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Anatomy of the Apparel Mart

At the Dallas Apparel Mart, ready-to-wear means ready to sell-14 times a year
By Clarissa Tartar |

“October 1964: Scarcely more than 100 years after John Neely Bryan opened his trading post on the banks of the Trinity River, another opening was going on-an opening that would, in fewer than 20 years, account for Dallas being touted by some as the coming fashion capital of America. On the 25th of October, 1964-a clear, cool day that year-the Dallas Apparel Mart officially opened its broad glass doors. And if the world was not paying overmuch attention at the time, it would eventually learn better.”

-From a soon-to-be-published book by Norman Grunsfeld and Josephine March IN THE LARGE, sand-colored building at 2300 Stemmons Freeway, there is a city like-and yet unlike-any other. There are, for instance, both permanent and temporary residents. Where other cities have streets, this one has corridors. Instead of houses, there are showrooms; and in lieu of neighborhoods, there are blocks of showrooms. Like their municipal counterparts, these fairly homogeneous “neighborhoods” took time to form, and their residents are now often fiercely protective of the environment that has benefited them. They don’t, after all, want their resale values to drop by allowing “undesirables” in. One of these areas, Group III, which carries better ready-to-wear and some couture lines, is to its surroundings what Highland Park is to Dallas -centrally located and highly priced. The city council, in this instance, is the board of governors; the mayor, the president of the Mart.

Welcome to this, our fair city-the Dallas Apparel Mart.

On this particular day, the city resembles a ghost town. Most of the residents-the manufacturers and those who represent them-have packed their belongings and have gone elsewhere. The only sounds to be heard are those of drilling, hammering and sawing-they all want their “houses” to look nice when company (the next round of buyers) drops by. And it won’t be long, became the Apparel Mart, the largest wholesale fashion market in the world under one roof, is a kind of retailing Brigadoon that comes alive not once a century, but 14 times a year.

At those times, up to 20,000 fashion buyers from all over the country converge on the Mart, seeking the latest in apparel and accessories to take home to their respective stores. Five of the markets are for women’s and children’s wear; four, for menswear; three, for shoes; and two for active sportswear. During the five days of market, buyers troop in, look around, see their favorite reps, attend fashion and style shows, decide what kind of look they’re going to emphasize that season and then place their orders for merchandise. Many of these buyers find all or most of what they need in Dallas. After that, there is only an anxious waiting game to see if their retail consumers gobble up, nibble at or simply ignore the bait they’ve chosen.

Manufacturers, whether their goods are sold in their own showrooms or in those of professional reps, have the initial task of selling the buyers on their particular merchandise-no small task when dozens of competitors are pushing virtually identical products. And while the market’s in full swing, there are no holds barred as far as selling is concerned. “This is it, you know,” reps will invariably say. “This is the neckline for spring. And you can’t beat that price.” Hyperbole, cliché and pumping adrenaline combine, and nary an eyebrow is raised at any of it. This is market time.

This October marks the 20th anniversary of the Mart, which is part of the six-building complex known as the Dallas Market Center. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to talk about the Apparel Mart and its origin without two names constantly popping up: Trammell Crow and John Stemmons. Crow came up with the ideas and the financing; Stemmons supplied the land. Their first joint venture was the Decorative Center, which opened in 1955. Further collaborations produced the Homefurnishings Mart two years later, the Trade Mart in 1959, Market Hall in 1960 and the Apparel Mart in 1964. The sixth building, the World Trade Center, was completed in 1974 after Crow bought the land from Stemmons.

After a slow start, the Apparel Mart has grown prosperous-not with any sudden boom, but rather with a growth so sure and steady that it’s more like one long, drawn-out boom with no end in sight. The Mart has been expanded three times-in 1968, 1973 and 1981-and a separate menswear building was added in 1982. With the addition of the two top floors in 1981, the total square footage of the Mart is now 1.8 million square feet, with 1,650 permanent showrooms and, 330 temporary ones. “Originally, we opened with about 800,000 [square] feet,” says Clyde Utt, general manager of the Mart from 1963 to 1982. “That could’ve taken care of about 400 tenants. We opened with 218, so we opened about half full. By January 1964, we were about two-thirds full. In other words, after we opened and people saw what it was we had here, they began to come in more easily.”

