As the summer heat embraced Paris, Who's Next opened its doors to the fashion industry for a particularly lively edition, held from 2 to 4 September. FashionUnited shared its experience.
At the entrance, security checked visitors' badges and identities several times. Not just anyone can enter this "temple of wholesale", as the organisers call it. Once through the gates, the welcome warmed up. An American school bus had taken its place in front of the main gates to celebrate the start of the new school year with music. It was barely 10am and already karaoke was blasting out sounds of the moment, delighting a group of young girls. A little further on, a DJ was mixing, high up in front of his turntables, facing foodtrucks that would soon sharpen your appetite.
Through the doors, you entered a tunnel made of crumpled paper, scented with bubblegum and decorated with playground-style tags. The cheerful, back-to-school theme managed to draw visitors in, while echoing the current dynamism of the wholesale distribution channel.
Wholesale: a winning channel
According to a 2023 study by Joor, a digital wholesale platform, international fashion brands are forecasting 27 percent growth in their wholesale channels this year. What's more, in 2023, sales are even expected to increase in this channel: 75 percent of brands said that the proportion of their business coming from wholesale was the same or higher than last year, while 33 percent reported a shift from retail to wholesale.
Among the advantages of the wholesale channel, the penetration of new markets is a topical one because it meets an economic objective of the government, announced at the end of August by Olivier Becht, minister delegate for Foreign Trade, Attractiveness and the French abroad. The project: a new export plan worth 125 million euros over four years. The aim is to increase the number of French companies exporting by 2030 - from 150,000 to 200,000.
Against this backdrop, the attendance of Olivia Grégoire, minister for small and medium-sized enterprises, trade, craft trades and tourism, to the fair was an "important gesture of recognition for the sector", wrote Yann Rivoallan, president of the Fédération du Prêt à Porter, on his Linkedin account. In France, the clothing sector recorded a 12 percent increase in exports between January and June 2023 compared to the same period in 2022 (figures gathered by the Institut Français de la Mode from French Customs).
However, it's no secret that clothing retailers (excluding luxury goods) are experiencing difficulties, with waves of receiverships and declines in clothing and textile sales compared with the pre-covid period. "Increasingly reconsidered by brands, wholesale is once again at the heart of the market and is proving to be a profitable strategy," read the trade show press release.
For Sylvie Pourrat, director of the WSN Offer, wholesale is first and foremost a question of visibility. She stated: "Today, we're really in a scenario where we need to make ourselves visible to as many people as possible. Everyone can travel, but not everyone does, everyone can go everywhere, but not everyone does. We realise that we are often at home ordering on the internet. So at some point, we need to be in places where the multidisciplinary public converges, we need to get into the department stores, to go where we won't necessarily open boutiques but where we'll find an ecosystem that's a little broader than the neighbourhood in which we position ourselves when we open our own boutique."
Pourrat further explained: “The way wholesale works is also changing. Before, a wholesale model was written according to a mathematical equation, with a margin calculation, etc. Today, all that is being rebuilt.” She pointed in particular to the arrival of digital native vertical brands (DNVB) on the wholesale scene, who are organising pop-ups in department stores such as Le Bon Marché or Galeries Lafayette, whereas their basic model is more focused on direct-to-consumer. “That's what's interesting today," continued Pourrat, "to see this model being readjusted in line with market needs.”
Who's Next, a gateway to the international market
Who's Next has been a flagship wholesale event for almost 30 years now, serving as a gateway to the world for French brands, but it is now attracting far more than just French companies. This was reflected in attendance, for which 58 percent of exhibitors came from abroad (compared to 51 percent at the January edition).
On the stand of the pretty Brazilian brand Marie Mercié, they spoke of their desire to establish themselves in France and Europe, while Maria Pavan, a brand from the same country, declared on Instagram that they had "done some good business" and that the label would now be in "many places around the world". Finally, Chinese label Fenggy was delighted to have met buyers from India, Spain, the USA and France.
