What happens in Vegas...

In Sin City, some people lose their shirts. Others have much better luck: they find theirs.

There are a lot of different ways to say the word “cute.” There is the “Yes, I suppose that could work” cute, which is short, chirpy and to the point. There is the “I definitely like that” cute—“ke-ewwwwwt”—which is elongated and more ponderous. And then there is the “We absolutely must get that immediately” cute—“CUTE!”—which simply comes with exclamation marks. But whatever version, it takes Rory Lindo and Kelly Freeman precisely 114 utterings of the word to stock their new clothing boutique in east-end Toronto. That, and a little Magic.

Ever wonder where that great shirt at your favourite local clothing store came from? Here’s a hint: it’s somewhere you wouldn’t expect, and Céline Dion, Barry Manilow and Wayne Newton live down the street. Because if it isn’t from a massive chain retailer such as Banana Republic or a high-end designer-goods store like Harry Rosen, chances are good it came from Las Vegas. Or, more precisely, the twice-annual Magic Marketplace, the largest apparel and accessories show in North America.

Like thousands of other entrepreneurs, Lindo and Freeman—who together own Doll Factory by Damzels in Toronto’s hipper-every-minute Leslieville neighbourhood—make the pilgrimage. Why? Because even in an age where retailers can shop online or order up a PDF of a catalogue with the click of a mouse, the trade-show model persists. And while smaller designers, boutique clothing companies and no-name exporters hawk their wares to international buyers on several standard stops on the circuit, Magic has got the biggest guns—more than 120,000 people from around the world attend, and they fan out over one million square feet of selling space. That, dear consumer, is roughly 21 football fields of wholesale clothes and accessories up for grabs.

Lindo and Freeman are longtime small-business wholesalers themselves—they’ve had a successful women’s clothing line called Damzels in this Dress for more than a decade. (The line, which has graced independent boutiques across the country, as well as Urban Outfitters, is currently only available at Doll Factory.) But this is their first time on the other side of the table, and as they quickly discover, it takes a lot of coffee—and some very comfortable shoes—to shop 21 football fields in four days.

“How about this one? No? This one?” An army of sellers in booths flashes item after item at the buyers, doing perfect Price is Right girl imitations, hanger after hanger. This scene is repeated endlessly in the impromptu mall that has sprung up in the Las Vegas Convention Centre. Rows of stalls, many with fully “merchandised” interiors (meaning, in plain English, that they’re decorated or laid out within an inch of their lives, with carpeting, wallpaper, even DJs) compete to attract attention in a labyrinth worthy of Borges’ finest hour.

“We need to make a plan,” Lindo insists, clutching a map of the show. “Or I think I might lose my mind.”

Brands you’ve probably heard of—American Apparel, Cole Haan and Calvin Klein—stand side by side with many you probably haven’t. There’s everything from the latest trends to what could be politely described as church-lady hats. Big brands are represented, as are small design lines made by ambitious 20-somethings from L.A. And while Canada is the second-largest attending country after the U.S., stores from as far afield as New Zealand and Japan are also here to buy.

Magic doesn’t collect dollar figures on the amount of business done, but it’s fair to say it is significant. “It would be a good way to clamp down on capitalism if you just blew up this place,” Lindo jokes. “Everyone is here.”

The Damzels are lucky that their store has a very particular schtick, so they can skip many of the booths with hardly a backward glance. If you’re going to Magic to just order, you know, ke-ewwwwwt things, you will drown in very short order. Doll Factory by Damzels is devoted to the “aging” hipster, those in their 30s, and is awash in the aesthetic of Kustom Kulture—tattoos, rock ’n’ roll, and tongue-in-cheek vintage pin-up style. An example? “Daddy drinks because I cry” reads a baby onesie for sale in the store, right next to a cashmere women’s cardigan with tattoo-style birds felted onto the lapels.

On this trip, though, there’s one other store that haunts the Damzels as they pace the endless aisles. “What we pick up has to be really special,” says Lindo, “because it’s too easy to get cute stuff at H&M.”

