How the trunk show built La Ligne
The name Brownie Wise may not ring a bell unless you are a marketing history buff. Without her, though, the famous Tupperware home parties—a staple of 1950s housewives' lives—wouldn't have come to pass. The clever working single mom helped distribute Earl Tupper's then-newfangled, colorful plastic storage containers that revolutionized the modern kitchen. It was his invention, but her idea was to teach women to gather in their communities for in-home selling events. Fast-forward 70-odd years later, and the concept of women gathering for a social shopping soiree is stronger than ever. La Ligne—the growing casual lifestyle brand based on classic Mariner stripes founded by former Vogue editors Meredith Melling and Valerie Macaulay and Rag & Bone's former head of business development Molly Howard—has engaged the technique since launching their brand in 2016. FashionNetwork.com spoke with the NYC-based brand and others like them to find out how nothing replaces one-on-one personalized selling in today's digital world.
According to Melling in a phone interview, the concept started with their first collection. At the time, the brand was intentionally DTC running a website and had one wholesale account. "A friend from Boston was so excited about the brand being founded by three female founders. She asked if we would like to come to Boston and speak at her social club and then sell our products there," Melling recalled. The three entrepreneurs headed to the New England city, where they found themselves telling their story in a beautiful room in an Old Boston townhouse. After a Q&A, the women had wine and shopped.
"We saw in that instance a huge value add for customers to touch the product, try it on, and see the details, effort, and energy put into the materials. We agonized over fit, which doesn't always come across online," said Melling, recalling that first event in April 2016. The trio quickly saw the value for them as well.
Following that experience, each founder scrolled their contacts and reached out to find parties who might be interested. They added a give-back component where they would donate a portion of the event's sales to the hostesses' favorite charity to enhance the ask to host.
"We had a modest social media following, but it grew quickly. We documented the sales events as they happened, and then people would DM us asking us to please come to my community," she recalled. Soon they were brainstorming whom they knew in different regions of the county. Sometimes, they took a leap of faith and teamed up with followers they didn't know.
One such event occurred in St.Louis following the Boston event format but was spread over two days and included a separate dinner. "We vetted their profile, so we trusted the person. There are usually a few degrees of separation in our network. She said she would do it in this amazing furniture venue. When we pulled up to this deserted warehouse district that looked sketchy, Val and I joked and said our goodbyes to one another," Melling added, "But when the host opened the doors, it was this incredible vintage furniture refurbishing site." The event was, of course, a success.
One key to continued success is that founders are always in attendance, which adds to their authenticity. "We aren't sending a sales rep in our place; one of us is always there," she said.
The sales have also helped the brand understand different client needs, and the events have also steered retail locations. "Living in New York kept us in the mindset of the climate here. We showed up in Dallas and Houston in November with chunky knit sweaters, and sometimes the host would say, 'gosh, it's beautiful, but where can we wear it?'" Melling recalled, adding "It helped us get out of our New York bubble." The Mini Marin model, in particular, grew out of the trunks adapting to customer requests at the personalized sales. This type of feedback would prove more valuable than any data could tell them, giving them the 'why' of something being successful or not.
The shopping gatherings have informed on retail locations, according to Melling as well. Their plan to open their second retail spot in Los Angeles was diverted when an opportunity arose in Dallas' coveted Highland Park Village. "The landlord contacted us to say he had a space. It wasn't the original focus, but trunk shows performed well; Dallas women went crazy for our product. We realized she isn't just a Texan gal; she escapes the heat in summer in Aspen and Northern California," she explained. The brand seized the opportunity and opened there in 2021.
Up next is a store opening in the Marin Country Mart, also born out of successful local trunk shows, which kicked off when they teamed up with another former Vogue staffer Emily Holt's Hero Shop. "First, her store was in San Francisco, but it's moved to Marin County to the Country Mart there. We weren't surprised we had a coastal customer," Melling continued. How well a particular style performed has cemented their commitment to the tony shopping area led by Jim Rosenfield that housed shops such as the charming Montecito Mercantile high-end general store.
Melling stresses that the trunk shows have deepened their client relationships. "They become repeat customers with a higher order value as they have more confidence in the brand sizing and fit. Online are often one-time customers," she offered. This connection is informing a 7th Anniversary contest.
Recently the brand posted a photo of Olivia Wilde wearing their Grand Prix jumpsuit, a unicorn style from an early connection and queried their audience if they should bring it back. The response was an overwhelming yes.
"We posted 30 styles on our social media to vote for through to late April. The results are being tallied, and we will launch seven of these styles in November to commemorate the anniversary,"
The women attending them have also become inspired to create additional events and tend to match brands up that they love and enjoy that complement one another. The events have yielded partnerships with other brands, such as jewelry brand Emily and Ashley and UK-based coat brand Marfa Stance.
The trunk show model has helped build the clientele of the Marfa Stance outerwear collection founded in 2019 by Brit Georgia Dant, who formerly worked for Burberry and Rag & Bone. Crafted with a sustainable approach that allows the coats to be interchanged and updated via detachable outer layers, inner liners, hoods, and collars, the brand's biggest market is the US, partly thanks to the personalized selling events.
"We began with short-term pop-up retail stores in London and NYC as soon as Covid rules allowed it, from September 2021. It quickly became apparent there was a demand to experience the brand's unique buildable and customizable element in person," said Dant over email. Since partnering with La Ligne, they teamed up on several events, such as shows in Aspen and Sun Valley in February 2022.
"We focussed on this as part of our US growth strategy from September 2022, with events to date in the likes of San Francisco, LA, Texas, Connecticut, Chicago, Michigan, Jackson Hole, Minneapolis, and Napa," she continued.
While she notes the concept isn't new, it resonates particularly in the States. "We're building a loyal, multigenerational community and making meaningful connections on the journey to collaborate with, share advice, and support. It's been an instrumental part of building brand awareness, with word of mouth becoming our most powerful form of marketing. Everyone recommending the brand to each other has built a cult following," Dant said, adding, "A personalized approach to shopping naturally complements a brand with personalization as a core value, so hosting intimate events at someone's home provides a relaxed setting to shop and learn about the brand from the team and the founders too."
Another indie custom-centric brand also relies on the personal approach to selling. The Micky Paris is a made-to-measure shirt company founded during Covid in 2020 by Michelle Boor, a design professional and American living in France. She paired up with a Parisian men's shirt maker Daniel Levy to launch. The idea was to take the classic men's button-front shirt and tailor it to a woman's measurement.
Boor recently wrapped up a New York visit with a joint trunk show with jeweler Jennifer Alfano of The Flair Index. "I was fortunate to have help from Jennifer, who did all the organization. Our products match nicely together, and we often have the same client profile, one who can understand and purchase our products; this is key. We are doing another one in the fall. The key is to do them regularly to be successful, two a year minimum." Boor said over email, adding, "Word of mouth is key in my brand platform; through the shows, I have clients who bring friends and new clients are made. When I travel, I meet the clients directly where they can feel and see the fabric and show them the Micky fit in person. These trips increase the geographic reach of my brand. Lastly, the trunk show's intimate setting corresponds with my brand's private made-to-measure aspect. From the beginning, the trunk show concept naturally aligned with this and created a unique allure to my brand image."
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