supermarket would work. It didn’t have a chance unless they could lure some of the glamour lines away from the downtown Merchandise Mart. So they went for the big names – Bobbie Brooks, Catalina, Jonathan Logan – offering them low rent (at the time, $3.50 a square foot; it’s now $10 to $10.50), choice locations, and attractive financing. They even promised to pay off the Merchandise Mart leases of the first 200 tenants who moved in.
But their shrewdest move, and the one that most dramatically changed the nature of the fashion business in Dallas, was allowing manufacturers to lease showrooms in the new building. The Merchandise Mart was controlled by the salesmen; they held the leases, and if a manufacturer wanted to show there he had to find a salesman who had a room and work through him. And if he wanted to stay alive in the territory, he had to take good care of that salesman. Now it was possible for a manufacturer to come to Crow’s Apparel Mart, show his lines, and go back to New York without paying a penny in commissions.
All the choice locations in the Apparel Mart were snapped up quickly. Some of the holdouts finally had to buy their way out of their Merchandise Mart leases; others simply abandoned them, sneaking off into the night with their samples. Right now Apparel Mart leases are divided about equally between manufacturers and salesmen, but power has shifted permanently to Trammell Crow and the Mart. The American Fashion Association, the only salesmen’s organization at the Mart, now has a largely ceremonial function. It supervises the transient or market-time rooms, 320 out of 1500, and publishes a buyer’s guide for each of the major markets. But unlike salesmen’s organizations at most marts, it has no say in leasing or building policies.
Salesmen are split on the control issue. While most concede that the Mart has increased their overall business volume, many complain that the cost of doing business is becoming prohibitive. Also, the sheer number of lines being shown means that individual salesmen are getting a smaller slice of the pie. But few seem eager for a return to the old days.
In 1933, fourteen clothing salesmen got together to form the National Fashion Exhibitors of America, an organization designed to safeguard their interests against those of manufacturers. Twice a year, in January and July, the Exhibitors took over several floors of the Baker and Adolphus hotels for market. During the day, beds, chairs, and dressers were shoved into hallways to make room for merchandise; at night salesmen who didn’t have other accommodations slept on cots among their samples.
By 1936, the year of the Texas Centennial, National Fashion Exhibitors had nearly 400 members. They needed more space, but with tourism at a peak, neither the Baker nor the Adolphus would guarantee them any. So National Fashion moved to the Texas Hotel in Fort Worth. A few salesmen refused to go along, and in 1938 founded the rival American Fashion Association, which continued to show at the Baker and Adolphus.
The Fort Worth markets were also held twice a year, January and July, for ten days at a time. According to industry folklore, the line between business and pleasure was one continuous blur. There was no shortage of food and liquor, and every hooker with bus fare made it to town on weekends. The 21st floor of the Blackstone Hotel became a popular gambling spot, where a salesman could drop a market’s commission in a few hours at the table.
“We’re gamblers by nature,” says one veteran, “but the Blackstone kept some of us on the road longer than we had planned.”
After the war, Dallas emerged as the major apparel center of the Southwest. Buyers no longer wanted to make an extra trip to Fort Worth just to see a few lines, so when, in 1953, National Fashion got the opportunity to sign a master lease with the owners of the Merchandise Mart, they took it. Not only did they control the building, they controlled the membership through a guild-like apprenticeship program to which new salesmen had to belong for three years before being taken into the organization. Acceptance usually meant a showroom at the Merchandise Mart. The new men had to work their way down from so-called “one-percent” locations (top floor, near the elevator shaft and the men’s room) to 100-percent locations on the first and second floors. The descent could take years, and was considered part of paying one’s dues. Salesmen who didn’t belong to either American or National set up rooms in the Southland Hotel, which became headquarters for the unaffiliated roadmen.
The growth of large apparel marts in Dallas and other cities has put an end to such arrangements and, some say, the roadmen as well. As buyers become more sophisticated, they do less and less buying in their stores. Mrs. Smith from Boones-ville, Arkansas, may not be able to afford a trip to New York, but there’s nothing to prevent her from spending a few weekends in Dallas. According to some estimates, 85 percent of the apparel bought wholesale in the U.S. is bought at markets.
The roadmen, naturally, think that reports of their demise are greatly exaggerated.