But the change was not easy for everyone. The Salesmen’s Association made the most vehement objections. Before 1964, the clothing markets had been held downtown in the old Merchandise Mart on South Ervay and in the hotels, most notably the Adolphus and the now-demolished Baker. “If a manufacturer wanted to show,” Utt says, “he had to hire a salesman, since the Salesmen’s Association wouldn’t let a manufacturer have a showroom. We opened up out here, then, and we rented a room to anyone-manufacturers, salesmen, whoever they were. So originally when we opened, the manufacturers were a lot more interested than the salesmen.”

Clearly, the Apparel Mart and its innovation of bringing together thousands of clothing lines under one roof marked the beginning of the end for the traveling salesmen, many reps say. Some reps still travel, but they don’t travel as much as before, says Norman Grunsfeld, president of the House of Grunsfeld and chairman of the Mart’s board of governors. Primarily, Grunsfeld says, it’s because the cost of traveling is so high now that the salesperson has to sell a great deal just to break even. Another reason, he says, is that store representatives don’t have time to continuously look at lines in the stores; it’s easier for them to set aside the five-day period of market and do all their buying then.

And, it appears, many salesmen don’t miss their traveling days. “Things have changed since those days,” says rep Jack Dowd, “and not that those days weren’t, as the old expression goes, the good old days. But really, the good old days weren’t as good as what is happening today. In those days, we were constantly on the road; it was really a traveling man’s occupation. Today, you have the luxury of the customer coming to you.” Dowd, who runs Dowd Brothers with his brother Charles, says that when he first traveled, he was on the road six to eight weeks at a time because, with the broad range of territory he worked, “it was just too costly to fly home on the weekends. It was a blessing to me when the Apparel Mart came into existence. It encouraged me to move to Dallas to relocate, because now I’d found a way to be home and have some kind of a sane lifestyle on the weekends, rather than just living out of a suitcase.”

AS THE MART became established and successful, its physical perimeters were expanded. The growth of the Mart, however, is due to more than just concrete, contractors and cranes. Just ask anyone involved with the Mart. To them, the real growth of the Mart can be measured through the number of people affected by it. “That’s the one great thing that people don’t think about too much,” says Utt. “And the reason I’ll always admire [Trammell Crow] for organizing this thing, these buildings out here, is that there are literally thousands and thousands of people who have little independent businesses operating because of what he’s done here.”

If you had to single out one person who’s a fixture at the Dallas Apparel Mart, it would be Kim Dawson, owner of the largest non-New York modeling agency in the country. Dawson, whose career has flourished alongside the Mart’s, has been fashion director of the Apparel Mart since its inception. “That at once makes me feel like a survivor,” she says, “and then lets me imagine I ought to be feeling old, which I refuse to do.” But she’s never refused hard work: Her agency coordinates and supplies the models for all of the Mart’s fashion shows, some 70-odd shows annually.

Dawson gives the Mart ample credit for her own success in the fashion business: “I think the Apparel Mart has been a tremendous catalyst [for the agency]. To have women’s apparel shows five times a year, men’s apparel shows four times a year and a shoe show three times a year has to let people in other parts of the nation think, ’Now, that’s a city that really has a lot to do with fashion.’ And so the seed is planted, and it just grows and is stimulated. We had to have all the support systems; we had to have the photographers who could do the work and the models. We never even used to have stylists in town, or makeup artists, or hair people. All that’s here now, so it’s a vital market [for fashion]. But it’s exciting that one thing, the Apparel Mart, can make such a difference.”

The Mart has made a difference not only in the Dallas area, but in the nation as a whole. It has become a leading regional market and is now nurturing national and international aspirations as well. Though Dallas clearly ranks right up there with New York and Los Angeles as a fashion market, exactly where it ranks is less obvious. New York is still the fashion capital of America, but there’s a tug-of-war being fought between Dallas and Los Angeles for second place. Most anyone associated with the Mart will staunchly defend the Dallas market as second only to New York, but then sheepishly admit that people in Los Angeles probably say the same thing. They all do maintain that Dallas compares favorably to the other two markets. The Dallas Mart is preferable to New York, many buyers say, because a variety of lines are housed under one roof; in New York, buyers must visit the various showrooms individually. In Los Angeles, the lines are also contained in a single building, but unlike Dallas, showrooms there are open year- round-there are fewer specific market periods. Rep Carol Quist, a former buyer, says that this makes it harder on buyers. “The people in LA are not as organized about getting the market together. It should be a bigger market than it is,” says Quist. “They’re supposed to be open [every day], but it’s not really enforced. I know, because when I was a buyer, I made a trip to Los Angeles, and it was a total waste of time.”

