Temple of Cloth

At Dallas' Apparel Mart they'll sell the shirt off their back, but not without some balyhoo and only at a good price. Whoever buys it will sell it again, probably to you.

January 1974By Comments

THE DALLAS APPAREL MART IS in the business of clothing Middle America. That business takes place in a climate-controlled, windowless world within the Dallas Market Center, a world whose inhabitants talk clothes and whirr around like carnival barkers amid a mind-boggling mix of style numbers, sizes, prices. and colors.

Eighty-thousand buyers a year jam the mart to order clothing wholesale from manufacturers to sell to their customers in stores across the country. New York is still the leader in wholesale garment marketing, but Dallas is in third place, closely following Los Angeles. For many stores, Dallas is the only source. The decisions made at the mart determine what many of us will be ableto buy next season. The atmosphere may be carnival, but the business is serious: $1.5 billion a year.

In the honeycomb of corridors that makes up the Dallas mart, wholesalers have their own showrooms. Display clothing drapes the walls and samples fill the racks like prizes hanging in a carnival booth. In fact, one can envision dozens of buyers with stuffed animals tucked under their arms or flowers in their lapels, eating hot dogs and ice cream parfaits-the rewards of shopping one of the 1550 wall-to-wall showrooms which line the hallways of the mart.

Most showrooms consist of a single room the size of a large living room, furnished with tables and chairs. Some are spacious and luxurious-Bobbie Brooks Inc. recently spent a small fortune having their five-room complex remodeled by Gene Adcock, who is known for his design work on Wilt Chamberlain’s house. Except in the better-ready-to-wear section (where all showrooms are enclosed), at least one wall of each showroom is glass and contains the “hottest” items exhibited. The hottest items may be anything from a hat to a dress to a live, gyrating model dressed in a frock from Funky’s Mistress Collection (a popular: sight at markets). The object is to turn enough window shoppers into buyers.

There are as few as one or as many as ten sales persons in a single showroom. Each sales person shows the complete line (a sample of every design the manufacturing company has to offer) of garments available to customers of that market. Models frequently are employed (at $25-$45 per day) to give the buyer an idea of how the garment should look and also to make the entire package a little more appealing.

A buyer may represent an entire store or a department within that store, depending on the size of the firm. After seeing what lines throughout the mart have to offer, he orders enough merchandise to fill his needs for the season, specifying size, color, quantity, and attempting to coordinate his purchases with other things he has ordered. Again, depending on the size of the store, an average order from a clothing manufacturer who offers a wide variety of popular styles may run anywhere from $2000 to $50,000.

At the bottom of the clothing chain, clothes cost almost nothing. There is no telling how many middlemen come between the raw materials and the cloth, for example, or the cloth and the manufacturer. But between a man and his shirt one can hazard a guess. Large firms design and manufacture their own garments. Some weave their own fabrics. Small firms may do no more than buy merchandise from large manufacturers. However the garment is spun into existence, a shopper may be absolutely certain that when he buys an $18 shirt in the store it costs him twice as much as the owner of the store paid for it (unless the shirt is on sale). The owner of the store may be fairly certain that he paid twice what the wholesaler paid and so on.

Although all companies sell year round through traveling salesmen, at permanent offices, by phone and mail, most Apparel Mart showrooms are open only five times yearly. These five weeks are strategically located within the fashion year. Dallas is the first market of each new season, and every company, regardless of size or prestige, works around the clock to be ready for Dallas where they will be able to test their line and make adjustments before the first showing of the season in New York. Sales in Dallas are good indicators: numbers (particular garments) which do not sell may be pulled (taken out of the line), fabrics may be changed, modifications made. It’s like the Boston run of a Broadway play.