Ah, H&M. In the retail landscape that the Damzels and other independent retailers inhabit, H&M’s arrival in Canada in 2004 was an import nightmare writ large. While “fast-fashion” emporiums such as Zara were already making near note-perfect knockoffs of many of each season’s runway looks, H&M took it a step further—it’s trendier, it’s cooler, and above all, its control of every step of the process, from design to shop floor, allows it to offer things dirt cheap. And while the clothing at Doll Factory isn’t particularly expensive (the average dress runs about $120), savvy shoppers know they can get a summer frock at H&M for as little as $30—prices smalloutfits could never hope to match.

The Damzels stop excitedly by a booth full of dresses, but the seller promptly turns them down because she says their store is too small.

“That stinks!” Lindo complains. “Your stuff is cute.”

“We sell to Urban Outfitters,” the woman offers, as if that is helpful.

Lindo and Freeman exit to get some air, turn around and enter what is another similar-looking hall. “It’s like Groundhog Day for fashion,” Freeman says.

But this is all part of the master trade-show plan—if you keep seeing it, chances are, you shouldn’t order it. “We’re not just here to see what we want,” Freeman explains. “We’re here to see what we don’t want. “Like, ‘Omigod, this fucking dress is everywhere, or this print is everywhere.’ We’re going to stay away from that because it’s going to be in every big box, and how are we going to compete? The good thing about the show is it starts eliminating the stuff that’s just cute so that you notice the stuff that has that ‘wow’ factor.”

The other good thing is that buyers can actually fondle the fabrics (it’s hard to tell from a website what a shirt feels like) and get a better idea of how things fit.

“Can somebody try this on?” Lindo asks, holding up a semi-transparent sheath. “I’m thinking about our gals. What are they going to wear under this? They have nothing to wear under this.” She tosses it aside. The seller winces. She grabs another.

“Slip this on,” Lindo orders Freeman. “There’s something weird about this cut.”

“You’re going to make me try it on?” Freeman groans. She grudgingly pulls it over her clothes.

“Maybe it’s got the high boob thing again?” Lindo asks, eying the shape. “No,” she says. “It’s cute. Let’s get it.”

Tough work behind them, the pair head back to the hotel to rest, because tonight, like every night at Magic, there is a party hosted by one of the sellers. And that is one of the main reasons the trade-show model persists—after all, there’s nothing quite aseffective as the tried-and-true tactic of nurturing business relationships by drinking…er…socializing.

So part of Damzels’ working day involves rolling into a gritty punk-rock bar for a party hosted by Sailor Jerry, a line they carry out of Philadelphia. Lindo bats her eyelashes at the company’s sales director, a chubby, mohawked man who can’t seem to believe his luck. “With a brand like Sailor Jerry we don’t want anyone else in the city to carry it,” she says. “It’s a cachet brand, and it will bring people to our store.”

It’s the last day of the show. The Damzels have only spent about 30% of their budget, and they’re in countdown mode as some booths are starting to pack up early. Full sentences take too much time; instead, they lapse into breathless twin-speak while dashing up and down the aisles.

Freeman: “The skull is too skull-y. This heart is cute. This rainbow is really cute.”

Lindo: “Polka dot one?”

Kelly: “Stars?”

Lindo: “Stars good.”

Finally, it’s over. Lindo and Freeman have written 65% of their orders—the rest they’ll flesh out from local lines and smaller shows. They drag themselves to the airport for a red-eye flight home.

“We’ve decided being a buyer is harder than being a wholesaler,” Freeman says. “You have to really think.”

“It’s like a scavenger hunt from hell,” Lindo chimes in. “If you pick the wrong thing, you lose your store.”

Freeman remembers a time a woman came into their shop complaining about having to juggle work and kids. “‘You could do it, you just run a shop,’ she said. People don’t really understand the concept that you’ve stocked your store with 150 different suppliers, that’s what you do, and that it’s a full-time job finding them all and keeping on top of inventory. We still have people who come in and say: ‘Did you make all this?!’ They think that Rory and I sit in the basement and sew everything ourselves.”