Twice a year, some 600 women’s apparel and accessories brands congregate at a business-to-business (B2B) fashion trade show in Las Vegas called WWDMAGIC. The painstaking attention to detail and thought that goes into the planning and execution of this massive bi-annual show—its latest of which brought 50,000 attendees—all starts in the mind of one woman and our OUAI crush: Kelly Helfman, president of WWDMAGIC and women’s trade shows Project Women’s, Stitch, and Pool. 'Crushing it' will mean something entirely different to you when you learn that Kelly started as a customer service rep at WWDMAGIC and became president of the show 12 years later. Ahead we caught up with Kelly about the evolution of trade shows in the digital world, her tips for climbing the career ladder, practical advice for handling working mom guilt and more.
What is one fashion job you held that left its mark on you and what did it teach you?
It has to be my first experience in fashion. I worked at my mom’s vintage clothing store in high school during the grunge 90’s. 1995 to be exact. I spent weekends thrifting and trolling estate sales to find merchandise for our store. It was then I learned the economics of marking up product to make a profit. I was a high schooler, working at the store selling and pricing product. Sadly, after a year, the store closed, but I learned so much from that experience. I saw my mom struggle to make money in retail. I learned that you need to really have a solid business plan, a great location and a true sales strategy. It is not enough to just have a dream and do it. You need to plan it out and put real thought behind your goals to make them successful.
You went from an entry-level position as a customer service rep for WWDMAGIC in 2006 to president overseeing the company’s four major west coast women’s shows. Speaking from experience, what are some tips that others should follow when pursuing a position of higher power?
I feel like I could write an entire book about how to work your way up to be a #bossbabe. I have had so many failures and successes on the journey to becoming President at my company. If I had to choose three tips, I would go with these:
- I always exceeded expectations and made sure to blow my goals out of the water! I was competitive and followed through. No shortcuts.
- I was super patient and realistic. When others left after not getting that first promotion, I hung in there and kept working even harder.
- I listened and learned. I would receive feedback and instead of getting defensive, I took it in and worked at it. I let others mentor and coach me which made me evolve.
If I would have just met expectations and not exceeded them, been impatient, pushed back on change and not listened to get guidance, I would have never been able to evolve as a leader.
What's one fact about your job that a lot of people would be surprised to learn?
People are usually shocked to hear how much work goes into planning each show from selling the booths to designers, floor planning, operations, marketing, experiences, education, registering retailers, etc. We are a small team based out of Santa Monica (not Vegas). Since MAGIC is every February and August, we work for six months straight to execute each show and then we start all over again. It is literally like being pregnant and having a baby...then getting pregnant all over again.
What is the most challenging part about planning trade shows at a time when consumers increasingly shop online and crave highly experiential activations?
The game is changing rapidly, which is an exciting opportunity. As consumers shop more online, that just means more online retailers come shop our show! Our retail team is constantly trying to find new online stores that we can invite. We are challenged to deliver more experiences, panels, networking events and education to our attendees to drive value. Fashion market changes give us tradeshow organizers a major push to evolve the event experience and add more value for the industry.
What advice would you give to both brick-and-mortar and e-commerce retailers who are trying to stay relevant in a world where a new online fashion brand launches everyday?
What is your story, your purpose? What sets you apart from your competitors? What are you doing to engage with your tribe aka shoppers and get in front of them? All multi-branded stores need to be engaging, doing digital advertising, creating interesting content, offering added values to their shopper, etc. NO longer can we just get away with hoping we get traffic to our shops. We all need to work 10 times harder to make the same amount of money. Think about offering styling services or personal shopping, give them useful content to draw them in, etc. Set yourself apart.
Women everywhere are influenced by some of the decisions you make while merchandising the trade show floors: what’s your selection process/ criteria for what items get a spot on the floor?
Really?! Thank you. I never think anyone really understands how much thought and hard work goes into the floor merchandising part of the job. We are so detailed on how we place each brand. We have screening applications where we ask every brand their wholesale price points, what stores they currently sell, who their main competitors are, etc. Then when we go to place each brand on the floor, we review this information very carefully.
We cannot place brands that are competing too close or brands that knock others off close. We merchandise our show floor like a department store by lifestyle and price point. We put brands together that a certain girl would wear from day to night at a similar price point. We place fast fashion far from contemporary collections.
I would say it takes us a full month to do the floor planning process from start to finish. Then on top of it, we have brands who pay extra to be on a corner or peninsula for additional exposure. We must place each designer for the size booth they signed up for. It is like a giant game of fashion Tetris. It is tricky! I would say we get it right 98% of the time, but there is always the 2% that will see their location as not appropriate for their brand. Fashion is aspirational.
What do you anticipate the hottest fashion trends will be for spring 2020?