The Women’s and Children’s Wear Market, the largest and most publicized, occurs five times a year: in January for mid-summer clothing; in March for early fall; in May for fall; in August for midwinter; in October for spring. Although each market period lasts only a little less than a week (Friday through Thursday), during a single market enough wholesale merchandise is sold to stock 6000 retail stores. This does not include business done during Men’s and Boy’s Wear markets (five times a year) and Shoe markets, (two times a year). Recent statistics reveal that during a market week in Dallas there are more buyers in attendance than in any single week at the New York or Los Angeles markets, which are open continuously throughout the year.

During these seasonal population explosions (with 12,000 buyers and 5000 sales personnel), the population of the Apparel Mart soars to that of a small town, and produces one of mankind’s most awesome displays of false eyelashes, wigs, toupees, and clotheshorses. (Most individuals associated with the apparel business are able to buy their wardrobes wholesale.) Buyers are both male and female. They are young and kinky, veterans who haven’t missed a market in 30 years, and everywhere in between. Methods of buying are as varied as the faces. There are impulsive buyers; they like it, they buy it. “I’ll take a dozen of that and a dozen of that—in each color—and isn’t this one cute….” Others bring electronic cal- culators to market, carefully computing total purchases. But generally a buyer knows what he needs and how much of it. He can’t afford too many wrong decisions; he has to sell everything he buys. Purchases made at market determine the success of his store.

Similarly, sales made at market and on the road between markets dictate the style of living to which sales personnel will become accustomed. To small companies how they do at market determines how much they will be able to reinvest in forthcoming markets. When there are only a few buyers in a showroom, a salesman paces, chain smokes, tries to act relaxed while beads of sweat appear on his forehead. But when the showroom fills to standing room only, elbow-to-elbow smoke and noise, he experiences a crazy exhilaration—he is in his element.

Preparations for markets, the markets themselves, and their aftermath consume nearly eight months of the year. June, July, November, and December are slow months at the Apparel Mart. Business goes on daily for the firms who use their showrooms as permanent offices. When not otherwise in use, the facility is rented for banquets, dances, stage performances, senior proms, conventions, product shows, and so on. These activities often are centered in the Great Hall, an arena almost the size of a football field with 60-foot ceilings, complete food services, and staging facilities.

Market fashion shows are held in either the Great Hall or the third floor Fashion Theatre and are theoretically designed to give a comprehensive view of everything available during a particular market. There are usually three shows in which items can be shown at $50 a shot: the morning show (everything), Texas fashions (those manufactured in Texas), and better-ready-to-wear (designers of the Apparel Mart’s Group III). These marathons are put together by Kim Dawson, fashion director of the Apparel Mart, and her staff during one sleepless weekend and include more than 500 garments and 40 or 50 models.

These are largely social events; everyone is plied with booze and food and given red carpet treatment. Even so, times were when it took a lot of grit to sit through the morning show—one dismal fashion after another. But fashion promotion at the Apparel Mart has matured to show the best in even the most lackluster items. The models lend their own talents, impressions, and past lives to the commentation, giving the audience a peek inside the people.

For those who still equate the apparel industry with beauty, sex, sin, and iniquity, with luscious women and rich men, it’s time to wake up. Sure, there’s all of that. One model, given the opportunity to unleash her fury, declared that during markets “The Apparel Mart is Sodom and Gomorrah in one building….You leave yourself and become something altogether different. Everybody gets together in the morning, throws the key on the floor and then everybody scrambles for it. It’s the classic situation of the man away from home and the woman who stands to profit by playing along with him.”

But these people have a job to do —clothing America (and making money)—everything else is secondary. The glamorous love life is drastically overstated. In actuality it consists of the usual banalities: poor lines, suggestive conversation, winking, pinching, touching, patting inadvertently, proofs of wealth and so on. (Of one thing a girl can be certain: During the first five minutes with a male on the make she will hear how much he earns a year, usually stated as $100,000, how old he is, usually 32, and what color Marquis Brougham he owns.) Perhaps you’re familiar with “Say, haven’t I seen you on television? No? You look like a model I’ve seen. Listen, I’ve got this friend with Eileen Ford in New York. If you’ll just give me your name and phone number….”

