In February 2007, the three cofounders of BPMW, a menswear showroom and PR company based in New York, were running a small booth at a tradeshow in Las Vegas. With a handful of independent men's clothing brands in tow, the trio—Minya Quirk, Edina Sultanik, and Deirdre Maloney—found themselves in the unenviable position of being stuck next to a massive, two-story booth belonging to what at the time was one of the biggest clothing brands on the planet: Ed Hardy.
It was not pleasant.
"It was this monstrous booth that was all of Ed Hardy's men's, kid's, women's, belts, shoes—everything," recalls Quirk, a former fashion writer, with a laugh. "They had women walking around in glitter. And every single time they would submit an order, they would sound off an air horn!"
When the team landed back in New York, they vowed that they would never go back to a mass market tradeshow again, and proceeded to lay out the skeleton of a business plan for something new: a small but tightly curated tradeshow that catered toward the menswear market specifically. So they scrambled and, six months later, in a dusty old synagogue on the Lower East Side, BPMW held its first event that would arguably go on to reshape the landscape of today's menswear market. Capsule was born.
As far as tradeshows go, the first Capsule—which was thrown together leveraging existing relationships with designers, journalists, and buyers—was far from glamorous. "It was like a very unusual trade show setup," says Sultanik, herself a former fashion editor. "It was real rickety and rinky dink. It wasn't, like, chic and nice."
Since launching in July 2007, Capsule has expanded into men's and a limited number of women's shows held 12 times a year in Paris, London, Vegas, and New York. Its focus has long been in menswear, and the fact that Capsule brands like Mark McNairy, Warriors of Radness, Ovadia & Sons, and Norse Projects have percolated throughout the menswear blogosphere before becoming staples in the glossy pages of GQ and Details is no accident. From the beginning, the tradeshow helped democratize men's fashion by making it accessible to anyone who wanted in—and letting youngsters rub shoulders with some of the biggest names in the business. They also worked actively to get bloggers to pay attention to Capsule designers.
"Capsule was definitely instrumental in building up the new menswear journalism," says Lawrence Schlossman, editor of Four Pins, who, before he worked in fashion, would commute on his own dime to New York from Charlotte to attend the show. "They wanted to build relationships with bloggers. They knew people like me would be instrumental to getting people to care about Capsule."
Early on, the team behind Capsule realized the influence once wielded by fashion's gatekeepers at Conde Nast wasn't exactly waning, per se, but it was conceding ground to a small but influential cadre of menswear nerds (in addition to Schlossman, people like Michael Williams of Continuous Lean and James Wilson of Secret Forts) armed with blogs on the Internet. Basically, dudes who all read one another's stuff were amassing followings of their own online on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram—like Schlossman, who was eventually hired by BPMW to write for their style blog, We Are The Market. By reaching younger, previous untapped audiences, these voices proved instrumental in helping Capsule define its image as a harbinger of exquisite taste. To a budding generation of clothing geeks, Capsule felt ahead of the curve.
"All of a sudden, all these kids from the middle of nowhere who didn't have access to any of that stuff could immerse themselves in that culture and still be sitting at home in like their parents' basement in Ohio," says Maloney, a former buyer for Bloomingdales. "They'd know exactly what just hit the market in Tokyo. So it became super cult-y and a really exciting time. We wanted to sort of help these young designers with good ideas realize their dreams."
Today, Capsule attendees include the likes of Fast Company cover star Pharrell, rapper Pusha T, Opening Ceremony cofounder Humberto Leon, editors from publications like GQ and Monocle, and legendary designers like Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garcons looking to survey fashion's future.
But appealing to bloggers and tastemakers was just part of the equation; the clothes had to be impeccable, too. That's why getting a designer into Capsule isn't easy. The BPMW heads say they aggressively vet each brand individually to decide who gets onto the floor at each show, out of thousands of new applications each year. "A great candidate for Capsule is a brand that's made by real people who love what they're doing on a small to mid-sized level," says Quirk. "Our brands are not the brands who are producing tens of thousands of pieces of clothing in factories in China." (However, large companies like Nike do seed their high-end halo products at Capsule.)
The first Capsule show back in 2007 featured just 45 designers. Now the show carves out room for 777 designers from 25 countries around the world.
Whereas that original Ed Hardy booth had all the trimmings of a sweaty Jersey Shore nightclub, each Capsule designer—no matter how deep their pocketbooks—is given equal and intentionally limited space to present their wares. The hope is that by leveling the playing field, the focus will be placed squarely on the clothes being shown.
And now, as Capsule's mens show kicks off in New York on Monday, July 21st, the team will be tasked with maintaining its intimate, curatorial DNA while growing at a rapid rate. Earlier this year, Capsule was acquired by Reed Exhibitions, which puts on a number of large-scale tradeshows around the globe—tradeshows of the same magnitude that inspired Capsule's genesis to begin with.
The irony of this is not lost on the three founders, who insist that the boutique feel of Capsule won't change; they'll just have more logistical resources to, say, put more effort into navigating the infinitely more daunting and sprawling women's market. Whether that bears out or not remains to be seen.
"That's the nature of fashion," says Quirk. "In order to work in this industry, you have to be flexible, you have to be buoyant. It's the nature of the beast. But that's what's also fun about fashion. It just keeps moving."
"Totally," Maloney chimes in. "How many of us made fun of our moms in high school for wearing like mom jeans? And now all the kids in our office are wearing mom jeans."
[Images courtesy of BPMW]