21 Sept 2016
French Styles and Coastal Themes Dominate Atlanta Furnishing Event
French country styles and nautically-themed home accessories were widely in evidence at this year's Atlanta International Home Furnishings Market, as were slogan-bearing homewear items and grumbles about the ubiquity of e-commerce.
French country styles and nautically themed home accessories were the order of the day at this year's Atlanta International Home Furnishings Market. This saw many exhibitors showcasing products and styles either inspired by or sourced directly from France, while many others featured designs with a conscious nod to classic seaside resorts.
Animal and geometric tribal prints were also a common sight at the event, as were items emblazoned with humorous or sentimental slogans. These were a feature of both soft furnishing accessories and wall displays. A number of the exhibitors at the event also found time to bemoan the continuing decline of the conventional retail sector, with online shopping becoming more and more the norm.
Although staged in Georgia, the southern US states' notorious preference for pastel tones didn't dominate to quite the extent that many expected. This was perhaps all to the good, given that organisers now claim this is the largest event of its kind in North America, attracting buyers from across the US and Canada, as well as from as far afield as the Caribbean.
One of many exhibitors at the event looking to show its range of French-styled products was Amelie Michel, a Connecticut-based textiles importer. Addressing the thinking behind her range, Michael Newburg, the Founder of the business, said: "I source fabric from European mills – primarily in France, but also Italy and in Spain. We import the fabric to the States, then we do our own cutting here to make table linens.
"I'm just starting in on the wholesale sector. Up until now, I've opened up short-term stores across the country and sold directly to the public."
According to Newburg, the American buying public appreciates the quality and cachet associated with European-designed and produced products. He said: "It does make a difference. My customers appreciate it and, for them, it's a big thing. A lot of my customers say they don't want to buy anything from China – not in this particular product line at least. A lot of my customers are also Francophiles and that makes a difference. There's definitely a premium."
Another French-focussed exhibitor was Le Cluny, a North Carolina-based home linen manufacturer. Explaining its particular approach, a company spokesman said: "We sell French country tablecloths in a Provençal style. We import from France, but do the cutting and sewing ourselves in North Carolina. Typically, we sell through the smaller, independent shops."
As well as selling French country-style fabrics, seaside-themed home furnishings and accessories were also proving a success for Le Cluny, with the company's representative saying: "On the coasts – particularly on the East and West Coasts – the nautical theme is very much on trend. People always seem to like provincial South of France designs."
The coastal resort theme was also widely in evidence at the show, most notably on the 727 Sailbags stand, with the Pennsylvania-based company distributing a range of products made entirely from recycled yacht sails. Explaining the company's unusual approach, a spokesman said: "All of our items are unique and come from the sails of a particular type of boat that is popular on the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
"We have also some examples sourced from well-known vessels, including one from Oracle, the yacht that won the America's Cup race. That comes in a limited edition with a certificate of authenticity."
Unsurprisingly, the sailing theme seemed particularly well received in the coastal regions of the US. Acknowledging this, the 727 Sailbags spokesman said: "We just started trading four months ago, but we already have 30-35 customers. From our first show in Miami, we learnt that our typical customers tended to be in the Hamptons in New York, Florida, Georgia, and around Chicago by the lake.
"Sales are very good at the moment, with the sling chair doing particularly well. Right now, we have sold out of that line until December."
As well as French and coastal themes, intricately printed fabrics also seemed popular this year. Patricia Spratt, President of Connecticut-based, home furnishings business Patricia Spratt for the Home, said: "Things that are slightly tribal-related – but not specifically – are selling well. The sort of geometric-meets-oriental-meets-menagerie, as well as animals in general, and elephants in particular, have been doing well for me. They are certainly selling better than other ranges, such as classic paisley table linen."
Not every exhibitor at the show, however, had a focus on patterned textiles. Massachusetts' Woven Workz, for instance, was finding considerable success with its solid-coloured throws. Raphael Wolf, the company's Chief Executive, said: "For us, it's our very thick, heavy throws that people seem to like. The colour is pretty much the same from year to year and it's always the cream that sells best, as well as other neutral colours. That's a no-brainer."
Slogan-bearing items were also everywhere at the event, whether whimsical, mawkish or funny. Michigan-based Ellembee Home was one such exhibitor. Company President, Lisa Boesch, said: "We have been in business for eight years now, largely selling T-shirts. A year ago, we started making tea towels too. To date, this is only our second wholesale show. We did New York and we now have a lot of stores up there, so we decided it was time to hit the South.
"It's been going really well. We have this deal where, if people buy seven styles, we will give them a free ladder to display them on. This brought in a ton of re-orders. One of our boutiques sold about 361 tea towels in a weekend and that's a lot."
Slogan-bearing products are, of course, very much a matter of taste and, as in other sectors, preferences seem to vary across the different US regions. Acknowledging this, Boesch said: "We have one range – Sunshine and Sweet Tea – that we cannot sell to save our lives up north. Down here, though, people love it. It's a sweeter, Bible Belt kind of thing. People up north don't like it, but people down here love it. Our alcohol-themed towels, however, are popular everywhere."
Another exhibitor to note the gentler tastes of southern US customers was Karin Reiter, in town to represent Tourmaline Home, a New York-based soft furnishings company. She said: "The aesthetic for each section of the country is completely different. If you are in the South, it's definitely a lot sweeter, a lot softer.
"LA is trendier, as is New York – a little edgier. Then, if you go into places such as the Midwest, it is more simple, very plain.
"You definitely see the difference in people's tastes and you need to have an assortment with a broad appeal, but it's unrealistic to think that you are going to make everybody happy. You figure out where your strengths are and build on them."
Holly Stuart, Owner of South Carolina's Holly Stuart Home tableware brand, noted that some designs of her high-end place mats and serving trays worked better in different parts of the country. She said: "If you are looking at New England, with the exception of eastern New England, around Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard, you are looking at the more traditional kind of colours – the oranges and greens and the reds.
"When you get to Florida or some of the coastal resort areas, you are definitely into the blues. For California, it's maybe a little more neutral – the greys and the tans. It's definitely a geographic thing.
"Trends wise, I think it has to do with colours. A couple of years ago, you saw a lot of grey. Last year, though, paprika was getting a lot of press."
Another trend widely acknowledged was the steady decline of conventional stores and the rise of online sales. Talking from her own experience, Wolf said: "Online is currently the best market. The early 2000s is when it all started and it's escalated as more people get into it and promote it and promote it…"
Spratt sounded a similar note, saying: "I suspect when I close my business, I won't be replaced. I'm probably already a dinosaur. There are buyers out there who never set foot outside of their office any more. Unfortunately, there are also department store buyers who do the same, and I think that's horrible. You really need to touch and feel."
Spratt believed that consumers, too, are now increasingly shopping online, despite the shortcomings of such an approach when it comes to buying tactile products. She said: "They don't know any better – they don't know the difference. When they get something that arrives in a crumby batiste and it looks like the same pattern, they don't realise how rich it would have looked in a slub linen. That's such a shame."
The Atlanta International Home Furnishings Market 2016 was held at AmericasMart Atlanta from 14-18 July.
James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Alanta