Every other story you may have heard is definitely true. Make up your own story-there’s a 99 per cent chance it’s true too. However, since many contenders never get past “forget it, buddy” subtract 50 percent of the scores. It’s all very common and unenlightened —has-been females and horny whatevers. The fashion scene is no more exciting or risque (not to mention liberated) than the old secretary-boss thing.

Such behavior, even once removed, is more than some can stomach. One of the largest buyers of junior sportwear in the Southwest feels that no Dallas salesman is smart enough to handle her problems; she prefers to buy in New York. She is sickened by the light attitude taken toward business in the Dallas mart. “In New York no one would offer you a drink in the middle of your work day, like in Dallas. There you drink maybe at 5:30 when the day’s about over….” She’s there to do a job, and business is business.

One ex-New Yorker, Ed Truman, regional representative for Benson and Partners, candidly describes Texas business transactions in the Apparel Mart style, “Five times a year we have a carnival here…We light up the showroom windows and have a carnival. The Dallas Apparel Mart is a zoo —it is poorly managed. Eighty percent of the salesmen are animals, the other 20 percent try to do business —I mean good Texas houses (manufacturing firms) like Jerrell, Nardis, Howard Wolf, Prophecy,…or California lines like Collage and Arpeja.

“There’s no fanfare in New York; if there’s a lunch served, it’s served to a select few people —behind closed doors if there are drinks served….There are too many major stores that will not come out here [Dallas] because of the behavior. Wining and dining in New York is at a minimum, but like all people, when their [the buyers’] trips are paid for they like to go.” He objects to the gimmicks which attract customers to the Apparel Mart showrooms, to the meals and drinks. One showroom has a black chef, in uniform, who spends the day carving roast beef for customers. Truman complains that many salesmen still walk the halls buttonholing people. He jokes (half seriously) that there should be a rule that salesmen can only leave their showrooms to go to the bathroom.

Truman even goes so far as to say that the Texas manufacturers’ section of the New York market which cultivates the same atmosphere should stay at home. “It’s a joke, and in New York it’s so far out of place it isn’t funny.”

Heinz Simon, advertising and promotion director for the mart, who with Kim Dawson and managing director Clyde Utt forms its ruling triumvirate, feels the carnival atmosphere brings crowds to Dallas markets. “I think that a bit of that [carnival atmosphere] is necessary to set an atmosphere conducive to the market place. This is one of the only facilities which enables a buyer to get the feeling of the whole market. We feel very strongly that’s what made the Dallas market what it is…not carnival atmosphere in the derogatory sense or extreme, but in the positive sense.”

Simon envisions a future in which no city dominates fashion apparel, but rather five basic centers: New York, Dallas, West Coast, Chicago, and Atlanta. “I don’t think any city or facility is going to ever control retail apparel as New York once did. Now, we have a certain geographic advantage…and the fact of the facility here will eventually give us an edge on mid-America….The Apparel Mart already generates 80,000 buyer visits annually….It is the single greatest generator of traffic [people] to Dallas on a year-to-year basis.”

Although 36 states and Mexico, Canada and Puerto Rico were represented at the most recent midwinter market (August, 1973), mid-Americans dominated the scene. Registered buyers included more than 3000 from Texas, 1000 from Oklahoma, with the others primarily from Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Kansas. Dallas’ most loyal enthusiasts are buyers from small-town stores who are afraid to ride an elevator alone in New York City, whose lifestyle rejects the inconvenience of having to locate New York showrooms spread over miles and throughout hundreds of buildings before they can even begin the knock-down-drag-out process of buying merchandise. Buyers who have been enjoying the relative ease of shopping the Apparel Mart since its opening in 1964 still become distressed at the prospect of navigating the 1,300,000 square-foot, $20-million structure but agree that Dallas wins hands down in convenience among major market centers.