For the first time, Who's Next welcomed a Chinese delegation, the Chic Expo show. And with it some 20 brands that are well established in China, some of which already have 2,000 shops in the country.
”It was not without effort that we worked on this area," confided Sylvie Pourrat. “But I've put all my energy into it over the last six months because I wanted to create a counterweight to the Shein controversy, which is a real controversy. Everyone has an idea about Chinese fashion, but no one knows what it's really like. And I think it's always good to be able to talk about it, to discuss it, to argue about it or not, to defend certain positions when you have the right information to do so. I was keen to show that Chinese fashion is also about organised groups who are committed to sustainability. They have 2,000 shops, but China isn't France, so they have to think big. It's not the quantity of shops that leads to a loss of quality.”
For the Chinese organisation, the objective is clear. "We want to pass on a message of cultural exchange via the Who's Next platform and raise the profile of Chinese fashion," Liu Yan, organiser of Beijing Fashion Expo, the company behind the China International Clothing & Accessories Fair (CHIC), told FashionUnited. "We want to show Europeans what Chinese creativity is all about.”
Some of the brands in the Made in China section have found potential local partners in Europe and the Middle East. But beyond the contracts, the presence of these labels, which are already very popular in China, is an opportunity for them to get their first foreign feedback, to see how their collections are received in France and internationally, and to familiarise themselves with the methods of doing business in Europe, particularly as regards exports.
The range on offer in the CHIC pavilion reflects an aesthetic that combines oriental and international inspiration. The style of the K-Boxing and Joeone brands, for example, is very modern. Some of the exhibiting companies are already working with European designers to develop their collections.
Another foreign player to join Who's Next this season is Neonyt. After taking part in January with an information stand, the German show was a concrete player in this new edition, bringing with it 12 so-called "eco-responsible" brands. The organisers expect this figure to double by the next edition in January 2024.
However, to meet brands that are aware of environmental issues and produce collections that consume fewer natural resources, there was no need to visit the Neonyt space, or the Impact space, also dedicated to the subject. Many of the ready-to-wear manufacturers exhibiting at the show have integrated a reduction in the use of natural resources into their processes.
Les Racines du Ciel, an ethical ready-to-wear brand that had been exhibiting under the Impact banner for several seasons, asked to be repositioned in its original creative space, the "Fame". They were therefore found outside the Neonyt brand pool.
Sissel Edelbo is another example of a committed brand in the Fame zone. This Danish label offers upcycled collections in which each piece is unique. The brand is currently enjoying great success and has just moved into the Bon Marché. It was created in 2004, but "things have really taken off in the last three years" said Pierre-Henri Bernex, sales and marketing associate at the Trendsetteuse showroom.
Whereas in the past, brands presented as sustainable did not want to be mixed in with labels considered to be more polluting, now, in fashion, style wins out. "It's the truth of the market that speaks,” said Sylvie Pourrat.
This season, the show announced a "reinforced selection" of its 1,200 exhibitors. “We're facing an influx of requests of all kinds," explained Sylvie Pourrat. “Not because we're the best, but because we're more or less the only European show that counts for women's fashion. Our so-called competitor shows are struggling to recover. As a result, Who's Next has become, by default, the international event that people ask for. That's great, except that it's not the mass and quantity that makes our show what it is, but the message that the selection delivers. For 30 years, we've built our business around the fact that we have to meet the needs of known markets. We know what we're missing, it could be the curvy woman, etc.” The "reinforced selection" was therefore guided by the need to rematerialise the market segments that needed it.
This careful curation was presented in a setting packed with entertainment – chewing gum bar, bag bar, karaoke, Doctor Love's booth, etc. There was no shortage of activities. "People come looking for inspiration and moments," said Pourrat, adding that the organisers' mission is to "work on the emotional side of things".
More experiential than ever, the September 2023 edition of Who's Next reflected the current objective of multi-brand shops, department stores and concept shops: to offer buyers an emotion, to inspire them and make them want to buy.This article originally appeared on