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'Freaks From Designers': Who’s Next opens Parisian doors to more global world of fashion

By Rachel Douglass


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Who's Next January 2024, Trendy category. Credits: FashionUnited.

“We want to leave a memory in something really temporary,” said Frédéric Maus, the CEO of WSN, on what he hopes the lasting impact of the organisation’s events will be. Among the company's portfolio is the ever-expanding Who’s Next, a Parisian trade show that took place over the weekend, running simultaneously to the men’s and Haute Couture fashion weeks that were also taking place in the city.

Every detail of the fair is intentional and made with purpose: from the campaign, to the layout, to the overarching theme – this year’s being ‘Freaks from Designers’, a play on the Eurodance song ‘Freed from Desire’ and a further reflection of the current times we are in. “It’s a freaky moment,” Maus joked of the concept, which took shape in UFO-inspired settings, interstellar spaces and intergalactic decorations.

Maus went on to note: “The economic situation is not so good for the fashion industry. They are facing lots of difficulty and lots of transformation around business models, consumers, everything. For several years, brands have tried to be more digital, more integrated. But now retail is really coming back. We have some brands that have returned to the fair because they are opening new stores around the world. The specificity of Who’s Next is that it’s becoming more and more international.”

Global countries seek refreshed casualisation

Who's Next entrance. Credits: WSN.

Located in the Private category of Hall 6 was Forcast Australia, for example, one of the few brands from the Land Down Under – yet a country that is gaining ground at the event. Following a successful 32 years on its home turf, the womenswear label is hoping to capture a market share in countries across Europe and the Americas, offering largely boutiques a collection of heritage silhouettes for the modern woman. “This is one of our first ventures into the European market and we’ve been really keen to gauge what this customer is looking for,” said Alicia Chan, the brand’s digital operations manager.

An obvious element of this, as noted by Chan, was the differing demands of the European consumer, who are expectedly more interested in warmer garments than the Australian one. “We have been discussing this with our team, and it’s perhaps not a matter of changing the design so much as changing the fabrication, and investing in higher quality,” Chan highlighted, further noting that consideration also needs to be placed on the contrasting seasons of each location.

While there was a clear breadth of internationality between exhibitors, there has also been evidence of such among attendees. Prior to Covid, the ratio sat at 60 percent French to 40 percent international, however this has since shifted to nearly 60 percent international, with an influx of visitors descending from across all continents. For Asian countries in particular, Maus said there was a call for new brands, noting: “During Covid, they hadn’t been changing their assortments a lot. Now they need new brands for their market. In some countries, the maturity of fashion is growing fast through social media. It’s not just the luxurious brands, they need some creative labels too. It’s the young generation that don’t want to wear the same clothes that their parents wore.”

In contrast, Haejin Jeong, the CEO and designer of Songhwa, a maker of traditional – and increasingly nontraditional – South Korean Hanbok clothing, saw a similar trend in Europe. After running this brand for 10 years, primarily from a traditional street in Korea, Jeong said it was her first venture into an international market, a move that came amid an increased interest from a global consumer. “At first, visitors to Korea thought these pieces were beautiful, but they didn’t purchase them because they didn’t use them in their daily life. It’s changing now. In 2023, 30 percent of my income was from foreigners. Everyone in fashion wants something new. The kimono style has previously been popular, but Korea has a lot of its own design and it’s not exposed yet.”

Who's Next Freaks Academy exhibition. Credits: WSN.

Jeong’s presence at the show was down to a sponsorship from a Korean organisation to exhibit her clothing in Europe, where mostly German and Italian buyers had been showing an interest in the more dailywear collections. And while the casualisation of traditional designs seemed popular among visitors, Jeong also noted that a similar sentiment could be seen among customers in her home country. “My customers were originally people who wore the hanbok daily, and it was usually related to their job: maybe in culture or the arts. This is getting wider now, and with more young people. They want less showy costumes and are more focused on details.”

The importance of emerging names

The fair’s mission is further positioned to create opportunities for emerging names and young brands to get a foothold in a wide spectrum of markets. Next to supporting such individuals through partnerships with schools, such as LISAA and ESMOD, students from which presented their own take on the show’s theme via the ‘Freaks Academy’ exhibition, the event also showcased newcomers in a dedicated section, which sat amid the fair’s Trendy and Impact categories. Brands included were ones that had done particularly well on the Ulule crowdfunding platform, such as Canadian-French label As-iku, which had outgrown its month-long funding goal in just 24 hours – leading to its selection for the fair.

Who's Next Impact area. Credits: WSN.