“I feel sure just the layout of the mart adds one day to our market time… says Jean Davis, a buyer for Ben Smith’s in Texarkana who can’t see any reason “why anyone would have to go to New York or Los Angeles to buy. We can see almost any line we could see in New York here in Dallas, we can drive rather than fly, and we can stay right across the street.”

“The people are much nicer in Dallas, in New York they don’t show much concern” her associate Tommie Moseley adds during a comfortable lunch break in the Great Hall.

Ruth Gumfory, a buyer for DeeAnns Dress Shop in Grover, Texas, has been buying at the Apparel Mart for 11 years. “I don’t go to any other big markets because it’s all here in Dallas. The mart has become very organized to me and the only real complaint I have in the whole thing is the cafeteria.”

“It’s easier to shop here because things are so spread out in New York; here we can see a lot quickly,” John Wright Jr., sportswear buyer for Blackburn’s in Amarillo, agrees.” The salesman here better understands our problems. Deliveries are better. We do go to Los Angeles to deal directly with the manufacturers, to buy off price (at end of season lower prices), and pick up ad money. In Dallas you deal with salesmen, in L.A. or New York with the man who owns the company.”

Indeed, dealing directly with the manufacturers seems to be both the theme song of those who holler “make mine New York” and the pet peeve of Dallas salesmen.

“Many buyers think anything in New York is great and the manufacturer’s word is god, not the little salesman in the regional markets. They [the buyers] get wined and dined and taken out to do the town. They think it’s big stuff,” one salesman comments.

Wining and dining aside, Anna Jane Runner of the Back Door in Wichita, Kansas, insists she needs New York. “I go to New York to see manufacturers I need to see. Also to see good lines that are not shown here.” Most established lines are shown in Dallas, but innovative new lines which have not gained financial momentum often cannot afford the additional sales force needed to show at regional markets.

Although almost 100 manufacturers are based in Dallas and there are well over 500 throughout Texas, most major manufacturers are located on the East or West coasts. Manufacturers based in Texas are seldom “trendy” or faddish and cater to the Southwest where they do 90 per cent of their business.

Promoters of the Dallas Apparel Mart are optimistic and envision continued progress, perhaps even with Dallas becoming the dominant place to shop, but few go so far as to say Dallas will overshadow New York. Dallas is fighting two very fundamental problems. First, the city is not an industrial center. The monumental tasks of establishing the milling industry in Texas and attracting Easterners and Westerners to move their vast manufacturing plants to Dallas would be prerequisites of Dallas ever taking over where New York leaves off.

Texas, however, is the number one cotton producing state in the nation. Texas exports the raw materials necessary for fabric production to other states and then must import the finished fabric for supply to her own clothing manufacturers. The main problem standing between Texas and developing this intermediate milling process is a shortage of contract labor. The Governor’s Office, through the Texas Industrial Development Commission and the Natural Fibers and Food Protein Committee of Texas, has set out to attract the fabric-producing industry.

It is difficult to predict what effect this windfall might have on the apparel industry within Texas in the next ten years. Manufacturers throughout the Southwest do not have a sales problem; they can book more orders than they can fill. Ellen Lee, general manager for Peter Thousand, a manufacturing company in business only a year, says that there has been no problem with sales but rather with getting contract labor and piece goods—precisely the two areas which Texas aims to bring under control.

According to Loren Feldman, executive director of Southwest Apparel Manufacturers, the push to develop the industry is based primarily on economy. “This type of industry soaks up the secondary labor force…it can transmute agrarian based economies to a broader base, taking the industrial burden from the cities….Decentralization is occurring by necessity primarily because of labor, and let’s face it, tax benefits.”

“In Dallas there’s a 2.6 per cent unemployment rate, you know, you’ve got to go to the cemetery and dig ’em up to get people to work.” Apparel is the third largest employer in the Dallas area. Working conditions aren’t bad and there are reasonable employee benefits. Starting pay is $2 to $2.10 per hour and average pay, including trainees and experienced operators, is $2.49 per hour. Some companies allow work at home.”