THE REPS OFTEN seem to be the Mart’s real stars. They, of course, are the first to agree: “We all mesh together to make the building a very important market,” says one rep, “and the Mart realizes that the reps who’ve been here for years and years, who know everybody-we’re the people who draw the people in.” The more successful reps don’t do much selling these days; instead, they supervise the growth of their empires. “We really are merchants,” another rep says. “We merchandise our rooms with the right lines for the customers that we receive.”

Norman Grunsfeld is one rep who readily admits that real-estate savvy in the Mart is as much a key to success there as any other factor. In fact, through a series of skillful maneuvers, he now controls an entire block on the first floor. And he’s not the only rep who has grown prosperous from shrewdness in this respect. “Early on, I realized that to build a business-the bottom line-you had to do things in multiples. You had to have multiple lines, you had to have multiple salesmen and multiple showrooms. You had to overcome things by multiplicity.” According to Grunsfeld, the reason that “the apparel business is so dramatic is because there are so many pitfalls to it. It really is a business that is very hard to control. And those who do it have the instincts of a river-boat gambler and the charisma of a politician.”

Reps George Elphand and Nat Ekelman run GE-NE jointly; each also has lines of his own. “Our job is to edit the market,” says Ekelman. “Our job is to find that which is innovative, that which is creative [and] that which reflects a good taste level, and bring it to our customer so they can bring it to their consumer.” Many Dallas-area buyers who shop the local market say that they do so to get wind of fresh ideas and fresh talent. “There are a handful of people who spend time searching out new designers, new lines,” says Shelle Bagot, owner of and buyer for The Gazebo. “Sometimes they know things before New York does.” Says Ekelman, “We believe our customers need every convenience in the world because they’re relying on the decisions that they’re making to be profitable. To a consumer, it’s nice to go into a store where there’s a sale- one-third off or 50 percent off. But every time something sells on sale for a retailer, he’s losing money. When they do business with us, we like for them to have as much merchandise that they can sell at full price [from us] than from anybody else. We try to help them make their selections. If they are profitable with us in their collections, then they will continue to do business with us.” Manufacturers as well as retailers rely on the expertise of Ekelman and Elphand. GE-NE’s lines include Liz Claiborne, Gloria Vanderbilt, Beenebag and Kathryn Conover. To showcase these lines, the pair owns the biggest single chunk of Mart real estate.

Jacques de la Marre is unhappy with the reputation that the market (and the apparel business as a whole) has for being a circus, a place for fun and games. “But,” he admits, “it did start out that way. This idea that this business is a lot like a carnival-in the early days it really was, because anytime you have people out on the road for three and four weeks at a time, they have to do something to amuse themselves. I remember one guy who showed in one of the hotels, and he’d have the window open, and if he showed a buyer a dress and she said, ’I don’t like it,’ he’d throw it out the window. But then he had his driver downstairs catching the dress and putting it on the rack.” But after the Apparel Mart was built, he says, the whole complexion of the market changed. “Now it’s developed to where there is very little of that kind of frivolity. You can no longer be just a fellow in the business, a salesman; you become a businessman. So you could truthfully say that Trammell Crow turned us into real businessmen and into minor major businesses.”

ALTHOUGH THE MART fairly runneth over with success stories, it would be a mistake to conclude that anyone connected with the Mart has the Midas touch. Says one rep, “This is a business that has the reputation for being able to make a lot of money very fast, which is basically, and for the most part, untrue, just like finding gold or oil. But it’s very popular to say that the apparel business is one of those businesses where you come in with a big car, buy a traveling bag, get an immediate draw and make it. The successes here are as few as in other businesses… There are a lot of people at the Apparel Mart who are hanging on by just a thread.”

Despite this, there’s a glamour associated with the apparel business-on that point, everyone agrees. “We all have to do the same thing,” says Kim Dawson. “Get up in the morning, look in the closet, find something to put on that makes us feel good about going out into the world and makes us feel like we’re going to cope. That’s really what this decoration of body is.” Most everyone at the Apparel Mart agrees-and fervently hopes it never changes.

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