Co-founder Anaïs Laettia Benouahab was on hand to speak on As-iku itself, which moves between its base in Montreal, its production studio in Vancouver and its key market of France, where Benouahab originates. Drawing on both French and Japanese design values, As-iku’s main characteristics are based around ecology, technology and ancient knowledge. This extends into the collections, for which Egyptian and Sumerian civilisations are core influences. Garments, for example, are dyed with vegetables and fruits, many of which derive from restaurant waste, contributing to a two-month process that consumers can follow through garment NFC tags.

Visibility and experience were first and foremost the drivers for As-iku’s involvement, a move that paid off as the brand set up contacts with an AI style advising app and e-commerce stores. When asked what was next for As-iku, Benouahab said: “We will have a partnership with a Portugal factory for what we will sell in Europe. It’s really important for us to produce locally. We’re also making small steps in Asia with Tokyo, Japan. The next steps are to ship this collection and we’re already on the next collection for summer.”

Category expansions and new opportunities

In the same hall as As-iku was an increased presence of denim brands. “We have a comeback of denim, denim makers and lots of men. Not just men specific brands, but we’ve got more than 200 brands that are presenting something in relation to men. That’s quite specific because we are normally mostly focused on women,” Maus said. “The accessory part is also really dynamic. We have a nice growth in the number of brands and exhibitors for the moment.”

Who's Next booth. Credits: WSN.

It is this category that spans the entire Hall 4, with textile accessories, footwear and bags sitting alongside the accompanying Bijorhca fair dedicated to jewellery. Like others, this space remained dynamic throughout the three days, often pulling in crowds that were looking to expand their collections beyond that of ready-to-wear.

Located here was Amsterdam-based O My Bag, a leather bag brand that prioritises sustainable and ethical production. Inge van Buren, the account manager for the three-time exhibitor, said of the company’s relationship with the fair: “France is a growing market for us, and a one that in 2024 we’re focusing on. This edition has been a little slower than last time, but still promising. We have mostly seen existing clients, which is one of the most important reasons that we do trade shows – for relationship management and to showcase our latest collections. We are focusing on our main markets, so the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, where we have grown organically. We are also excited about the US, which requires more strategy, but we are doing a Las Vegas fair for the first time.”

Similarly, in the slowly expanding wellness section, interest was also creeping up. Here, small beauty and wellness brands are rotated each year to bring new considerations to Who’s Next visitors, many of whom are moving towards the adoption of a concept store layout. Among those presenting was Holidermie, a holistic French brand that is centred around three pillars: bodycare, skincare and food supplements.

While the brand currently operates a spa centre in Le Marais, in the heart of Paris, it recognised a new market opportunity as beauty begins to take on a more global form. Who’s Next is therefore Holidermie’s second trade show, and has allowed those representing the brand to talk more about its products and concept at length. Those stopping by, for example, were typically concept stores, clinics and big distributors, the latter previously not considered by the team, yet has led them to shift their thinking in light of growth plans.

Who's Next beauty stand. Credits: WSN.

The previous challenge for brands like Holidermie was in the education of new partners, however, Sophie Raynal, sales and training manager, said that has become less of a factor over recent years. “Every reseller is trained regarding the products because we want the sellers to be able to talk about the brand correctly. Some really know about skincare, they have a background, but sometimes people don’t have any. Our founder [Mélanie Huynh] comes from the fashion industry, so we have a fashion DNA and that has drawn people to our stand. [Who we work with] depends on the position of the retailer. We don’t do mass market, we are a premium brand.”

What’s next for Who’s Next?

Evolution doesn’t stop here for Who’s Next, either. Maus noted: “We are moving alongside society and culture. The fair evolves with that. One thing that will never change is that humans need to be together, to gather, exchange and do business. After Covid, lots of people thought we didn’t need fairs anymore, but they were happy when we began with our trade show again. Business can be tough and brands are adapting and changing in the moment, finding new ways to do business.”

There have also been challenges in the realm of the trade show business itself, with inflation only driving up prices for WSN. Yet, Maus has stayed close to the experience of his clients: “We decided to not raise our prices because we want to remain inexpensive. That was one of the problems we faced during the last year and again this year, that it was expensive to do a trade show. But we haven’t decided to downgrade the quality. Since Covid, things have been growing for us. That’s maybe because we had a different approach during the pandemic, we never stopped. We maintained nearly all of our shows through the worst conditions. It was complicated, but we stayed strong.”

Looking ahead, Maus’ outlook is positive. And of course, like always, there is only room for growth. Akin to the last three seasons, this edition was squeezed into three days, yet for the next – to be held in September and just so happens to be Who’s Next’s 30th anniversary – a return to the four day period is impending. For now, however, Maus’ sights are set on WSN’s upcoming Première Class show in March, the same month in which the company will also be debuting its Matter & Shape fair, dedicated to prestigious, short-lead design offerings.

Who's Next January 2024 edition. Credits: FashionUnited.
Trade show
Who's Next