The designer trunk show is as old as traveling salesman jokes and as new as this week's hemlines. There was a time, before Elsa Klensch revealed the mysteries of the haute couture to one and all via cable TV, that the only way designer clothes could be seen was at tony local specialty stores. That's when designers packed up their entire collections in trunks and took them cross country to show them on models, explain their design direction and charm the customers into ordering those special frocks for the season ahead.
Trunk shows today are still a popular draw in local stores. They give women of means first look and first choice at a designer's entire collection months before the rest of the world sees bits and pieces in the store.
Name designers, who are replacing movie stars in celebrity status, still flog their creations at glitzy retail establishments, but most of the arduous work of bringing Seventh Avenue style to the provinces is done by polished and resilient sales associates.
While most of us are still sorting through summer shorts, women of fashion have already picked and paid for their winter woolens. They're just waiting for delivery.
Sales representative Joan Mazza brought the Bill Blass collection to Nan Duskin last week. It was the last fall trunk show on the schedule, which started in May.
Ms. Mazza knows her stuff, and the women who buy it. She has done turns with some of the most formidable ladies in the fashion establishment -- Pauline Trigere, Jacqueline de Ribes, Mary McFadden -- and it takes more than a killing schedule or a demanding customer to ruffle her ruffles.
The Nan Duskin staff had put the word out to their valued customers and they were ready and waiting.
Before the doors open, Ms. Mazza runs through the collection with the store's sales staff, explaining the looks, any sizing peculiarities, colors, cuts and ways to sell. The alterations people are included to get a look at the construction and detail.
When the doors open, loyal fans trickle in.
They're friends and they're comfortable. They look, they try, they admire the model. They'll be back, they say.
Ms. Mazza isn't worried. They don't always buy immediately, Ms. Mazza says. "They shop with friends, but don't always want them to know what they'll buy or how much they spend."
And they look carefully because they like to feel they haven't missed a thing.
Trunk shows account for 25 percent to 30 percent of a designer's sales volume, and the sales rep understands the shopping dynamics. To the unexperienced eye, a store may look quiet and slow once all fall clothes are in stock.
The reality is that the top lines have already been bought by the serious spenders.
"If the customer shops in a city where there is a lot of competition for the designer customer, she tends to really shop. She'll hit all the stores," Ms. Mazza says.
"It also depends on the designer. With Mr. Blass, the clothes are practically sold before they hit the store because these women are sold on him and they come in to pick out what they really want,"
Some women take only minutes, and Ms. Mazza's advice, and the sale is made.
Those of us women who have been shopping-malled to exhaustion would be amazed at the speed with which thousands can be spent.
"I'll have the suit. The blouse. I'll think about the dress." Total time 20 minutes. Total bill $3,000 and a bit extra.
"I have learned to expect the expendable income these women have," says Ms. Mazza. "Some women have a clothing budget that far exceeds the annual income of the average American. And that's fine.
"Instead of spending it offshore, they're buying American goods and keeping the economy going by spending at that level."
Lori Herlth, Nan Duskin store manager, sees a new and more prudent pattern emerging.
"There was a time when women shopping a trunk show would buy the total look -- suit, blouse, pants, coat," she says. "In this tighter economy, they're still buying, but limit themselves to a few pieces."
But some women see trunk shows in a more adventurous fashion spirit.
A Baltimore trunk show regular, Amie Nachumowitz, likes her latest fashions but edits carefully. "I like to go because I get to see the entire line, have more of a selection."
The busy mother of three thinks smart and tries to outsmart the rest of the fashion pack. "I'm careful to find out what the store ordered for stock and avoid those clothes, so that I'm not walking around dressed like everybody else."
She has lots of different looks and is not tied to any one designer. "I go to them all.
Everything is so expensive, so each season I pick up a special suit or a special-occasion dress." But she does like to be different.
"Last year, I went to the Jennifer George trunk show and watched what everybody else ordered -- a black tuxedo. I bought it in red and really enjoyed wearing it because it really stood out in a sea of black."
It's that kind of fashion perseverance that moves and changes fashion -- something different, something new.
The Nan Duskin show was the last of the season for Ms. Mazza. Back in New York she is wrapped up in the Bill Blass resort line, and a different climate.
DOING THE TRUNK SHOWS
A trunk show can be an entertaining way to enter the world of designer dressing, and doesn't have to be intimidating. A healthy clothes budget counts, but a stash of mad money for a one-time special purchase will do.
Chi Chi Labarraque, regional fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue, recommends a trial run for beginners.
"It's a highly effective way to get a jump on the designer season for the fashion-forward woman. And the relationship she develops with a sales rep can save her time and worries."
Trunk show service is as personal as shopping can get. It is in the sales rep's and designer's best interest to make every
woman who wears their clothes as handsome as possible, so the advice is objective and knowledgeable. They want return sales.
The customer has the run of a designer's entire collection. She can choose her color, fabric and size. Suit jackets and skirt can be adjusted. Clothes that need alterations are shipped with basted seams to make adjustments easier. And prices are no higher than the store's stock -- a smaller selection which arrives weeks later.
"Women shouldn't feel threatened by the notion that trunk shows are too upscale, too expensive," says Ms. Labarraque. "Once a woman has cultivated a relationship with a particular line, she may never want to shop another way again."
It is not only couture designers who arrange trunk shows. They can be shopped for sportswear, jewelry, children's clothes and even men's wear.
Here are a few to consider in the weeks coming up:
* Aug. 19: A representative from Suzelle will bring a collection of day-to-evening separates to Miller Brothers in Towson Town Center from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (410) 825-1508.
Accento designer sportswear will be shown by representative Michelle Irwin at Saks Fifth Avenue in Owings Mills. (410) 363-7200.
* Aug. 25: Clichy and Lilli Ann reps will be in store with sportswear, dress and suit designs at Miller Brothers from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (410) 825-1508.
* Aug. 28: Ferrell Reed representative Ken Reynolds brings a trunk show of men's silk neckwear to Nordstrom from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (410) 296-2111.