Now this is the fun part! At the August 2019 show, I got to see what the brands were selling to the stores for Spring 2020. Here are some of my top favs: For fabrics you will see a ton of sheer, sporty materials, macramé and knotted styles. As for prints, we will see exotic tribal prints, tie dye, ombre, fruit prints and florals. Top colors include earthy-tone solids, neons for the bold fashionistas and warm yellows/oranges. A few pieces you will not be able to live without are baggier pants that are high waisted (paper-bag waist), bermuda shorts and camp shirts! For footwear, I am loving the heeled mules, platform sandals, ankle wrap sandals and pumps. We will see a lot of looks influenced by the 70’s and 80’s!
How have trade shows evolved over the course of your career with WWDMAGIC and do you ever see them fading out due to digital/social/tech domination?
The main purpose of connecting brands and buyers has remained. The value adds have changed. Over the 13+ years I have been here, we had added a lot from free education, influencer panels, and celebrity chats to performances, networking events, matchmaking, digital badging, an app, GPS way-finding around the show, and so much more.
The B2B tradeshow business will always be relevant and necessary as it feeds the wholesale fashion market which is never going away. MAGIC will just continue to evolve more and more to address the market changes. For example, we now offer our WWDMAGIC exhibitors a Digital Influencer Program to support their D2C business and social media presence. We feel that all brands and stores should be taking an omni-channel approach to their business and as the leaders in the market, we will help them with that.
Who are some emerging designers or brands we should have on our radar this year?
We have great new brands that will be joining us for our February 2020 event. OK, ready, set, Google...here are some of my favorite new brands: Daze Denim, Caverely Shoes, Elk (great brand out of Australia), Charlie Holiday, By The River and Cotton Candy LA....just to name a few!
Are there any entrepreneur and/or self help books you’ve read that you think EVERY person should read before entering the workforce?
YES! I love the new Gabby Bernstein book “Super Attractor” and you cannot go wrong with my friend Jaclyn Johnson’s book “Work Party.” Also, make sure to listen to the Amy Cuddy Ted Talks on YouTube! Her motto is “Fake it until you become it” and it works. I love a lot of podcasts like “Goal Digger,” but most of them are for women looking to launch their own business and be entrepreneurs. It is hard to find good content on how to work your way up at a company to have your dream job. Maybe that is a sign I need to write something?!
You mentioned on Instagram that you rarely spend over $50 on any apparel item and love shopping vintage/thrifting. Can you tell us about some of your favorite under-the-radar/indie thrift stores and vintage stores?
You did your research! OK, you can thank me later for these. There is a chain of vintage stores in Brooklyn called Awoke Vintage ,and because I live in LA, I shop their Instagram stories all the time. Now that I shared, please leave me some good stuff, ladies! I am also a huge Estate Sale junkie. You have to be ok with picking, but that is where you get the best deals (skip the middle man)! Sign up for the EstateSales.net email newsletter and every week you will get the ones happening in your area. I love a good hunt. If you live in LA, the Rosebowl Swapmeet is the second Sunday of every month! And of course, Etsy is my serious vintage addiction. I lay in bed and scroll/shop for hours.
You also mentioned that balancing work and motherhood can be a struggle. Do you have any practical mom advice for juggling the two without feeling guilty?
Anyone who says it is easy is faking it! I read self-help books and go to therapy. It is not an easy task. I also travel a lot for work which makes the guilt even worse. Here is what my therapist says which has helped: When you get home, imagine putting all your “work baggage” from the day in a bag. Before you walk into the door of your home, leave that bag outside the front door, allowing yourself to walk into your family life with a clear and attentive mind. You have to picture it to work and make the commitment.
If you have a problem picking up your phone while hanging with your kids, put it on the charger for 20 minutes at a time. A quality 20 minutes undistracted with them is better than an hour with them while you are on the phone.
I also keep reading all those inspirational quotes on IG like “Daughters of working mothers are more likely to be CEOs.” Whatever gets me to sleep at night, right?!
Name one app that changed your life or that you can’t live without.
The obvious must be Instagram, because it lets me connect with all of you. It has led me to so many amazing people, brought me comfort, inspires me to be creative and opened my eyes to a world of support. Second, VENMO changed the game on my mom’s nights out when paying the check. It is the little things.
Break down your everyday hair routine for us.
I wash my hair 2-3x a week at night. I spray in the OUAI Leave In Conditioner and I let my hair dry. I try to put no heat on my hair since it is color-damaged from being naturally dark brown and going bleach blonde. I am using the OUAI Hair Oil each morning on my dry hair, plus spraying the Hair & Body Shine Mist. Lastly, to get me through those two days before my next wash, I OD on the dry shampoo spray. I want to try the foam though!
You travel often so we have to know—what are your top 3 travel beauty products?
I love the LAPCOS Face Masks. They exhibit at WWDMAGIC and now I am addicted. I go nowhere without my travel steamer of course. And lastly, I use my work trips to sleep with the OUAI Treatment Masque on overnight and wash out in the morning.
Mantra you live by?
Keep scrolling to shop Kelly's OUAI favorites