Another Texas manufacturer, Harry Cohen, vice president of Tres Petite agrees, “The people here…most of them don’t want to work. Like we’re busy now, we want them to work overtime on Saturday —they won’t work. You want to fire ’em, fire ’em, they don’t care.”

“Dallas ultimately can become number one if it continues its present progress. The only thing that makes one number one and the other number two is numbers [of buyers in attendance],” Robert R. Michlin, chairman of the Apparel Mart Board of Governors and president of Robert R. Michlin Inc. (manufacturer), says. As long as Dallas is not open continuously 52 weeks a year, without the appeal of being able to deal directly with manufacturers, without large scale migration of manufacturing facilities which would lend design leadership and trendsetters to Dallas, these numbers simply cannot be achieved.

Making clothes is one thing. What is made is another. The second drawback to the growth of the Dallas mart beyond its natural regional borders is conservatism. A city whose men still thrill to whether or not a woman will go without a bra is just not ripe to become a Paris, a New York, or even an L.A.

IN TEXAS THE FASHION INDUSTRY is built on mediocrity. “Most Texas resources [manufacturers] sell well only in the five-state region. They’re designed for the middle road. There is no exceptional sportswear line in Texas, if you’re a good designer you head for New York or L.A.,” John Christy, regional sales manager for Hubba Hubba and San Francisco Gold (clothing lines), says.

His colleague Paul Hart, salesman for Très Petite, admits that his line may not look like the height of fashion, “but it sells and it makes me a lot of money.”

It’s true. Dallas perennially misses the boat as a design capital. No Halstons or Oscar de la Rentas settle in Dallas for inspiration. Southwest manufacturers deny that there is any shortage in design talent or difficulty in keeping it, but design in the Southwest is much different from design in Vogue. Al Galvani, owner of Donovan-Galvani (clothing manufacturer), says most Southwest manufacturers own their own factories and cannot afford to risk producing anything but merchandise they already know their customers will buy. There is little experimentation except with color. Galvani adheres to the conservative definition of his consumer and selects the retailers to whom he sells.

Southwest manufacturers satisfy retail stores in the South and Midwest where customers must still be convinced that halter tops are not immoral, ankle length not too long, and knee length not too short. This system makes Dallas’ moderately priced labels financial success stories, but denies the city fashion in the artistic sense.

In the final analysis, the status of the apparel industry in Texas can be narrowed down to something as simple as human nature and the characteristic Texas twang. For the most part, life slides by gracefully here; business is accomplished more leisurely than in other areas. Whether or not one style of doing things is better than another, it’s nice to have a choice. Unfortunately, sideways glances from Eastern and Western neighbors breed a sense of inferiority in Texans who hope to compete on an equal basis. Essentially, the Apparel Mart lets it all hang out and hangs in there at third place; the manufacturers, too, stay on safe ground. The former is held back by being too indulgent, the latter by not being indulgent enough.

The most recent example is also the most pointed. The current world-wide rage for Western clothes was not satisfied by Southwest manufacturers. The Apparel Mart had to bring in East and West coast line to fill the demand. So, people in New York and L.A. willing to take a chance have made millions marketing what real Texans have been wearing for generations.

No matter how hot the fashion world becomes, the Apparel Mart still moves like a glacier—steady, slowly, predictably. It will always have a market this way, and it will always make money, providing that the tastes of middle America don’t somehow race ahead of it.

To become number one Dallas would have to cease being what it is. And what it is, is a solid center for a solid business. There is nothing wrong with doing $1.5 billion a year in trade, nothing at all. The insecurity is in not being satisfied with that, in hankering after East and West Coast sophistication in a region which has always lagged behind, or which, and how much more palatable is this explanation, has set its own character.

Supply and demand, that’s the name of the game. What we get to buy with our demand, however, more often is an echo than a choice. And that’s how the Apparel Mart works.

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