There’s no one outside. There’s not a single soul standing outside the open garage door leading into 775 Washington Street—no photographers, no line of eager attendees, no gaggle of bloggers crouching low to get a shot of that dude over there wearing that thing by those guys. It’s quiet on the snow-padded West Village block this January 21, and that’s exactly what the organizers of MAN intended. 

The space inside is just as muted, but that could just be due to the fact that it’s damn early for most of the designers, business founders, creatives, and PR reps who have just returned from Paris. MAN is an arena of business where clothing brands showcase samples of forthcoming seasons to buyers from stores, who place the orders that will eventually hang and stack on the shelves of the best retailers in the world.

Soon, the brands will be presented with the opportunity to show in Tokyo, too. But that’s it: just New York, Paris, and Tokyo. Those are the only cities that’ll ever see MAN—a trade show that shies away from being identified as such, since connotations attached to “trade show” involve huge, loud, crowded places where you’ll easily get lost or overwhelmed.

Although many of the people assembled in the white-walled studio are fumbling with metal racks, placing their leather-and-suede jackets, duffels and printed ties clumsily on shelves, visible bags under their eyes, the general consensus is that it’s all good. Designers and brand reps are happy to see each other, clapping one another on the back, shaking hands, kissing both cheeks.

They all seem glad to be there. They come back to MAN each season, a bi-annual circuit that includes flying nearly 10 hours from Europe to the United States, only to wake up at ungodly hours and sell their brand—all for a trade show that won’t say it’s a trade show, has vowed never to host more than 80 labels, doesn’t get much press, and isn’t attended by hundreds of style enthusiasts clamoring to get a look at a curated list of global brands. The show itself is hosted on one of the most silent blocks in Manhattan. So what’s the point?

MAN is the kind of show that keeps a tight leash on all aspects. Everything is “selected,” as co-founder Antoine Floch puts it: brands, people in attendance, the layout of the floor. Featured designers and companies are often friends of friends, or perhaps connected to any of the three guys heading up the show, a trio rounded out by Romain Bernardie-James and Olivier Migda.

MAN, which hosts a similar event for women’s wear aptly titled WOMAN, is an opportunity for buyers to come check out a handful of brands that have chosen to be great in the classical sense rather than in the modern way, which these days might theoretically include a hashtag like #MANshowNYC, a guest list of about several thousand, and a shitload of inflated hype. MAN is trying to turn away from all that fodder, and instead zero in on a small list of brands selling solid and dependable material.

You’ll never hear “Shit, this is just incredible,” as many times as you will over the show’s three days.

Whatever energy isn’t spent on culling the best and the brightest is focused on the planning and execution of the event. Music murmurs at a quiet volume to facilitate conversation, and companies are encouraged to share pieces in each other’s booths. Designers admire one another’s work and commend each other on their craftsmanship. You’ll never hear “Shit, this is just incredible,” as many times as you will over the
show’s three days.

Being like-minded and of the same speed is important for the companies crowded into the warm room with fogged up windows. The majority of attendees circle the room slowly, pacing with their hands clasped behind their backs, inspecting the shearling-collared coats, sunglasses, and printed cotton shirts thoroughly. Many of the brands say they’ve come from larger trade shows, but grew weary when everything got too hectic—when things got very large-scale and it was easy for someone to scan over a collection, make a quick remark, then keep walking. That’s something Floch, a dignified and wiry man who speaks as though he’s got his next thoughts already lined up in his head, really wants to stay away from.

“Sometimes trade shows are too big,” he says, sitting on a studded red leather couch near the studio’s entrance. “We don’t fit on a big scale, and we must show the collection properly. We’re not closing the show, but we are controlling traffic. We aren’t interested in having big factories come make offers to our brands. That’s not the idea.”

Floch first came up with MAN after working a mix of odd-jobs—photography, event producing for Hermes, Maison Martin Margiela and Acne—all for which he garnered serious passion. He also worked on shows for Rendez-Vous, where he ultimately invested himself as a mainstay collaborator. Once Rendez-Vous, a trade show part of the Surface to Air group, went under in October 2011, Floch was shit out of luck. Still though, he rejected offers to work with other people because Nick Jones, Rendez-Vous’ founder, was a good friend of his.

Floch was at home one day having coffee with his dog Selma, who he lovingly refers to as though she were a human being, when he took out a piece of paper and started jotting down ideas that would eventually form into MAN. He wanted a trade show where great artists could present their designs on their terms, meet other brands, be introduced to buyers who had order forms at the ready for writing, and wave goodbye to the extraneous noise diffusing the purpose behind hosting an event like this.

Showcasing work at MAN is like being the starting point guard on a winning underdog team. It’s like the little guy trumping the big guy—because choosing to be great in the classical sense is a way of sealing yourself off from the hype, from all circus hoopla. It means hosting the show on the quiet avenue, pedestrians blithely unaware that some incredible shit is happening just two floors up. It means never reaching a certain level of exposure—and actually wanting to keep it that way. 

Maxine Wally is a writer living in Brooklyn. She asks a lot of questions. Follow her on Twitter @maxinewally.