Minnesotans Take Manhattan

Get behind the scenes and see how products from the nation’s largest gift show hit the shelves at your favorite shops.

The latest trends and most talked-about new products in any category—from aerospace to zoology—often get their first opportunity to shine at a trade show. And one of the world’s largest and longest running shows in the gift industry, the New York International Gift Fair (often simply referred to as the “gift show”), lured 36,000 attendees to its most recent run in August. Among them were buyers from nearly 100 Minnesota stores who perused a 376-page directory and plotted their plans to visit some 2,900 exhibitors at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center and two passenger- ship-terminals. The process is overwhelming, but exhilarating, as I realized when I met up with several key Twin Citians as they made sense of it all.

Patina owners Rick Haase and Christine Ward take on the show for four days with a firm strategy in mind. Haase and buyer Molly Pool tackle housewares and general gift categories while Ward and buyer Kerrie Louise focus on such fashion items as jewelry and scarves. “It’s too hard for more than two of us to walk these shows because you slow down and can’t communicate,” Haase says. And, with so much ground to cover, the team finds that splitting into pairs helps them use time wisely. The clock also factors into something as simple as lunch, which the team takes earlier than when at home. “You only have so many hours, and you don’t want to be using your time waiting in a line,” Haase says. “Going a little early can save almost a half hour.”

Smaller stores, on the other hand, often mean single buyers: Kelly Dorsey from Nola Home in Bryn Mawr scours the show by herself. “It’s like wearing 18,000 hats,” she laughs. “I jump from artifacts to bamboo clothing to jewelry, and sometimes it seems like I need a computer brain to do it.” But Dorsey is able to pass by many wares that don’t fit the world-traveled look of her store. “My first criterion is how interesting and how unusual something is,” she says. “I try to edit it down to what isn’t carried by everyone but that will still appeal to our customers.” Shipments arriving this fall from about forty lines she found at the show include old Chinese wood file boxes and wide bracelets from India.

While buyers such as Dorsey always have their eyes peeled for new exhibitors (there were 400 first-timers at this show), much of their business is with companies they’ve worked with before. I was with Patina’s Haase and Pool as they placed a large order with a longtime vendor, Berkeley-based Kiss That Frog. Their purchases included wicker-encased glassware that supports the kitchen collection in the chain’s stores. “These pieces also merchandise in cross-sections of the store nicely,” Haase says, noting that bowls in the line can hold small items at the counter as well as stand alone. “We’re always looking at how many legs we as a store get out of it as well as how many legs the consumer gets out of it. We look for func- tion and practical applications. We’re not looking for something people just buy and throw away.”

Local Talent

Nearly fifty Minnesota companies exhibited at the show. Here are three from the Twin Cities that attracted lots of attention.

Who: Jane Jenni

Jane Jenni Inc., St. Paul

Her Story: Whimsical graphics have defined Jane Jenni’s work from the time she started her business eight years ago. But what began as a small line of gift enclosure cards has evolved into a collection of plates, mugs, pins, and totes with cute renditions of such personalities as “Love Bug,” “Happy Camper,” and “Sweet Pea” produced in collaboration with Minneapolis graphic designer Haley Johnson. “We decided to do the plates a year and a half ago, and that really changed the business,” Jenni says. “Before it was just the small items, and when I put the graphics on the plates, I think it caught people’s eyes and all of a sudden it just grew from there.”

The gift show, Jenni’s biggest trade event, was so successful that her fall is “pretty intense” with filling holiday orders. “They’re fun and colorful and happy, and they’re at a good price point,” she says, noting the melamine plates retail for about $9, the melamine cups $5.50, and buttons $1.25 to $1.50.

Find her at Bibelot, Patina, Quince, and the Weisman Art Museum shop.

Who: Jim Henson, Lori Henson, and Terri Johnson

Ceci Cela, Minneapolis

Their Story: Sisters Lori Henson and Terri Johnson proudly displayed jewelry and decorative items from their company, Ceci Cela (“this and that” in French), at a multi-artisan booth run by their sales representative, Ellie & Friends. “We’ve been in business about thirteen years and each year we’ve been at the gift show with Ellie & Friends,” Henson says. “As a rep, she focuses on smaller artisans, not mass producers.” Indeed, Ceci Cela is a small operation with Lori, who produces the art; Terri, who handles business functions; and their father, Jim Henson, who, as the metalworker, “has been sitting here soldering for all thirteen years,” Lori jokes.

“Our whole premise, whether they’re hanging pieces or paperweights or necklaces, is that they’re little pieces of art,” she says. From an artist studio at the California Building, the family keeps overhead low to maintain prices ranging from $17 for a necklace to $50 for a larger encaustic (covered in beeswax and tree resin) wall hanging.

Find them at Patina, Corazon, Mitrebox, and Mississippi Market.

Who: Ian Grant

Bjorling & Grant, St. Louis Park

His Story: It’s not surprising to find designer Ian Grant somewhere like India (he traveled there to film segments for a new show on the Travel Channel a few days after our photo shoot). But in August he set his sights on the gift show, where he filled his ten-by-twenty-foot booth with art items and furnishings designed using artifacts, architectural elements, and reclaimed wood from around the world. Now in his third year at the show, Grant made about 200 contacts, split pretty evenly between new and old clients. “For me, this is a great thing,” he says. “It means my existing customers are reordering, but it also means I’m attracting new people.”

What makes Grant’s products a hit is their distinctiveness: Many pieces are one of a kind or small-production artisan items from cottage industries—in contrast to new, mass-produced items shown at dozens of booths. “They’re conversation pieces,” he says. “For more exclusive retailers, this is really important. They need to find things their competitors don’t have, things their customers can buy knowing they not only look good but have interesting cultural stories behind them.”

Find him at 4906 35th St. W., St. Louis Park, 612-827-3000